Villagers of the Year in a liberal village are mostly white

A celebration of notables prompts a newspaper to reflect on racial progress

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

There could perhaps be no starker illustration of the divide between Oak Park's lofty image of itself as a bastion of racial diversity and the much less airy reality than last Friday night's celebration at Dominican University.

Two of Wednesday Journal's most valuable platforms — its regular Wednesday Journal Conversations series and its annual Villager of the Year distinction, given each year to notably newsworthy residents of Oak Park and River Forest — merged during a panel discussion featuring the 2018 Villagers of the Year. The event was the brainchild of Dominican University President Donna Carroll.

On the panel, last year's designees — District 200 Board President Jackie Moore, Oak Park filmmaker Steve James and River Forest District 90 Board President Ralph Martire — talked about the strides the villages have made in the area of racial equity during a conversation moderated by Frances Kraft.

More than a dozen of the roughly 150 audience members were Villagers of the Year from years past. If they were in attendance they were asked to stand. For Dan Haley, Wednesday Journal's publisher, assessing some 33 years of Villagers of the Year in Oak Park was both illuminating and indicting. Haley said that staffers scoured the archives to identify past winners before attempting to locate them to send an invite for Friday's event.

"To talk about systemic bias, when we look back over all of these photographs — a whole lot of white people, a whole lot of white men," said Haley. "That reflects us and our limited view and it reflects the way people have risen up to impact our communities."

Another bias, Haley said, was more geographic in nature.

"We started Villager of the Year in the mid-1980s and it didn't occur to me, to us, with my biases, that there should be a River Forest Villager of the Year until substantially later," Haley said.

If those biases were on full display Friday night, so was the Oak Park's potential for transformation it the area of racial equity, he said.

"We started Wednesday Journal in 1980," Haley recalled, adding that his motivation to start the paper was "to write about race."

Some 40 years later, he said, the paper's focus has evolved from housing integration to diversity and now "to this really fascinating conversation about equity."

"This is really a moment of alignment of Steve's [America to Me documentary] series, of school boards' consensus on equity, of pretty remarkable leaders in the administration of our three school districts to focus on this issue and it is this moment of urgency. And now, we've got the village of Oak Park talking about equity as well."

During a roughly hour-long conversation, the panelists all pointed out the racial equity progress that the Oak Park and River Forest area have achieved over the last several years. Martire — the D90 board president who received co-Villager of the Year with D90 Supt. Edward J. Condon (who was unable to attend the event) — said that the River Forest school district's recent strides in racial equity were rooted in simply pointing out the problem.

"If the board didn't buy into addressing this issue, then [the progress] couldn't have happened, because we could've hidden it," said Martire. "We're a high-achieving district and we really could have hidden the fact that we weren't serving our black and brown children. The board, however, chose to go public with the fact that we've looked at ourselves and we see a failing system. That's bravery."

Moore said that, if real systemic change is going to happen, then "relationships need to be built, so that there is trust" at a community-wide level. She shared the story of her own mother, a public school educator, who insisted that when she had parties at their house to invite her friends from the predominantly black, working-class neighborhood where she grew up, as well as her friends from the mostly white and wealthy private school across town she attended.

"You're the bridge," Moore recalled her mother telling her. "I watched and saw my friends from my different groups become friends. [My mother] was right and it's something that my husband and I have almost insisted on with our own kids."

During a reflection on filming his 10-part docuseries that aired on Starz last year, James offered an anecdote that served as something of a cautionary tale for how the moment of alignment that Haley referenced could be lost.

James said that he was surprised at how strong feelings were "for and against" an equity learning strand at Oak Park and River Forest High School, which was in its fifth year when James and his crew filmed and that still exists today. James said that the conflict over the program did not appear in the docuseries "in any meaningful way," since the administration didn't allow his crew to film meetings related to the program.

