Jennifer Rowe has been hired as the first-ever director and belonging at Lyons Township High School District 204, putting the school district in the vanguard of a growing national trend. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

According to a recent analysis by Glassdoor, the employment website, job postings for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles in the United States rose by 30% in 2019. 

A month after the George Floyd murder in May 2020, DEI-related job openings started to rise by 55% after falling by 60% at the start of the pandemic in March. 

A quick search of DEI job openings on indeed.com returned 111 listings in the Chicago area alone. 

Oak Park’s public schools have been at the vanguard of this trend in DEI hiring. Oak Park Elementary School District 97 created a senior director of equity position back in 2017. Two years later, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 hired its first equity director. 

But as Glassdoor’s analysis shows, the hiring trend gained significant momentum after Floyd’s death prompted mass demonstrations across the country and a national racial reckoning.

Institutions were eager to issue equity statements and vote on equity policies. For many, these equity-related hires represent the next logical step in their organization’s evolution. 

In the last year, new equity administrators have been hired at institutions across the suburban region that Growing Community Media covers. 

Lyons Township High School District 204, which covers part of Brookfield, hired a new “director of equity and belonging” earlier this month. 

The Oak Park Public Library announced in July that it’s seeking an “equity and anti-racism director.” 

Within the last several months, Proviso Township High School District 209 hired an executive director of student services and equity.  

And Fenwick hired its first director of diversity, equity and inclusion in September 2020. 

Jennifer Rowe, the new equity director at LTHS, said while equity-related hires are growing, the field is still getting its sea legs. 

Rowe said she’s currently in a consortium of school equity professionals across the northwest suburban region, which includes suburbs like Oak Park. There are about 15 members of the consortium — “we’re all African American except for one Latina” — and they’ve been meeting for the last year to talk shop. 

But the consortium is so new, Rowe said, they’re still working on a name for it. 

“We are really fresh,” she said. 

Precious Porras, who was hired earlier this year to become chief diversity officer for Dominican University in River Forest, explained the growth of equity hires across the country. 

“In the last year, it’s been prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the protests from last summer,” she said. “In the last five or six years, it’s been the Black Lives Matter movement emerging, coupled with the violence against Black bodies. Perhaps institutions are realizing they need to respond and act.” 

Equity administrators have been rather common in institutions of higher learning for a while now, Porras said. This recent wave of hires is commensurate with a cycle that’s been happening since at least the Civil Rights Movement. Whether or not they’re effective, though, is another story, she said.

“After the 1960s, you see the creation of minority affairs positions, where that person is in leadership, but generally is almost always a director of Black Studies or Minority Affairs or Urban Affairs,” she explained. “They’re managing student demand, but nobody is addressing structural issues of higher education.” 

The 1970s and 1980s brought equity within the academic realm, with the creation of women and racial centers, she said. 

Porras said this new wave of equity hiring, which extends below the university, large nonprofit and corporation level down to local school districts and libraries, may be the point at which institutions realize that equity work is really structural, as opposed to individualistic. 

“I absolutely think it’s a step in the right direction because at minimum these positions require a financial commitment and more often these directors are being given opportunities to actually implement policy. For instance, my position reports to the president. These positions need to be part of leadership; however, that’s still not the case in a lot of these new hires.”

That may be the biggest bright spot with this local wave of equity hires, particularly in Oak Park. Most, if not all, of them, including Rowe’s position, are executive leadership jobs. The Oak Park Public Library has also said they intend for their new equity director to be part of the executive director’s leadership team. 

“People want to do the right thing and they want to do this work, but it’s how you do it,” Rowe said, adding that doing the right thing often means hiring the person for the job and giving them the power to make change. 

Porras made a similar point.

“If [institutions] get the right person who asks critical questions, pokes holes and demands action, then change is inevitable,” she said.  

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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