Lifelong Oak Parker Juanta Griffin has joined the pool of candidates running for the three open trustee spots on the Oak Park village board. Besides Griffin, also announced are social activist Anthony Clark and Trustee Deno Andrews, who is seeking reelection. However, Griffin says she embodies a different side of Oak Park not often represented in village government.
"I'm not rich, I'm not white. I'm not a homeowner. And that's all the reason for me to be there," said Griffin.
Oak Park touts its inclusivity and diversity but that has not always been represented on the village board.
"I felt like the board wasn't a fair representation of Oak Park, that there were people who needed to be at the table, and they weren't at the table, one of them being renters," Griffin said. "I'm a renter. My parents were renters."
As a renter, Griffin believes she has greater insight into issues affecting those who lease their living space than members of the board who own their homes. One of the biggest issues is the affordability of Oak Park.
"When people start talking about taxes and property taxes in Oak Park, as a renter, even I never felt like I was included in the conversation," Griffin said.
She and other renters should "absolutely be included" in those conversations, Griffin believes, as increased property taxes lead to increased rent. Griffin said her rent on a three-bedroom apartment increased by $400 in one year alone.
"They hold renters over a barrel," said Griffin.
To land an affordable housing unit in Oak Park, Griffin said, requires meeting a multitude of qualifications.
"If I could meet all those things, I would buy a house," she said.
Financial barriers also push a lot of people out of Oak Park, according to Griffin. From 2014 to 2018, the median income per Oak Park household was $91,945, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"When you're a person like me making $54,000, it's hard to find housing here," said Griffin.
Both Griffin and her husband, whom she met in the fourth grade at Longfellow Elementary school, have advanced degrees and careers. Griffin serves as the multicultural learning coordinator for the Oak Park Public Library and her husband is a teacher. Even with their combined incomes, Griffin said they don't meet the median income.
"We've gone to college, we have kids, we've done all that we can do that you're supposed to do to realize the American dream," said Griffin. "And the American dream – you can't really find that in Oak Park."
Despite that, Griffin and her family live in Oak Park out of love for the community and the opportunities it affords.
"I'm from here and I love Oak Park," she said.
Her upbringing has influenced her decision to run for trustee. Growing up, Griffin was unable to participate in many of Oak Park's activities because both of her parents worked.
"My father was an immigrant from Thailand. He worked seven days a week," said Griffin. Her mother, who is Black, worked at the currency exchange on Madison Street and Austin Boulevard in Oak Park.
"I wasn't involved in all these extracurricular activities in Oak Park because my parents were working," Griffin said.
Many in Oak Park have had to sacrifice attending events such as "A Day in Our Village" or volunteering at their children's schools because of busy work schedules, so they can afford to live in the village.
"Why aren't the Black people at [Parent Teacher Organization]? They're working, sometimes two jobs," said Griffin.
Griffin wants to bring those perspectives to the board table.
Committed to keeping Oak Park both welcoming and diverse, Griffin has started a number of youth outreach programs, including Kwanzaa celebrations at the library and the "Uniquely You Tea Party" for young African American and biracial girls.
"It's a tea party for girls, ages eight to 11, and we talk about colorism, racism, body image, education, everything," said Griffin. "We emphasize how beautiful they are. We affirm, we do peace circles."
The tea parties affirm the girls' "worthiness and that they're a part of this community."
Griffin has also helped organize Juneteenth celebrations for multiple years in Oak Park with Clark. This year, Griffin read the village proclamation officially acknowledging Juneteenth during a virtual board meeting – an experience she called "remarkable."
As a trustee, Griffin hopes to bring positive changes not only to the village, but to the board table itself.
"I like to practice active listening and having open conversations without insults," she said. "I hope to bring integrity and dignity back to the board. "
And to do so, she's prepared to work as a team player.
"I'm working with anybody who is working with me," she said. "I'm not alienating anyone. I'm not refusing to work with anyone."
Answer Book 2019
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