Supporting roles

Listening the starting point as white supporters learn what they don't know

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

As the Oak Park and River Forest communities continue to move towards equity on many fronts, there are a lot of supporters of the efforts. While these white allies may not benefit directly from equity initiatives, they all find benefits for themselves and the community at large from their support of racial equity. Some are new to the movement, having been inspired by recent events, and some have been fighting for equity for decades. 

John Duffy first got involved in working for racial equity in Oak Park when his children were entering Longfellow Elementary School in the 1980s. He says of that time, "A small, multi-racial group of community members began to challenge a range of school practices that historians and sociologists refer to as 'second generation segregation.' We eventually formed the Oak Park Community Action Organization (OPCAO,) and I headed its division focused on racial equity in schools."

He notes that second generation segregation refers to the ways that newly-integrated schools practiced forms of racial inequity through tracking and ability grouping, the over-assignment of black children to special education classes, discipline disparities, and classroom cultures which were not fully inclusive and respectful of students and families of color. 

He later joined APPLE (African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education). Duffy says when he joined almost 10 years ago, APPLE stood alone in leading the effort for racial justice in Oak Park and River Forest. He and Mary Bird formed the Committee for Equity and Excellence in Education (CEEE,) which although founded and organized by white activists, embraces members of color and continues ongoing advocacy to support groups such as APPLE and SUA (Suburban Unity Alliance.)

He cites the benefits of the work as the collaboration, the relationships and being part of the spectrum of humanity, something he likens to his years as a teacher, but he admits the work is not without its challenges.

As CEEE has worked with APPLE, SUA, the newly formed DivCo diversity committee and Districts 97 and 200 on forming their new equity policies, Duffy says they have begun to respond to a few big challenges. "If people of color aren't involved in the planning and implementation process, we're bound not to succeed."

He also notes that the community has historically struggled with racial inequities and through years of assessment, it can be challenging to say who is accountable for the results. 

Duffy hopes that with so many new groups dedicated to working for equity and so many new residents getting involved the challenges will be met. "We're at a stage where the community is animated and involved. You keep it up because there are so many other good people across the community who are invested."

Stephanie Kiesling is one of those residents who is jumping in to meet the challenge. She says her background in social work has led to a long-term commitment to working with marginalized groups. In 2017, she took part in the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Leadership Lab. Her group looked at educational equity at OPRF high school and quickly determined that it was impossible to address equity issues at the high school without examining racial equity on the larger scale in the community and in the country.

As a white ally, she says that working to promote racial equity, as she has done in supporting several people of color in their efforts to be elected to local boards, can make her feel like an imposter.

"How can I possibly help anything? Why would people of color trust me to help, not harm? I just keep learning, building relationships, doing what I'm doing to be supportive and try very hard not to create more harm."

Duffy notes that the involvement of allies like Kiesling is key. As an Oak Park resident for 42 years, Duffy says it is important to help people understand where we have been and where we need to go. "Given America's racial history, the more white people can reach out across racial boundaries and talk with their neighbors, the better we can understand what makes this world better and more just."

Kiesling echoes Duffy and says that a benefit of being involved is being a part of the collective goal of racial equity. "Knowing each other, our neighbors, is so important in understanding each other and truly becoming a welcoming community where all people have the opportunities they need to succeed."

Libbey Paul is another ally who says she was newly galvanized to work for racial equity by the results of the 2016 presidential election. She notes, "The Obama presidency followed by Trump was a real wake-up call to action. Later that same week [in November, 2016,] I attended a Dinner & Dialogues program that invites together residents of diverse backgrounds for an evening of dinner and candid dialogues about race, diversity and inclusion."

She describes her conversations at the dinner with black women about the racism in the United States as something that was both humbling and made her realize she had a lot to learn. She joined the first cohort of the Community Foundation's Leadership Lab and worked with Kiesling to delve into racial equity issues in education. In 2018, she participated in Race Conscious Dialogues and continues to work with the group as a moderator.

Paul says the work can be exhausting and though she is quick to point out that as an ally, she does not face the added struggle of being black in our community. At the end of the day, she says the benefits will outweigh the challenge of questioning the status quo. 

"Our community is stronger when all citizens are treated justly and have an equal opportunity to be amazing. Personally, I have made some wonderful friendships that I deeply value and feel this work is essential to the well-being of our country."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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