When it comes to its Leadership Lab, the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation is really putting an emphasis on community. The foundation has made a concentrated effort of late to have more people from outside Oak Park and River Forest represented in the annual 10-month leadership program.

Leadership Lab co-mentor DeRondal Bevly | Provided

“We wanted to be very cognizant of designing a program that was inclusive of the great leaders that we have throughout the community,” said Leadership Lab co-mentor DeRondal Bevly.

When recruiting participants for the 2021-2022 Leadership Lab Cohort, the foundation made a point early on to reach out to organizations and contacts in neighboring areas including Maywood, Berwyn, Austin and Forest Park, according to Bevly, who previously took part in the program.

“That’s something that we were very intentional about this year,” he told Wednesday Journal.

And so far, that effort has yielded positive results. The program’s 24-member 2021-2022 cohort boasts people from all over the western Chicagoland area, including Maywood village trustee Isiah Brandon and former Growing Community Media editor Maria Maxham, who was appointed to the Forest Park board of commissioners this past summer.

“We have a tremendous amount of talent in the west Cook [County] suburban region,” said Bevly. “By adding different perspectives into the formal mix, it helps extend the conversations and connectivity outside.”

Not all cohort members sit in public office either. Some are community advocates, such as Austin’s Bertha Purnell, the former chair of Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin’s task force against violence. Following the death of her son to gun violence, Purnell founded the free and confidential support group Mothers Ona Mission28 for survivors of such violence.

Oak Park Economic Development Corporation member Eric Mazelis | Provided

People from Oak Park and River Forest have not been left out either. The Oak Park Economic Development Corporation’s Eric Mazelis is a member, as are Nina Bernacet and Monnette Bariel, both of Beyond Hunger, and Lalema Bakate, of Housing Forward. River Forest village trustee Kathleen Brennan is also a part of the cohort.

Mazelis told Wednesday Journal he believes that he, and the wider community, can only stand to benefit from interacting with more people outside of village limits. While the 2021-2022 cohort is only about one month into the program, he said the group has already served to diversify his perspective.

“To engage with each other, as opposed to having a border, is a really powerful thing,” Mazelis said.

This cohort will help the Leadership Lab continue to expand its range during the next round of recruitment, according to Bevly, himself a Forest Park resident.

“We’re very proud of the men and women that we were able to put together in this class,” said Bevly. “And we’re already starting to get some some inquiries about participating in the next class.”

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