D97 Multicultural Center confronts uncertain future

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Lynn Allen, the administrator (and only full-time employee) of Oak Park District 97's Multicultural Center, which is currently located at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland Ave., has a bold plan for the center's future. The boldness is, in part, motivated by Allen's fear that the venerable institution's future is currently stuck in limbo. 

Allen estimates that the center's 16,000 cultural artifacts from around the world, which are on display for elementary students in public and private schools across Oak Park, are worth over $300,000. 

Due to the district's increasing enrollment levels, the center will be moved out of Julian by the end of the 2016-17 school year to make way for more instructional space. According to information provided by the district, the student population at Julian is expected to surpass 1,000 starting next school year and will likely remain at that level "through at least the 2019-2020 school year."

Where the center will land after it leaves Julian, however, is anyone's guess. In a statement, Supt. Carol Kelley said the district will work throughout the 2016-17 school year on securing a space for the center. She said the goal is to move the center to its new location by the fall 2017.

"Prior to my arrival, Dr. [Al] Roberts and the board of education had preliminary conversations with several community partners about the options that might be available for the center," Kelley noted. "I continued these efforts after I started my tenure here on July 1, 2015. I met with Frank Lipo from the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest to discuss the possibility of moving components of the center's collection to its site. I also met with a representative from the village about the prospect of incorporating the center into the proposed multicultural museum that is part of its strategic plan."

But at a Jan. 12 board meeting, Allen presented a much more ambitious proposal that entails the center taking over the current site of the district's central offices at 970 Madison St., after the district moves its administrative functions to 260 Madison St. She also suggested "another suitable building currently owned by [the village of Oak Park]," but didn't specify where that would be.

In a written proposal, Allen noted that the center "could be ready to open within a relatively short amount of time once [the current central office] has been vacated" and "with significantly less cost to District 97 or the village of Oak Park than if they wait."

She said that a possible collaboration with the Historical Society, which will move into old Cicero Fire Station No. 2 at 129 Lake St., "appears to have turned out not to be viable." 

Tom Zapler, chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission, said the commission had explored the feasibility of moving the center into the Historical Society's new location roughly two years ago, but officials from the Historical Society said the move wouldn't work. Attempts to contact officials from the society were not successful.

Allen's plan calls for making the center into a museum, educational hub and community center that would offer classroom space for school field trips, rooms for instructional classes (in language, martial arts, cooking, dance and other areas) and space to house the center's many artifacts. 

She said the center could generate revenue from admissions fees, institutional membership fees, various service fees and rental space for cultural exhibits. 

"I think a positive for [Oak Park] is the increased likelihood of making Madison Street a 'cultural corridor' like the 'Theater District' in downtown Chicago and like the 'Arts District' on Harrison Street in Oak Park," according to Allen's proposal. 

The village's "Envision Oak Park" strategic plan, developed in 2014, lists as an objective the establishment of "a cultural collection offering arts and culture resources and facilities for residents and visitors of Oak Park and the surrounding region."

But Zapler noted that Allen's plan may be even more ambitious than the village's strategic plan introduced.

"I don't know how it could happen or how practical it is, but it's a wonderful plan," Zapler said of Allen's proposal. At the Jan. 12 board meeting, Allen herself described her proposal as "really pie in the sky." 

"What Lynn does, and what the center does, is very, very impressive and goes along with Oak Park's vision of diversity," said Zapler. "We're just hoping that more people here know about what's going on and become involved, so that something better can be done with the collection. It's just really shockingly impressive what they've done."

Kelley noted that, in its efforts to secure a space for the center, the district will seek "to identify people enrolled in library science programs at the local universities who can help us properly catalogue the center's materials" (artifacts, books, magazines, etc.).

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

Reader Comments

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Maggie Klein  

Posted: February 1st, 2016 1:15 PM

I hope she would give a presentation at no charge. It sounds as though the salary pays enough.

Julie Nilson Chyna  

Posted: January 30th, 2016 9:24 AM

The multicultural center and Ms. Allen are amazing resources for our school district and for the community. (Did you know that non-D97 groups, like Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, can visit the center? And that Ms. Allen will give a presentation about a chosen topic depending on your group's focus? At no charge?) I hope the district and Village are able to find a suitable spot so the center's work can continue.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: January 28th, 2016 12:38 PM

One of the challenges with having the multi-cultural center within the school district is that the staffing is subject to the school pay scale and pension. The position paid $124,000 in 2011, plus benefits and retirement liability. I have no data past that. And if I am incorrect, I apologize. It is a wonderful resource for all our citizens, and the students get much from Ms. Allen's outreach. However, there are significant competing interests for the D97 dollar. The idea of moving it to the Village, and finding a private/public funding solution is an enticing one. Ms. Allen's dedication to the center is laudable, and I hope she can find a way to preserve it for all of Oak Park.

Molly Sackler  

Posted: January 27th, 2016 12:03 PM

Lynn Allen and her extraordinary collection of artifacts are an Oak Park treasure. As a newcomer to the area, I was totally knocked out by my visit to the Multicultural Center. It's a crying shame D97 doesn't do more to support and take advantage of Allen's important work. With the terrible racism and xenophobia roiling our country and the city of Chicago, Oak Park, bastion of liberalism and multiculturalism, needs a Multicultural Center now more than ever. Not in 2017! Today! Let's make sure Lynn Allen can fulfill her plan to create a center that educates and inspires.

Maggie Klein  

Posted: January 27th, 2016 9:00 AM

While a lovely and important exhibit. I am not a fan of it taking up another non-taxpaying main corridor building. How about moving it to the new fancy admin building?

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