Village hall goes to school on equity

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Oak Park Village Board's decision to choose the National League of Cities as its racial equity training provider — against the wishes of the Community Relations Commission (CRC) — caused controversy last July, spurring six out of seven CRC commissioners to resign in protest.

Now, as the village nears completion of its training under the National League of Cities, with the very last of the training scheduled to take place just before Halloween, opinions of the training vary, with some believing it missed the mark and others calling it "really helpful."

Using the Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) program, the village-wide equity training began in September and was conducted by National League of Cities representatives in private, virtual sessions. Village staff, leadership, commission chairs and elected officials were split into groups, completing training in intervals. 

"I thought it was a very good introductory training for people who didn't have any familiarity with why we need equity," Trustee Simone Boutet told Wednesday Journal, adding, "It's not the same as the training we need to really bring equity forward." 

While she found the National League of Cities training leader "gracious" and capable, Boutet said she already knew much of what was presented during the training.

"I've done so much racial equity training," she said, "that I did know everything already." 

Boutet completed the training in September, as did the other the village board trustees, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek and HR Director Kira Tchang. Roughly 120 people have completed the training thus far. The final group of village personnel will finish on Oct. 28. 

Boutet maintained her belief that racial equity training only be provided to decisionmakers, "rather than worrying about the guys on the street fixing the water main," as she stated during the board's July 20 meeting to choose an equity training provider.

"I think it's much more impactful to spend the money on the top," she said.

The knowledge and training, she believes, would then trickle down to the lower echelons.

Trustee Susan Buchanan felt the training revolved more around personal consciousness-raising instead of providing people with the knowledge needed to address systemic racism in society and its management structures.

"It did not reach the goal of what we had in mind for equity training at the village manager level," Buchanan said in an interview with Wednesday Journal.

"I don't know where individual members of village government are on their personal antiracism journey," said Buchanan. "There may be many individuals who found it helpful to address their own personal outlook on racism."

As such, Buchanan did not feel the village misused taxpayer funds by entering into the training agreement with National League of Cities, which had a not-to-exceed amount of $41,538.  

Buchanan noted that the organization offers further training, which she would like to see policymakers and leadership undergo in addition to the REAL program.

Something she appreciated about the program was its heavy focus on discriminatory housing policies that the U.S. government imposed throughout history.

"I think a lot of people would benefit from understanding better some of these historic reasons for why there's such inequity now," said Buchanan. "One of the huge reasons is housing policy."

Trustee Jim Taglia found the training enjoyable and useful in teaching how to apply a "racial equity lens" in decision-making, as well as in identifying implicit and explicit racial biases and how to create policies to overcome them.

The training also provided a good historical perspective on the topic of racial equity and inequity, according to Taglia, who said he had never had any prior equity training.

"People who may know more about it say, 'Well, it was too basic,'" he said. "I don't think it was too basic; I think it was very helpful."

Trustee Deno Andrews told Wednesday Journal he found the training well worth the financial cost, citing the number of people who got to participate.

Andrews called the training "very engaging," as well as a good general course on the history of institutionalized racism in the United States and its lasting impact. 

"It didn't change my perception, but it galvanized it," he said.

Believing the REAL program a "good building block," Andrews expressed a willingness to explore further training with National League of Cities, and not just for leadership and policymakers. 

"It's crucially important for everybody in the organization to have a general understanding about the intent of policy," said Andrews. "If we don't share a common vocabulary, and we don't share a common vision about racism in our community, then the people who are carrying out the will of the board have incomplete information about exactly what it is we're trying to accomplish."

Wednesday Journal reached out to each member of the Oak Park board of trustees for comment.

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