A while back, I shared an analysis of population changes in Oak Park between 2010 and 2020. What was most alarming, was the Black population loss in the community. The Black population decreased by 823 persons — a 7% decrease. What’s worse, that followed a similar decrease from 2000 to 2010. The combined loss from 2000 to 2020 was 1,485 persons a 13% decrease.
Census data makes clear that this is not due to more people choosing the multiracial category (as some hoped). There is a significant increase in multiracial population in Oak Park, but only a small portion of that is from persons who include Black when choosing multiple racial groups. The rate of decrease in the Black population was greater in Oak Park (-7%) than in Cook County (-6%) and the six-county metro area (-5%).
And data for District 97 elementary schools also shows a significant decrease in Black students. Despite the fact that total D97 enrollment increased by 619 students between 2010 and 2020, Black student enrollment decreased by 328 students.
The losses demonstrated in this data are an indication that Oak Park is failing to sufficiently market itself as a welcoming community for Black households. However, we have an opportune moment to reinvest and reimagine our historic efforts to hold diversity, integration, and inclusion as our core values.
The previous Oak Park village manager led an effort to steadily reduce village hall’s investment and commitment to a diverse, integrated, and equitable community. The previous board included some members who supported her efforts as well. In less than 10 years, the effort was successful in
1) essentially killing the Diversity Assurance Program that incentivized landlords to become active partners in the strategy to guard against segregation in our neighborhoods and schools,
2) removing the requirement for landlords to provide racial data for the purposes of measuring good-faith commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing,
3) ending marketing of the community as open and welcoming in favor of boosting a message of hot properties and expensive new development,
4) diminishing the dedicated and committed experts on the Community Relations Commission and,
5) changing from a collaborative approach with the Housing Center as a partner to a hostile approach asking for the small nonprofit to keep achieving ambitious goals while the village consistently did less to support those same goals.
Fortunately, we haven’t passed a point of no return yet. Recommitment and reinvestment could still result in a return to positive change in Oak Park. But time is running out. The current board and the arrival of a new village manager offer the village a chance to revitalize its diversity and integration programs in a way that makes sense for our current situation.
At the very least, the village should do two things:
- Rekindle the collaborative relationship with the Housing Center to lead marketing to Black households and renew incentives for property owners to embrace integration efforts.
- Rebuild the Community Relations Commission with local experts on race relations and racial equity to support efforts that will foster multiracial solidarity and improve the culture of inclusion in the community.
If the village fails in sustaining our diversity and integration, they will be abandoning the core values that have been the foundation of this community for the last half-century. Reading the Diversity Statement will be a hollow exercise — only words on a page with no conviction behind them. We will lose what makes Oak Park remarkable and such a wonderful place to call home. If the village succeeds, we will all benefit from a welcoming and inclusive community that will improve prosperity and equity for all.
Over the next five years, Oak Park will either recommit to its core values or lose its character as an inclusive community. Depending on their actions, village officials in charge now will be remembered either as heroes or as villains.
Rob Breymaier is the former executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center.