A rendering of the recreation center proposed by the Park District of Oak Park. | Provided

With a groundbreaking ceremony scheduled to take place on March 19 for the new Community Recreation Center (CRC), the Park District of Oak Park (PDOP) is poised to start construction on the new facility. Evolving from a 2016 feasibility study commissioned to explore the desires of Oak Park residents to have a communal recreation space for the village of Oak Park, this new building will provide recreational programming for citizens across the spectrum. 

Upon completion, according to the district, “the facility will include gymnasiums, a fitness center, community and multipurpose rooms, mental health services, and more.” In addition, remaining true to a principled vision of what we want our community to be, the funders and village administrators want people to know that the envisioned center will be a place of inclusion, equity and “a place to belong.”

The AMENS Mentoring Group of Oak Park has long realized the need for such a facility. For some 25 years now, AMENS has worked with marginalized youth and families to ensure that they receive an equal share of educational, mental health, and recreational services available to all citizens of Oak Park. Deacon Wiley Samuels Jr. of Fellowship Christian Church and Fellowship Community Services Inc., a founding member of AMENS, encouraged group members George Bailey, Lee Pulliam, and Carl Spight to discuss with Jan Arnold, executive director of PDOP, our concerns about the role of the CRC in addressing the needs of the youth and families we serve. Our initial discussions were directed toward programming and accessibility issues. 

Eventually, we requested clarification of equity issues related to the building of the facility. The equity questions emerged alongside the programmatic inquiries we had been discussing for the envisioned center. As we expanded our discussion, issues of contracts and vendors surfaced, presenting embedded equity issues that we brought to Jan’s attention. 

We set the programmatic issues aside and began talking about who might the vendors be. Who would get contracts, and what percentage of Women Business Enterprises (WBE), and Minority Business Enterprises (MBE) subcontractors would be represented in the work force building the CRC? At the time of our conversation, the WBE and MBE participation rate for the CRC project, was at 15%. We questioned that rate of participation. We wanted to know what the rate meant in terms of how many women and how many Black and Brown people would be working under hard hats on the site. These were new and often difficult conversations to have, but have them we did — always respectfully, and productively. 

Over the course of our many discussions about the presence and purposes of such a facility in our community, we realized that a significant relationship between our group and PDOP was being formed. We came to see ourselves as partners participating in a discourse for improving quality of life in our community. We are grateful for Jan’s receptivity and her attention to our concerns.

We were most pleased when she informed us that, after consultation with her team and reviewing the details, they believed the MBE/WBE participation goal could be increased from 15%, to a minimum of 25%. Later still, through an official press release, she informed the entire Oak Park community that the participation rate increased to 29%. 

“Building relationships cannot be taken for granted.” This charged and activated phrase, which Deacon Wiley often employs, is a sound and useful compass, a means to getting things done in these times. We feel that our growing relationship with Jan Arnold and her team moved the needle on this discussion. The history of such discussions in the U.S. is well known. The increase of the WBE/MBE participation rate might well mean some of those employed building our CRC may start saving for a house, buying a car, or putting away money for their children’s education. 

Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to ask those who are considering contracting for new construction, to familiarize themselves with your current participation rates, especially those public officials connected to village taxing districts, who may be involved in new construction. For as long as we have lived in Oak Park, words like inclusion, equity and belonging have been uttered to promote real and imagined societal ideals and change. The construction of the CRC in Oak Park has the potential of transforming such words from abstractions to concrete actions.

AMENS Mentoring Group consists of George Bailey, PhD; Lee Pulliam, attorney at law; Wiley Samuels, deacon, Fellowship Christian Church; and Carl Spight, PhD.

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