The Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation has done good work for many decades. But its leaders would acknowledge it has been a challenge to explain its mission to the public, to potential donors.

Now that has changed as the foundation has laser-focused its energies on building a “racially just society” for Oak Park and River Forest and, critically, a broader West Cook community, including Austin, Proviso Township, Berwyn and Cicero.

This mission is articulated in an extraordinary new community-needs assessment, two years in development, which reflects many voices across these contiguous neighborhoods and vivid data compiled by foundation staff, defining the systemic inequities built into these communities we call home.

Community Voices is the full report and is worth reading at the foundation’s website. Tony Martinez, the foundation’s president, writes in an introduction that the foundation “has taken a hard and honest look at philanthropy and its ability to address systemic racial inequalities. We understand that our work … must intentionally address the racial disparities that exist in order for all members of our community to thrive and prosper.”

The foundation last week launched the first of four public presentations setting out its findings. It was a compelling presentation and we urge our readers to find time to be part of a future event. More than 100 local voices were heard through a series of focus groups. These are articulate voices, mostly people of color, with insights that are eye-opening and plain-spoken. 

The data compiled by foundation staff lays out the reality of inequity in these communities with a focus on four key targets for change: 

  • Educational opportunities 
  • Health care, both mental and physical 
  • Wealth inequality
  • And, finally, safety, belonging and stability.

This work is essential and aspirational. Having the community foundation claim a leadership role through its philanthropy and its power to convene gives the organization new purpose. 

Central to this effort — and it mirrors the work of our own Growing Community Media nonprofit — is to pierce the bubble that Oak Park and River Forest have consciously created over decades. The foundation calls it West Cook. We call our five flags, stretching from Austin and Garfield Park to Proviso Township, the Greater West Side.

The point is that looking up and looking out is not a scary proposition. It is an opportunity to learn, to listen, and love and do better, to be better, to connect and to challenge ourselves as communities. The work is hard, the lessons uncomfortable. 

We see progress underway on many fronts. Critical nonprofits blowing out the artificial boundaries that have divided us. Genuine connections being made between leaders — religious, political, nonprofit — in these neighborhoods. Capital being infused in disinvested communities. Deeper reporting on everyday life in the neighborhoods we cover. Honest conversations about race and inequity. Bold decisions being made in our schools to bring change.

So much work to do. 

The foundation’s leadership is foundational.

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