I’m writing about the Oak Park Village Board election. But first, an embarrassing confession: I’ve lived in Oak Park for 36 years and never voted in a municipal election.
When Judy and I first moved up here from southern Illinois, Oak Park seemed like the ideal spot, with its liberal and diverse reputation. I liked the way Oak Park “looked” on me. As the years passed, I began to see the disconnect between Oak Park’s rhetoric, and the actual reality: how white liberals often resist real dialog about race for fear of looking racist, leading to facile discussions that rarely translated into action.
It wasn’t until our oldest son got to OPRF High School that Judy and I saw firsthand some of the cracks in the veneer of the shiny reputation the school system promoted. It dawned on us, if ours was the experience of a prosperous white family, what’s it like for Black kids and their families in similar academic circumstances?
While making America to Me, it occurred to me that I’d kept Oak Park at arms-length all these years, while many Black families were trying desperately to feel welcome in a community that kept them at arms-length, or worse. I owed this community far more than a docuseries.
In recent years, I’ve watched the racial reckoning going on here that mirrors what’s happening nationally. What’s missing in village government are the voices of Black people themselves. As trustee candidate Juanta Griffin said during an online conversation I moderated, “So many people run for office and say, ‘I’m going to support those who are disproportionately affected by racism.’ Well, I’m those people that they’re talking about bringing change to. … We can’t continue to silence the people who want to fight for themselves. … I’m showing up because I am a renter, I am a woman, I am disabled, I’m Black, I’m from here. … Let me fight for myself.”
Juanta is running alongside two other Represent Oak Park candidates, Chibuike Enyia and Anthony Clark. They are not the usual campaign suspects. They’ve all experienced our community at its best and worst, and have still chosen to make Oak Park their home. They’ve made it their mission to make us a better, more inclusive community. For them, being a trustee isn’t about finally “giving back” — it’s an extension of what they’ve been doing for a very long time. Serving this community is part of their DNA. They bring perspectives of a teacher, a renter, and a small business person, that traverse lines of race. As Chibuike said, “I don’t want you to vote for me because I’m a Black candidate. … I want you to vote for me because you know I’m a strong candidate and you know I can do the job.”
Imagine what a profound statement this community could make by electing all three of them to the board of trustees? As Anthony said the other night, “I never heard someone say, ‘Do I have to vote for three white candidates?” He also said, “We are here because we care about humanity. … You cannot be a successful person of color and only care about Black people.”
Electing Juanta, Chibuike, and Anthony could mark the date when a community finally begins realizing the dreams of Black Lives Matter, rather than just planting supportive signs in our yards. When a community proves that Black people are not just welcome here, but vitally important to our success, to its values, and its soul.
That’s an Oak Park I would be very proud to call my home.
Steve James is a longtime Oak Parker and filmmaker.