With the results of the April 6 election decided, one of the first actions of Oak Park’s new village board will be to adopt the village’s current diversity statement – a statement that two years ago was the basis of much controversy.
Village President-elect Vick Scaman does not foresee the new board taking any issue with the diversity statement.
“Controversy in my mind was responsive to push back for revisions,” said Scaman.
With the new board, Scaman hopes no one will have any problems with making changes to the statement, should any member of the board wish to do so – which wasn’t the case under the previous board.
“It took a lot of work to get it approved by the board,” said Glenn Brewer, chair of the Community Relations Commission (CRC) and former village trustee.
The work involved in getting the village’s current diversity statement approved back in 2019 included multiple modifications and public input, as well as major debate over language, in particular the meaning of the term “systems of oppression.” At times, board discussion degraded into shouting matches.
The entire revision process dragged on for roughly six months, culminating in the statement’s approval during an explosive meeting Oct. 7, when Trustee Susan Buchanan, out of frustration, lashed out at board’s male members.
Brewer does not foresee the incoming village board having any qualms with accepting the diversity statement, now known as the Oak Park Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Statement.
He believes much of the ire over the creation of the new diversity statement stemmed from people not being on the same page as each other.
“I think there was so much bitterness over the statement, in the last go around, that it made it almost impossible for it to be anything more than a statement,” said Brewer. “I’m hopeful that, given the makeup of the new board, that it will be viewed as a call to action.”
Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla believes adopting the diversity statement is an important step to affirm the incoming board’s commitment to equity. However she does not believe the diversity statement needs any more work.
“We now need to get past making statements,” she said. “We actually need to do things that impact people’s lives in a meaningful way.”
Now about halfway through her term, Walker-Peddakotla, previous to taking office, was involved in revamping the village’s existing diversity statement. That statement was first drafted in 1973 near the start of Oak Park’s racial integration efforts. It was amended through the years and again in 2017. Walker-Peddakotla said she was working alongside the CRC to make the statement a better reflection of the village in its current state.
In May of that year, when she, Trustee James Taglia and Buchanan were sworn in, Walker-Peddakotla believed the village board would be voting on the updated diversity statement.
“I was under the impression when I got sworn in that I was going to be sworn in on the new statement that that the CRC had worked on, and I had provided input on it,” Walker-Peddakotla recalled. “That did not happen.”
The board instead accepted the existing statement. Walker-Peddakotla told Wednesday Journal the reasoning she was given was protocol; as she had given input on the updated statement when other trustees hadn’t, using the revised statement would be a breach of proper procedure.
“It really was a sign of things to come,” said Walker-Peddakotla.
That moment set the stage for the months-long diversity statement debate, as well as the board’s general divisiveness in discussions of racial equity.
The volleying of the diversity statement between the CRC and the village board contributed to the souring of relationships among elected officials.
Feeling the village board repeatedly disregarded their recommendations, CRC commissioners became so embittered last July that six out of seven members resigned en masse.
With no replacements appointed, Brewer remains the commission’s sole member. He has been working to recruit new CRC members, wishing to see a more representative CRC.
“I think we were working toward broad representation near the end, right before everyone decided to resign,” said Brewer. “That’s what I look for and what I’ve been looking for.”
Scaman told Wednesday Journal she was “impressed” with how the departed CRC members helped adapt the diversity statement despite the controversy. She views the near empty commission as a chance to create a harmonious relationship between the board and new CRC members.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity to rebuild where we can seek representation from all sectors of our community to aid the village board, advise the village board boldly and holistically,” said Scaman.
Before appointing new members, Walker-Peddakotla believes the board should look inward to determine just what part the CRC plays in determining the future of Oak Park.
“I think this new board has to really ask itself, ‘If we want to move racial equity forward, what’s the role of the CRC in that work?’”