Like most people, River Forest Trustee Erika Bachner still feels the impact of 2020. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest spurred by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other innocent Black men and women have had a lasting effect on communities nationwide.
Bachner was among those who watched people across the country and in her own neighborhood unite and speak up against racial injustice, police brutality and white supremacy, systemic issues that were ever-present in today’s world. The fight for freedom and equality was far from over.
It wasn’t long before Bachner and fellow River Forest Trustee Katie Brennan began talking about creating a diversity group, engaging in larger discussions about inequity and understanding their residents’ realities beyond the rows of luxury homes on manicured lawns. On the surface, River Forest is a majority-white, affluent Chicago suburb, and with the exception of nearby Oak Park, it’s surrounded by some communities where the median income per household ranges between $25,000 and $40,000. River Forest is also home to a pair of private universities, one of which has pulled in a large Latinx student population over recent years.
Bachner, who is Latinx and represents those in River Forest who make a moderate income, said she has dreamed of putting this kind of group together for River Forest, and there was no better time to act than now.
“We brought it to the table of the village board, and we were told to run with it,” Bachner told Wednesday Journal about the start of River Forest’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Advisory Group.
“We spent many months speaking with community members, experts and stakeholders about what this might look like, what would be important in the work and what [would] our focus, mission, and goals, and responsibilities look like,” said Bachner, who co-chairs the diversity committee.
And they haven’t looked back since.
‘Where you stand depends on where you sit’
Last April, the River Forest village board voted to establish the size of the DEI committee and appointed 43 members, most of whom, if not all, are residents with a story and hope to make a difference in some way.
Take Renee Duba, a River Forest mother of two. Or David Bonner, who moved to River Forest with his wife, a Maywood native, almost two years ago. Duba and Bonner were among dozens who submitted their applications and expressed interest in joining the diversity committee.
Duba told Wednesday Journal she’s passionate about social justice and wanted to participate in the ad hoc committee to set an example for her teenage children, while Bonner was moved by the village’s decision to adopt a covenant with nearby Maywood, a mostly Black community, and sought to help deepen and further those ties.
Back in June 2020, Maywood Trustee Miguel Jones approached the River Forest village board with an idea to create a covenant between the two suburbs, after a prominent River Forest developer was charged with one count of a hate crime and one count of aggravated battery by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
The developer, a white man, allegedly assaulted a Black woman in the parking lot of the River Forest Jewel, according to earlier reporting in Wednesday Journal. The woman recorded the incident on her cellphone and uploaded the video on Twitter, which later went viral and “put at least one Maywood resident on edge,” according to reporting in Maywood’s Village Free Press.
Bonner, who is Black, said the covenant in tandem with the newly formed DEI committee is necessary, especially for a town that may have “lost sight” of its racial demographics.
“[It’s] 80% Caucasian and the rest are other races [in River Forest], and I thought this [the DEI committee] is a good way to extend the work that the village has done,” said Bonner, adding he had worked with other organizations such as My Brother’s Keeper, a mentoring program for young men and boys of color launched by former President Barack Obama. “I thought this was right up my alley.”
Duba shared that her desire to be part of the diversity committee also comes from a personal place. Apart from her years serving on the board of the Community Renewal Society, one of Chicago’s oldest faith-based nonprofits and owner of the publication, The Chicago Reporter, Duba cited her own family as a key influence to her advocacy work.
Duba, who is white, told Wednesday Journal that some of her loved ones are people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community or practice different religions. She thinks about them constantly and remains unafraid to step up — and to also just listen.
Duba said it can be tough, especially for white people, to talk about racial injustices or inequities. As a whole, that kind of conversation forces people to take a look at themselves, their own beliefs and the privilege and power they may hold. Being honest, open and vulnerable are crucial in those discussions, and that can be difficult for some who have never thought about money, race or class as a divider.
“I had sort of all those similar experiences that cis-gender white women might have, which is that people talking about race and inequity felt racist. It was sort of this ‘white fragility’ kind of thing,” Duba said, adding it took some time for her to understand that she “needed to just sit down, shut up and listen to the voices of the people” from marginalized communities.
Especially in River Forest, Duba said it may be easy for residents to “think we’re welcoming,” but she wants to hear from others, including those of color or in need.
“You need to hear from them,” she said.
Trustee Ken Johnson, who co-chairs the DEI committee with Bachner and newly hired village Administrator Brian Murphy, echoed Duba.
“I believe where you stand depends on where you sit,” said Johnson, who is the village’s first Black trustee and an over-decade-long River Forest resident. “Your position on life or your stance depends on your background and where you grew up.
“Because we have a very limited percentage of minority populations, it’s just a fact that some of the stances that a percentage of River Forest may have could also be related to how they grew up,” Johnson told Wednesday Journal. “It all changes over time, and it changes with experiences, but I want to ensure that I allow people to come where I sit. And I believe that every member of the diversity committee is working to allow us to sit in each other’s chairs and find out what our different experiences are and how we can relate and grow from them.”
Strength in numbers
That’s the thing about the diversity committee: It’s about making room for residents to be heard.
And while one may think that could be difficult in a group with over 40 members, Bachner said she sees the group’s size as a strength, not a distraction.
“At some point, we realized that we want to be radically inclusive [and] including anyone who applies is important to this,” said Bachner. “I did not imagine that we were going to get over 40 applications [for] this, and so that was wonderful. And really what that allows for is a lot of community engagement and [a stronger] decision-making process. It also means that we have a lot of hands to work on concurrent items, which is really wonderful.”
“Because of that [the committee’s] size,” Bachner added, “we’re able to truly represent what we stand for with regard to working with diversity.”
Bachner and Johnson said the committee is currently planning to divide its members up into smaller subcommittees and work with a consultant to assess the village’s policies and practices. The needs could vary, but Bachner, Johnson, Duba and Bonner have some ideas that they hope the committee could jump into.
Bachner said she’d like to see the village create a supplier diversity program to help support and promote businesses owned by women, veterans, people of color or those from underrepresented communities, while Johnson suggested hosting an inclusivity fair and inviting local families to learn about the many resources available in River Forest. Bonner said he would like to find a way to use River Forest’s playgrounds as a way to hold events, bringing in residents from other nearby communities, while Duba wanted to see more affordable housing options spring up around the neighborhood.
Johnson also said several residents of color reached out to him during his candidacy and asked to take a closer look at the traffic stops conducted by the River Forest Police Department. There are some who think police officers may have pulled over drivers of color more than white drivers, he said.
“That is a prevailing thought that goes on in River Forest, but no one’s checked into it, and I’m a strong believer as a lawyer that I don’t want to say anything unless I have some evidence,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I promised my constituency I would look into it, and if it’s not happening that way, then that’s great. But if it is, let’s talk about it.”
Johnson said the purpose of the diversity committee is to keep going — to keep talking and listening. People have to continuously show up and come together.
“We just have to continue to educate each other that this is happening,” he said of the struggles and challenges that marginalized communities face. “We have to continue to admit that that is going on. The vulnerability on both sides is what gets us through to a result.”