The village board of Oak Park has been very vocal in its desire to make community engagement a major priority, but what happens when the community does not engage in engagement efforts? Try again, but with a more specified approach. That’s the philosophy the Personnel Committee, a subsect of the wider board, has opted to employ regarding the hunt for a new village manager.
The approach comes at the counsel of Dele Lowman Smith and Katy Rush of GovHR, the firm hired to carry out village manager recruitment. They reported during an Oct. 20 Personal Committee meeting that initial stakeholder meetings generated poor attendance.
“When the village made a broad invitation, there was not a huge turnout both for the in-person session that Katy facilitated at the library and for the virtual [session] that I facilitated that Trustee [Jim] Taglia was able to attend,” said Lowman Smith, GovHR senior vice president.
Oak Park Human Resources Director Kira Tchang told Oak Park that two people came to the Oct. 9 session at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library, while three people participated in the virtual session Oct. 12.
Recognizing that attendance was especially low among Black residents, Lowman Smith told the committee that GovHR decided to take a more direct approach to engage that particular population segment – and it proved much more fruitful.
“When we had the session that was really targeted to Black Oak Parkers, where there were more personal invitations made, we had about 21 people who showed up,” she said, adding that those who attended participated actively throughout the session.
Tchang stated in an email to Wednesday Journal the village of Oak Park did not record this particular meeting, as its participants were told that their feedback would not be personally attributable.
“It was a striking difference in terms of the response, and I think that’s instructive in terms of how you move forward and build buy-in in the community through this process,” she said.
GovHR further discovered why Black residents responded better to a more tailored approach, according to Lowman Smith, based on thoughts “expressly articulated” by attendees or “divined from the discussion.” Rush called the process of making that discovery “organic.”
A possible explanation, as Lowman Smith shared, is that the Black community may not have known about the previous sessions, the times and dates of which were listed on the village’s website.
The other reasons are far more troublesome. For one, Black residents do not always feel they are included in broad invitations for community engagement, according to Lowman Smith.
“They did not see themselves as being the intended audience of that invitation,” she said.
Additionally, Lowman Smith told the committee GovHR found that Black residents do not feel that their input is welcome or well-received by other members of the community.
“They felt much more comfortable speaking openly and candidly in a forum that was dedicated to their interests and their perspectives,” said Lowman Smith. “We share that for obvious reasons.”
She and Rush believe that this information will prove useful moving forward, particularly when it comes time to introduce the community to candidates, which the village is one step closer having as the Personnel Committee unanimously voted to approve the position announcement during the same meeting.