This could be a transformational election for Oak Park — or at least transitional. The last eight years (minus the pandemic) have been about accelerated economic development. Build tall buildings. Business interests in town were deeply frustrated by the lack of progress in the years before that. For the last eight years, they got their way. Didn’t matter much how the buildings looked. 

What we got was architectural mediocrity, more residents to spend money here, more tax revenue (not sure how much), a Target and Cooper’s Hawk restaurant to go with the Trader Joe’s brought in by a previous tall building, and two buildings devoted to affordable housing.

Progress? Some, but the big buildings are uninspiring at best. Now another mediocrity has been proposed for the Drechsler funeral home site at Marion and Pleasant, with a second Pete’s Fresh Market grocery store on its way. Did we need another Pete’s Fresh Market? We’ll see.

Progress, but not progressive enough. On Tuesday we will likely see more progressives elected to the village board — and perhaps the two school boards as well. Equity across the boards, sustainability, affordable housing, reinventing policing, and reparations have been discussed. Will the new village board members and the remaining trustees mesh or will there be conflict, even chaos? Do we need a village president to calm the waters or someone to stir things up? Or do we need some of both? Will we get progress or merely turbulence?

Will new, less experienced candidates channel their youthful energy in transformative ways? Oak Park lost its progressive edge some time ago. Will we get it back?

Will we have development that demands more from developers and brings more benefits to the village, including architectural aesthetics? 

Will the village move from integration and diversity to universal equity? 

Will we transform our institutions and become a model of innovative governance again? I sense a lot of pent-up energy. Maybe this is the moment. 

In other words, will we continue to “talk the talk” or finally “walk the talk”? Talk is passive (and cheap). Walk is active (takes courage and skill). When you “walk the talk,” you turn talk into action. I’ve noticed that people often misuse that phrase, calling it “walk the walk,” which is redundant. The original term, “walk the talk” means to take action. In the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and ’60s, they walked the talk.

At OPRF High School, walking the talk means restructuring the freshman curriculum to bring opportunity and academic rigor to all students, starting in 2022. Four of the six candidates for the District 200 school board have committed to making that happen, which is an important first step in changing the long entrenched status quo of white privilege being served first and foremost. 

The other great misuse of language is “defund the police,” which has been put up for referendum (non-binding) in next Tuesday’s election. Do you want to defund the police? A lot of us want to have a village-wide conversation (Talk) and then reinvent policing (Walk). But if you say “No” to “defund,” it will be interpreted as supporting the status quo which doesn’t want to make any changes to policing. If you say “Yes,” what you mean by “defund” might be very different from what others mean by it. You would also be encouraging misuse of language, and progressives need to cut that out because we’re undermining our credibility. That single word, “defund,” almost cost Democrats the House majority in the 2020 election. Imagine where we’d be if that had happened. And the 2022 mid-terms are looming in the not-too-distant future.

I plan to boycott this referendum. I don’t want to dignify it with my vote.

There are several things about the upcoming election, however, that delight me: 

  • The number of young, energized candidates running;
  • The number of people of color running; and especially
  • The number of African Americans running. 

I loved the AMENS Group’s full-page ad in our March 17 issue which “proudly celebrates” the nine Black candidates running for village offices (village board, village clerk, township board, District 97 and District 200). And that’s just in Oak Park. I also counted four Black candidates running in River Forest. 

And several other people of color are running in both villages. It feels like a new day. If they win, that would be progress … and progressive.

And speaking of progressive, I was happy to hear both Oak Park village president candidates say they favor ditching the “mayor” label, which never felt right and needs to go.

And speaking of labels, decades back, conservatives succeeded in making “liberal” a dirty word. Now they’re trying to do the same with “progressive.” Over that period, of course, they also turned “conservative” into a dirty word, but that was through their own actions (and inaction). In my lexicon, “progressive” means anyone who believes in progress who is willing to do what it takes to make it happen. 

I hope all of Tuesday’s winners walk the talk.

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