Project Unity's place in our diversity story

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Project Unity officially ended on March 8. Two dozen Oak Parkers of color and those who fall into the ethnic catch basin known as "white," gathered in the social hall at Euclid Avenue Methodist Church (the one with the large banner outside proclaiming that "Jesus Was Radically Inclusive") to celebrate, reconnect and come to closure.

The "project" will never really end, of course, but its beginning dates back 28 years to 1992 when the Longfellow School Parent-Ed Committee met to discuss a disturbing trend. Most of these parents were either in interracial marriages, had adopted children of another race, or both. They were concerned, as their kids wound their way through the school system, that they might not fit in with kids of either race. They and other interested parents had moved to Oak Park specifically because of its reputation for openness and diversity. They wanted their children to benefit from that diversity, not be hampered by it.

The perceived problem was that, while students of different races mixed pretty well in elementary school, they started to separate in middle school and high school. The committee held a forum and asked students to talk about the issue. The kids didn't really see a problem, but if it was, they pointed out, their parents weren't exactly setting an example of interracial interaction.

Becoming better role models, then, was the motivation behind Project Unity, which formed in 1993 and peaked with a membership of 130 households (235 adults). Consciousness-raising was certainly a priority. Book groups formed and evolved into discussion groups. Some lasted two decades. But the driving force was socializing, getting to know one another — and above all having fun. Dances and potluck dinners brought us together.

"Project Unity was about fostering friendship among people of different races," said Pat Winters, who chaired the social committee. Improving communication through cross-racial dancing is another way of putting it.

And it worked. Friendships formed, which continue to this day. But as with many social organizations, Project Unity didn't attract young couples to whom the torch could be passed. Energy waned, kids grew up and nests emptied. 

To truly measure Project Unity's success, someone would need to ask our kids. Did our modeling have a lasting impact? Those kids grew up in a country that became increasingly fragmented and polarized. Racial tension is even more of an issue now than it was then. We need a national "Project Unity" and not just for black-white relations. We are a much more diverse country (and village) but much less unified. The U.S.A. has become the Uneasy Silos of America. Not enough communication, not enough interaction.

Not enough dancing. 

At our final get-together, members shared reflections. "It built community for me," said co-founder Karin Grimes. Her bi-racial daughter eventually wrote her college admission essay about what it meant to grow up in Oak Park. Karin is now a member of the village's Community Relations Commission and runs the potluck dinner program, continuing one of Project Unity's most successful activities.

Co-founder Cheryl Capps said she came to Oak Park from Pittsburgh to "interface with other kinds of people. Project Unity was that bridge for us." When asked if it shifted the conversation within her family, Cheryl noted that her daughter would probably say it didn't make a difference, "but she lived it. She didn't know any different. In college, she had to say whether she was white or black. She doesn't feel different here."

Pat Healey was taking a class called "Race Relations" at the University of Chicago when she heard about Project Unity. She started attending so she could write a paper for that class. Her Project Unity discussion group was still meeting as of 2010. At the time, she wrote, "We have examined our racial, religious, gender, ethnic and political views. We have challenged one another. In doing so, we have sometimes surprised ourselves with our deeply-imbedded stereotypes. We have celebrated and mourned together. We are friends."

And her son is currently teaching a diversity class in Evanston.

Yasmin Ranney said, "Project Unity was moms and dads. There was no other agenda. It was free-flowing, evolving organically. It helped build community without intending to." Steve Ranney added, "Our kids were accepted here. Thanks for everything."

Carl Spight was thankful for the "intensity and intentionality" of Project Unity's annual Kwanzaa celebration. "You guys pulled me in. I miss it." 

My involvement started when I showed up at the first public meeting in December 1992, partly because I had a son at Longfellow and partly because I hoped to get a column out of it.

Until that time, I talked a good line about the importance of racial diversity and Oak Park's history of promoting it, but it was all talk. Project Unity provided opportunities to walk that talk. I needed the structure and my interactions expanded my comfort zone dramatically.

In 2014, when Michael Brown was killed, and Ferguson, Missouri erupted — followed by the Black Lives Matter movement — like too many white progressives, I was shocked and devastated. It was a rude awakening and widened my comfort zone by another order of magnitude. At first I was discouraged as I discovered my unconscious biases and acknowledged my own shortfalls.

But I didn't get defensive. And I didn't wallow in white fragility while watching Steve James' wonderful docu-series, America to Me. Thankful for the wake-up and the humbling, I credit Project Unity with laying the groundwork that made it possible. 

Joining this group was one of the best things I've ever done. Though most Oak Parkers have probably never heard of it, Project Unity was a chapter in our evolving sense of community that should never be forgotten.

And maybe, just maybe, our current crop of Oak Park parents will consider starting their own version — Project Unity 2.0.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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