On Aug. 6, Tribune reporter Lizzie Kane in her article, “New challenges,” presented a lengthy narrative of how key Oak Park community and village officials, racially diverse housing proponents like former Housing Center Director Rob Breymaier, and longtime racial-equity advocates like African American Parents for Purposeful Education (APPLE) are confronting disturbing threats to Oak Park’s historic mission to be a racially and culturally diverse, inclusive, and equitable place to live and go to school. In this viewpoint I offer some additional perspective and data.

Recently, in advance of OPRF High School District 200’s February racial-equity assessment of Project 2 (the over $100 million rebuilding of the southeast section of the building), the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE) and others pointed to the need to formally consider what impact the largest capital project in Oak Park history, including further capital improvements, ongoing steep increases in property values, and D200 tax levies would have on racial diversity.

These questions were never carefully examined — we can only guess and do not know the answers. We do know they will be integral to protecting racial diversity. The same can be said of the recent, outlandish proposal to consider demolishing our landmark village hall and rebuilding it for up to $118 million.

By the way, this “consideration” was put forth by the same consultants who handled Project 1 & 2 for D200.

Both school districts 97 and 200 offer some data that urgently suggests it is indeed time for the village to strengthen its commitment to diverse, equitable, and affordable housing.

Our village and schools have significantly lost African American members. In the 10 years from 2007 through 2017, according to D97 state report cards, the district’s Black student population has declined 35 percent. At OPRF High School, the Black student population has declined from 28 to 18 percent from 2010 to the present.

The village data is equally compelling. Nearly 1,500 of our Black neighbors have moved from Oak Park since 2016, and the percentage of African Americans living in Oak Park has declined from a high of 23.5% a little over a decade ago, to 18.2% as of July 2019 (Source: American Community Survey Estimates, U.S. Census Bureau).

Providing for racial equity and economic diversity and access in housing cannot be a guessing game, driven by an invocation of historic laurels around open housing, or simply left to commercial and housing market forces. To that end, for the last four years large numbers of Oak Parkers, including the Community Relations Commission, have called on the village to vigorously move forward with a racial equity policy, which would include a racial equity impact assessment protocol that could be applied to housing policy, new construction and zoning ordinances.

In 2021, Represent Oak Park village trustee candidates Chibuike Enyia, Anthony Clark, and Juanta Griffin set forth a comprehensive plan to advance a racial equity policy and enforcement procedures. Last summer, trustees (including Enyia) committed to using a racial equity tool kit that includes such procedures. This summer’s training workshop  on how and when to use racial equity assessment procedures, convened by Danielle Walker, Oak Park’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion officer, represents one more step forward in fully and faithfully operationalizing these racial equity procedures.

The emerging village racial equity policy and equity assessments being guided by Dr. Walker are most promising. Such assessments are a necessary complement to any new, pro-active approaches for realizing racial diversity hinted at by Oak Park Regional Housing Director Athena Williams, Villager Manager Kevin Jackson, and Village President Vicki Scaman. 

When our village, township, park district, libraries and schools are in sync on how to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion, we will have a greater chance to live up to the village vision so many have worked to realize since the 1960s. Recent village actions have moved us closer to that end.

John Duffy is a longtime resident of the Longfellow School neighborhood and a member of CEEE.

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