Oak Park village board members began cultural competency training Monday night during a public board meeting. This was the first of three planned sessions and was led by Danielle Walker, the village’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.

The training was requested by Trustee Lucia Robinson, and seconded by Trustee Ravi Parakkat, as part of the board’s goal to become a leader in racial equity. Board members spent the hour-long presentation taking in information and participating in individual activities. Limited discussion was had with board members mostly asking questions to better their understanding of the material presented, while complimenting Walker on her work.

 Cultural competency training for elected officials is aligned with best practices on operationalizing diversity, equity and inclusion in a community, according to Walker, and can increase trust in local government, especially within marginalized groups.

While Walker emphasized that training of this nature is ongoing and ever evolving, the board’s sessions will cover core topics regarding diversity, equity and inclusion using a “deconstruct, disrupt, dismantle” framework. The objective of the initial session, according to Walker, was to put the pieces of the DEI puzzle together, not necessarily remembering all of the terminology used.

“You each have a piece of the puzzle that contributes to the collective learning,” she said.

Monday night’s session was dedicated to the deconstructing portion, with much time spent on debunking common myths associated with the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. The first of the eight myths Walker presented was the idea that diversity, equity and inclusion efforts were created to make white people feel bad about themselves.

“This is a big one!” said Walker.

This conviction is popular nationwide among opponents of critical race theory as they believe teaching how public policy has been shaped by systemic racism will result in white school children feeling guilty for being white.

Walker, however, believes pointing a finger at white people, or people of other privileged groups, creates a barrier of understanding, which prevents people from engaging because they don’t know how to reconcile their feelings.

“That leads to a lot of uncomfortableness, uncertainty,” said Walker. “For a lot of people, they feel like they’re being put on the spot.”

Inspiring, not shaming, someone into action creates change, according to Walker. She instructed the board to lean into any feelings of discomfort rather than avoid them, so that people undergoing training can “think through” the different emotional responses.

“DEI is an opportunity for us to learn and grow together,” said Walker.

The dates of the two other sessions will focus on the “disrupt” and “dismantle” legs of the training framework. The dates of those sessions have yet to be scheduled, but the next is expected to take place in July.

Like the first, the second and third sessions will take place during public meetings. This is in contrast to similar training previously undertaken by village board members. Under Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb, the village board underwent racial equity training through the National League of Cities in 2020. That training was conducted privately, with the board, village staff and citizen commissioners split into different training groups.

At the time, the board included Village Clerk Vicki Scaman, now village president, and Trustee Susan Buchanan, who was in her first term. Those two are the only board members that will have taken part in both Walker’s training and that of the National League of Cities.

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