After being effectively stalled for multiple years, efforts to focus Oak Park’s village government on racial equity moved forward last week with a detailed presentation by village staff and a warm reception from village trustees.

During an Aug. 30 village board meeting, Human Resources Director Kira Tchang presented a racial equity workplan, laying out steps already taken and what lies ahead, including the creation of a racial equity action plan and a recommendation to hire a racial equity manager to oversee efforts – to the general delight of the village board.

As described by Tchang, the racial equity action plan is “both a process and a product” designed to achieve “meaningful and measurable results” by establishing timelines, accountability and performance measures.

The plan “articulates a clear and bold vision” for racial equity that is informed by “community members of color who have been most impacted by structural and institutional racism.”

Other necessary requirements of a racial equity plan include equipping village staff with training, knowledge and tools to integrate equity into operations and the government as a whole.

With the racial equity action plan comes the “racial equity toolkit.” Also referred to by Tchang and the board as a “tool,” singular, the toolkit serves as a benchmark by which to evaluate decisions to “ensure explicit consideration of racial equity issues.” The tool itself is a list of questions, including, “Will the proposal have impacts on specific neighborhoods, areas, or regions?”

As the presentation was only for discussion, the board took no action other than to give their largely favorable input and to commend Tchang for her work. Trustee Lucia Robinson believed the information provided served as a “great foundational first step,” while Trustee Jim Taglia called the presentation “excellent” and appreciated the “thoughtful, logical approach” to racial equity planning.

There was slight wariness from a couple trustees when it came to staff’s recommendations to extend the village’s partnership with National League of Cities (NLC) to support the racial equity planning process and hiring a racial equity manager.

For the latter recommendation, Trustee Ravi Parakkat shared concerns over the financial implications of creating a new staff position. As an alternative to hiring someone outside the village organization, he asked the board to consider appointing a person already on the payroll.

Village President Vicki Scaman found Parakkat’s idea good in theory but likely impossible in practice, given the sheer amount of work laid out in Tchang’s presentation and the number of responsibilities currently required of village staff.

“I don’t know that we necessarily have anyone here at village hall that has that kind of time,” said Scaman, who added she was “very excited” about the prosect of hiring a racial equity manager.

The village president wondered out loud what village staff would do in the event that budgetary limitations would render the hiring of that position fiscally irresponsible. As she immediately resumed asking trustees their thoughts on Tchang’s presentation, her question went unaddressed.

Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, the board’s most vocal racial equity advocate, threw her support behind the idea of having a racial equity manager. Having someone in a long-term role specifically dedicated to achieving and maintaining racial equity in Oak Park will ensure work continues past the tenures of the current board, said Walker-Peddakotla.

“It will take decades of work and it is not a one-and-done thing,” she said.

Walker-Peddakotla did not, however, agree with staff’s recommendation to have NLC assist in the village’s racial equity work, wanting to know why it was chosen over the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE). Her disfavor for the former organization dates back to July 2020, when she voted against hiring NLC as the village’s racial equity training provider. While she found NLC’s racial equity training lacking, she suggested making it a requirement that all future board members take part in racial equity training.

Trustee Susan Buchanan, echoing Walker-Peddakotla, made mention of the mass resignation of six of seven Community Relations Commission members following the previous village board’s decision to choose NLC over GARE for racial equity training.

“I know we’re trying to build that [commission] back up, but I really feel like it is the appropriate role of the Community Relations Commission to be closely involved with this process,” she said.

Trustee Chibuike Enyia thought having a fully manned Community Relations Commission along with a racial equity manager could only prove advantageous in building better race relations. With some foundation laid and the beginnings of a strategy in place for the future, he believed Oak Park residents should feel more “confident” that the village board would follow through on its racial equity goals.

“We’re on the right path right now,” Enyia said. “And I’m super excited to see where this takes us.”

Five steps to racial equity

Creating a racial equity action plan, as the village of Oak Park has committed to doing, requires the completion of a five-step process, ending with the plan’s implementation and evaluation. A large portion of Human Resources Director Kira Tchang’s Aug. 30 presentation involved walking the village board through each stage. For the convenience of readers, Wednesday Journal has provided a summary of the route to racial equity, or at least the route to a plan for it.

The process begins with the “preparation” phase, during which the village board must pass a resolution committing to equity goals, the creation of a village equity team and providing training to members, as well as engagement with the community, particularly those who aren’t white. The engagement portion also includes partnering with community organizations, citizen commissions and using village data to catalogue disparities.

“Research [and] information gathering,” the second step in the process, consists of inventorying existing qualitative and quantitative racial data, such as hiring and contracting practices, workplace demographics and community-level data “disaggregated by race in housing, jobs, education, criminal justice and other areas.”

All of the research data collected will then be summarized and communicated to “internal and external” stakeholders as part of the “research findings” step. At this point, Tchang explained, a written update would go before the village board and public, giving both the opportunity to provide input.

The penultimate step in the process, “develop plan,” is the actual creation of the plan itself. This aptly titled step involves determining courses of action and performance measures, as well as writing a racial equity guiding statement, which Tchang called “the North Star” of the equity team.

Once reviewed and finalized, the plan is rolled out to village staff and the community through “multiple modes of communication” determined by the equity team and village board in the “implementation, reporting [and] evaluation” phase.

“It should be a really exciting time for the community to see what work will be going on related to racial equity,” said Tchang.

After the plan’s implementation, the village’s racial equity work will be tracked through annual reporting then presented to the public.

Stacey Sheridan

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