"To see the cross-purposes at which people seemed to be working on the equity work being done at the school was distressing," he said. "There were a lot of good people with good intentions. Oak Park and River Forest are full of lots of people with good intentions who care about these issues deeply. But we just weren't seeing [the program] manifest itself as one would hope and expect."

How to overcome this kind of stalemate-inducing conflict, Haley said, is the challenge of the moment.

"If we don't figure this out, this is going to be lost," he said. "We'll be left with kind of our smug successes from the 1970s and we really need to do better than that."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com

Reader Comments

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Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 16th, 2019 8:26 PM

@ BK: A great leap forward and Mao, stated in a neighborhood newspaper. Thats something.Its like quoting Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "Butch, keeping thinking that's what your good at" "Sundance, I got vision, the rest of the world wears bifocals" To laugh before the battle makes us stronger.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: February 16th, 2019 8:11 PM

Brian: Your idea - as you can tell from all the positively enthusiastic comments - is a great leap forward.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 16th, 2019 5:28 PM

Yes, yes all good. All European people would be required to state their short comings in public, a tip of the hat to Mao.. Silver key chains are excellent because that is second place. Non drivers would get blue or white maybe green key chains for their positive ecological, natural impact, that is clean clouds and clean sky. Everyone must walk or bike to the recognition ceremony .

Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 16th, 2019 8:53 AM

Key chains, it could be silver key chains given out to citizens when they go to Village Hall to get their vehicle registered. Of course, people who don't have cars would get gold key chains for their additional environmental-mindedness.

Marc Martinez from Oak Park  

Posted: February 14th, 2019 11:22 AM

Brian, love the idea. But it needs a refinement. All European heritage people would receive a flail (to flog themselves) and a form to confess their sins and provide self-criticism. Then a panel of non-European heritage people would decide if they deserved a medallion or required more introspection. Folks could also attach a page listing good works but only if it had the proper tone of insufficient repentance and ultimate inadequacy.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 14th, 2019 8:45 AM

@ BK &CV: Now, how do we make it work? Maybe we should agree upon a medallion sized key chain medal, get a go fund me page and go from there. The second step would be to determine how many adults there are in OP, maybe around 19000, and design a medal or put a suggested donation for each medal. We could have a mass presentation ceremony like high school graduation. Thinking along the line of an oak tree and in latin the motto "from one tree, many nuts" on the back just a red insert to represent our debt and bankruptcy.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: February 14th, 2019 12:24 AM

Brian: I second Christine's sentiment. Great idea.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 4:54 PM

Too bad there is no "Like" button on these comments, Brian, that's a great idea!

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 3:38 PM

How about declaring all Oak Parkers Villager of the Year and sending out participation trophy to everyone.

Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 2:54 PM

Whoops! Forgot to include that my perspective on large, rowdy Irish families is from my own large family, of origin. Three of my two grandmothers were 100 percent Irish, and one grandfather was more than half Irish. There was only one lone WASP of a grandparent who was not Irish. He was the first one in his family born in the US when they emigrated from the Isle of Man to Chicago.He was often mistaken for Irish and when he was young experienced that discrimination that said in shop windows "Irish Need Not Apply". It didn't stop him made his mark in Chicago and Oak Park. I am sure there are many families here in Oak Park who can tell similar stories and I am not trying to equate it with the extreme conditions and extreme cruelty inflicted on African Americans in this country or the conditions where the politics of hatred has raised its ugly head in the US at this time. But, I guess what I am thinking is that the challenge is not insurmountable in Oak Park. If the divide that separated people in a difference like Protestant and Catholic can be overcome, so can other divides, Oak Park has made a commitment to diversity, passed fair housing laws that they put legal strength and help behind, and most people I know genuinely enjoy the diversity. This is not true of many of the suburbs around us, or in the general Chicago area, or the country for that matter. It takes time for host communities to decide that this is the wisest course and the best course of living, to appreciate and enjoy the rich tapestry of diversity. So, my point is that assimilation takes time.The host has to move over and get accustomed to the needed adjustments and changes as the new population assimilates. People who can't adjust leave. Now, I see two other very legitimate reasons for leaving, high taxes and the urbanization of Oak Park with no end in sight to developing high-rises. the greatest threat is crime, if the perception is that people are not safe, that has the power to change everything

