A civic ritual for the Oak Park story

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

'The greatest need is for collective rituals," wrote the New York Times' David Brooks in a column last week. Not the religious kind. Plenty of those. Not the personal kind either. 

"A public civic compact, publicly sworn to, involving all," he says, "would allow towns to do a lot of things. It would be an occasion to redraw the boundary of the community and thereby include those who have been marginalized. It could be done on a spot that would become sacred, become the beating heart of the community." 

It would be an occasion to "tell a new version of the town's story," which is important because "a community is a group of people who share a common story."

Since 1964, our story has been about commitment to stable diversity. First it was racial diversity, which led to the historic Fair Housing Ordinance in 1968. It's a great story — about overcoming fear, resisting resegregation — and the story has broadened as we struggled to become more and more inclusive, embracing the LGBTQ community in the 1990s, and, more recently, declaring ourselves a "sanctuary community" for immigrants. 

And now we're attempting to take diversity to the next level: equity. School districts 97 and 200 recently passed bold, historic, educational equity policies — declaring their determination to conquer the longstanding challenge of eliminating institutional racism from our schools and ensuring real opportunity for all.

But passing a policy is not enough. As Brooks puts it, we need ritual.

"It would be an occasion," he says, "for people to make promises toward one another — specific ways they are going to use their gifts to solve the common challenge. Towns are built when people make promises to one another, hold one another accountable, and sacrifice together through repeated interaction toward a common end."

The new policies commit the elementary and high schools to taking specific steps to achieve educational equity, but what about the rest of us? Shouldn't we also make a public commitment? What would that look like? Where would it take place?

I can think of only one civic ritual in Oak Park.

Every two years after the municipal election, the new village of Oak Park Board of Trustees votes to re-affirm Oak Park's commitment to diversity. The Diversity Statement was composed in 1973 and revised in the 1990s, incorporating language used in the famous 1964 newspaper ad titled, "The Right of All People to Live Where They Choose," a turning point in village history, as hundreds of Oak Park (and River Forest) residents put their names on a public commitment to the principle of fair housing for all and taking a firm stand against white flight. The Diversity Statement is as close to a foundational document as we have, a creed stating our core village values. 

Here is a condensed version of the wording:

 

The people of Oak Park choose this community, not just as a place to live, but as a way of life. Oak Park has committed itself to equality not only because it is legal, but because it is right; not only because equality is ethical, but because it is desirable for us and for our children. 

Ours is a dynamic community that encourages the contributions of all citizens, regardless of race, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion, economic status, political affiliation, or any of the other distinguishing characteristics that too often divide people in society.

Creating a mutually respectful, multicultural environment does not happen on its own; it must be intentional. Our goal is for people of widely differing backgrounds to do more than live next to one another.

A free, open and inclusive community is achieved through full and broad participation of all its citizens. We believe the best decisions are made when everyone is represented in decision-making and power is shared collectively.

We reject the notion of race as a barrier dividing us, and we reject prejudicial behavior toward any group of people. We believe residency in this village should be open to anyone interested in sharing our benefits and responsibilities. We believe that mutual understanding among individuals of diverse backgrounds can best be attained with an attitude of reciprocal good will and increased association. 

The village of Oak Park commits itself to a future of ensuring equal access, full participation in the village's institutions and programs, and equality of opportunity in all village operating policies. The success of this endeavor prepares us to live and work in the 21st century.

It is our intention that such principles will be a basis for policy and decision-making in Oak Park. The President and Board of Trustees of the village of Oak Park reaffirm their dedication and commitment to these precepts.

 

The equity policies of districts 97 and 200 could adapt this wording and perhaps include it as a preamble to their policy statements because these new policies represent a continuation and expansion of Oak Park's story. 

But what about ritual? Voting on the Village Diversity Statement every two years doesn't really qualify because hardly anyone attends. We need a public setting that includes an annual reading of our creed, reaffirming our commitment to diversity and equity. 

I can think of two settings: 

1) For the schools, the EthnicFest Parade on the first Saturday of May. 

2) For Oak Park as a whole, A Day in Our Village, the first Sunday of June. 

School board members and administrators from each district could take turns reading parts of the Educational Equity Statement before the parade begins — or after it ends. 

The Village Diversity Statement, on the other hand, could be read onstage in Scoville Park during A Day in Our Village, by the village president and trustees, along with those from the many organizations on hand each year — OPALGA, APPLE, PASO, the Community of Congregations, the Board of Realtors, and the Business and Civic Council, just to name a few. Music could provide the soundtrack, with clips from "America to Me" (edited by Steve James) shown on a large screen behind the stage as a lead-in to get everyone's attention — because attention is essential. A friend even suggested distributing T-shirts with the slogan "Oak Park Lives It!"

If David Brooks is right, telling our story once a year in the "beating heart" of our community would be one way to remind ourselves of the aspirations that bind us to one another.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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