This past weekend the Parks Foundation and Park District of Oak Park celebrated the ground break of the Community Recreation Center (CRC). A big thanks to all of our supporters who recognize that if our community wants to improve opportunities and outcomes for our residents, we must do something different. 

My family, like so many, is bursting at the seams with joy about the opportunities awaiting us. We view Saturday’s ceremony as a defining moment in our community’s journey toward elevating equity and inclusivity because when it comes to the achievement of these cornerstone values, it’s no secret that Oak Park is still becoming the community we want to be.

When my husband Stephen and I were growing up in Oak Park, we marveled at the fair housing advocates, who peacefully demanded that Oak Park be an intentionally diverse community. As teens, we saw what bold leadership can achieve, and today we are seeing it again. 

Our CRC will be incredible, but there is something even more important than the physical space. The phrase, “A Place to Belong,” is our campaign’s visionary statement, but in reality, it describes a lived experience we are wishing for every member of our community. I once read that a sense of belonging isn’t just about being invited to the dance; it is also about feeling compelled to attend the dance, and, after arriving, it’s about feeling connected to others, like you do belong. 

You may be wondering why our desire to cultivate a sense of belonging is so important to our community. It’s because when people feel this, when they feel valued, they feel cohesion with their peers and, most importantly, they feel a heart-to-heart connection with our community. 

As a self-proclaimed equity advocate for youth, it’s clear to me that a child’s relationship with our community is fundamental to who they are, and who they become as adults. From my own childhood experience, I know that when I had a safe, welcoming place to play with my peers, or when I felt a sense of purpose after a long school day, like being on time for my floor hockey game at Fox Park, it was the happiest feeling in the world. As an adult, I now realize that having a sense of purpose and a place to belong, also fueled my sense of emotional safety. A sense of belonging and a sense of emotional safety go hand-in-hand because they are critical building blocks that empower children to build bright futures for themselves, and that is what our families want: a chance for their children to build bright futures.

The park district can’t guarantee outcomes for any member of our community because so many influences feed into who we are and who we become, but we can promise the CRC will be a safe, welcoming, and empowering atmosphere for all ages. 

Let’s remember that Oak Park became an intentionally diverse community because of bold, determined leadership emanating from boardrooms to kitchen tables. Oak Park’s shared purpose now is to keep working together to advance our culture, climate, and equity goals so that in the coming years, we can collectively, and honestly declare Oak Park to be an intentionally equitable community.

Mary Jo Schuler, PhD, is co-chair of the Community Recreation Center Campaign

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