Christine Vernon  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 2:27 PM

The reality of this issue is long-standing. Being from a family of six generations in Oak Park( I'm 4th). For many years, awards were given/decided by a political party, Village Hall or Editors/Staff of a local publication. Ruling people recognize their supporters. This is true everywhere. Chicago is a good example. Each ethnic and racial group wants to replace the previous one. No group seems to want to share power. Until people genuinely want to share power, there will never be an actual democracy. When I got involved in local politics in the 1970's, there was not one Catholic on the Board in a town that was over 50% Catholic. Over time, Catholic citizens preoccupied with supporting and raising their big families started to become involved in local government when they became aware of the disparity. I witnessed and watched this change. In 1934, people objected to the candidacy of one man running for the Oak Park Board of Trustees, because he was a Catholic. He was actually one of their own, from a Protestant family from the Isle of Man, British Isles, a WASP, qualified by their own standards, except that he was a convert to Catholicism. He, my grandfaher, ran and won anyway. I look back on Oak Park now as one who married a WASP, and had a front row seat to this contrast between WASP life originally created here, a tidy, well-run machine of a town of mostly smaller families. Then came the infusion of big Irish Catholic families and their seemingly rowdy and chaotic tribes, sometimes of lesser means, with connections to Chicago Machine Politics and Unions. Often, their heavy drinking - the Irish virus turned WASPS off. Although not unique to the Irish, Irish got the negative labels. It had to be culture shock to the "establishment", a new population with different religious and cultural practices. I've observed this over my lifetime. Rather than taking it too personally, we can help standing up for what we know is right. This is life evolving. It takes time.

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 11:51 AM

I agree 100% with Alex Garcia. The Village, and the newspapers are a joke. Just give every award, job, starting position on an athletic team, administrative position, politician, police and fire all to minorities and get it over with. by the way, who is committing the majority of the crimes?

Christopher Bell  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 9:32 AM

Agree with @ Alex. Oak PArk is in trouble or at min. going thru a rough patch. The crown jewels of Oak Park, racial equity, quality of school and mixed income housing are all under duress. Ad tough business climate, crime, increased population without infrastructure plan etc. What is missing is the leadership /plan to address issues - And yes, leaving for second time after son graduates ( got into Ivy LEague) and will never return.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 9:17 AM

Six carjackings to start the year. Increasing tax burden. Businesses hightailing it out of town. The village's population in decline. Sure, let's manufacture controversy over the racial complexion the nominees/recipients of meaningless awards.

Christopher Bell  

Posted: February 13th, 2019 8:55 AM

The harsh reality is many people of color have little interest in getting involved or don't want to deal with Oak Park bubble. Any decent or free thinking is met with disdain OR people are pushed out bubble. Many of us are just waiting for kids to finish to leave.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: February 12th, 2019 5:32 PM

A few questions: 1. Who votes for Villager of the Year 2. What is the criteria to be nominated. 3. What is the process to be nominated 4. Who cares? Have we gotten this petty that a meaningless (only 150 attendees demonstrates how meaningless it is) award is now under scrutiny for not being equal? Why is every award now (grammy, oscar, etc. ) being criticized when the outcomes aren't equal? Do we really want equal outcomes? Don't we want disparity? Do we want the Einsteins, Beethhovens,, Baldwins, Hemingways of the world to not stand out and be simply equal? Isn't equal opportunity enough? When institutions attempt to control the outcomes, things go awry. Lastly, why do white people think they have all the answers for non white peoples problems (Ralph Martire, Steve James, Dan Haley, etc. ).

Colin Taylor  

Posted: February 12th, 2019 4:48 PM

So of the dozen or so, how many were white? I'm legitimately curious. Numbers would be helpful when an article makes a broad claim about numbers.

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