A few hundred people gathered at the Oak Park Public Library on Jan. 11 for the Conscious Political Dialogue Forum, which was sponsored by the nonprofit Suburban Unity Alliance. It was the first major candidate forum held ahead of the April 4 elections.
Candidates seeking seats on the Oak Park village and library boards, and District 97 and 200 school boards filled the library's second floor meeting rooms.
Nine of the 10 candidates running for the District 97 board were present at the forum, including Heather B Claxton-Douglas, James Robert Breymaier, David Yamashita, Katherine Murray-Liebl, Robert S Walicki, Maya L. Ganguly, Cynthia Ashford Hollis and Keecia Broy.
Seven of the nine candidates running for the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 board were present at the forum, including Matt Baron, Doug Springer, Jackie Moore, Jack Davidson, Albert Sye, Christian Chiakulas and Craig Iseli.
They were grouped according to which race they were campaigning before filing into meeting rooms for separate discussions that took place simultaneously. But the despite the separation, the issues of equity and diversity dominated each discussion.
To a person, candidates in both school board races acknowledged that a decades-long opportunity gap separating white and black students, and relatively affluent and low-income students, exists in Oak Park schools.
The problem, the candidates mulled, is how to finally — after many years of gathering data, commissioning studies and peopling committees — start narrowing that racially and economically charged opportunity gap.
"I think it's very evident that there's a racial problem," said attorney Ashford-Hollis "There's a silent racial problem and we didn't want to talk about it in the past and now it's being talked about with [D97 Supt. Carol] Kelley's vision."
The candidates' assessments of that "silent problem" varied, with some explaining that an ultimate resolution can only come from each individual's acknowledgment of their own racial blind spots.
"Let it begin with you and let it begin with me," said Baron, the outgoing Oak Park Public Library Board president, who deferred running for a second term on that board in order to run for the District 200 school board. "I think it's for us each to assess our own biases, prejudices and failures, and to change and improve."
"This issue starts with individuals and our awareness and understanding of it," said Iseli, a businessman who was appointed to a stint on the D97 board in 2015. "I don't think the issues at the high school are just at the high school. They're at the early childhood level, they're at District 97 and we really have to focus on the whole community to address these issues."
"There's been a lack of intentionality in dealing with the gap," said Breymaier, the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. "We are dealing with a variety of experiences in our village and that's been a great strength … We have to plenty of resources and excess capacity. We need to figure out how to marshal those resources so we can create more equitable structures."
Most of the solutions proposed by candidates in both school board races hinged on the need for a diversity of experiences in both districts. Numerous candidates argued for the need to hire more minority faculty members, for the implementation of more robust multicultural curriculum and for bringing in mentors from the community to work with low-performing students.
Some candidates argued that implementing those solutions starts with listening to the experiences of students who may feel marginalized and reframing the equity gap issue in a radically different way.
"For me, it has been about not discounting anyone's experience," said Moore, the current D200 board vice president. "If someone comes to a teacher or board member and says they've had an experience involving some type of disparity relating to race, we shouldn't discount that and say, 'On, no that wouldn't happen here.' We have to understand that those individual stories can become a collective."
"We've been trying as adults for close to 40 years trying to figure this out, maybe it's us that has the learning gap, the knowledge gap," said Sye, a former Oak Park and River Forest High School administrator. "The only difference is ours doesn't get publicized. The kids' get publicized. Maybe we should start listening to the kids more [and] asking the right questions regarding their needs."
Chiakulas, a political organizer who was himself a student at the high school less than a decade ago, proposed a radical change in how people talk about equity.
"We don't have an equity problem, we owe our students a debt in education that has not been paid for decades," he said. "Instead of playing this game where we try to think of ways to help the underachieving students catch up, we need to be looking at ways we can come down to their level and bring all the students up together. It starts with these students. That requires courage, because it might mean some parents and students might need to make sacrifices."
Answer Book 2019
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