The Park District of Oak Park narrowly got its second grant of $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the village government after its gaffe in promoting a racially insensitive summer camp put the request in jeopardy. The village board’s approval of the request March 6 came with an upbraiding of the park district for its absence of equity-oversight and a perceived lack of proper remorse. So vehement was the board’s scolding, the meeting was likened to being called to the principal’s office in school.
“You were going to teach a class on foods of the freaking slave trade,” said Trustee Susan Buchanan, the sole board member to vote against granting the request. “I’m wondering where the humility is here, and you deserve to be in the principal’s office.”
The camp, since canceled, and its description were widely criticized for glorifying the country’s ugly history of enslavement by teaching children to cook foods consumed along the Transatlantic slave route. The park district received further criticism from the community for announcing the camp days before Black History Month.
The park district’s ARPA request, while not directly tied to the camp, has been viewed by the village board as making a further investment in racial equity. The sum approved March 6 was requested to make necessary improvements to Barrie and Andersen parks, the latter of which draws a racially diverse crowd. The village board was widely in favor of the renovation project when it was first presented in December. The board was still widely in favor of the project March 6, albeit angry and disappointed in the park district. Trustee Jim Taglia did not attend the meeting due to an injury.
The park district’s efforts to address the harm caused by the camp offering underwhelmed the village board, which opted at its Feb. 6 meeting to table the request. Exactly one month later, the village board remains underwhelmed, despite the entire park district board and Executive Director Jan Arnold attending the follow-up meeting.
“We accept with no reservation or qualification that our actions brought harm and hurt to residents of our community and others,” said park board President Kassie Porreca. “And we deeply regret that, and we do apologize.”
In addressing the board on behalf of the park district, Porreca vacillated between apologizing for the camp and describing the good intentions behind it. Much of her statement was a reading of the park district’s résumé of equity work and education, past and present.
Porreca professed to wishing to add historical context to strengthen the district’s commitment to addressing its summer camp mistake. That only served to puzzle members of the village board.
“It does continue to leave me with confusion in how this happened, and not just the initial class and the language around it, but then the apology that followed, which really felt like a doubling down,” Trustee Cory Wesley said.
Further confusion, and ire, was caused by the park district’s repeated assurances that many Black residents, including an NAACP representative, said they believed the camp would have offered children a valuable educational experience, had it been promoted in a better, more responsible context. This did not fly with Village President Vicki Scaman.
“Don’t come here and tell us that you’ve spoken to Black residents of Oak Park who said that it was a good idea for you to run that class,” said Scaman. “The only people who matter right now are the people who were hugely traumatized by your actions.”
The board was further frustrated by the park district’s ambiguous plans to prevent similar racial equity missteps from happening in the future. Porreca relayed that the park district intends to add more personnel to its diversity, equity and inclusion internal committee, as well as give the committee more training and time to do their work.
At the suggestion of Trustee Chibuike Enyia, the village board stipulated that, in approving the park district’s ARPA request, park district personnel must seek the input of people outside the park district in making equity decisions. It was also directed that they employ a broader, more comprehensive community engagement strategy.