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In heated debate, Oak Park adopts diversity statement

Vote is unanimous on substantially updated statement

October 8th, 2019 1:46 PM

By Stacey Sheridan

Staff Reporter

Oak Park Village Board members have been at odds since April over what has traditionally been the ritual post-election re-adoption of the village's diversity statement. Finally, Monday night, after a discussion laden with racially charged dramatics and contention among trustees, the board unanimously approved a new version of the statement which had been crafted by the Community Relations Committee (CRC). 

Disagreements over the diversity statement started before the new language was even introduced. Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb suggested, in the interest of time, addressing the diversity statement discussion at a later meeting, as 10 p.m. was quickly approaching. At this, Trustee Arti Peddakotla-Walker let out a loud laugh. 

 "People have been waiting here for the entire meeting" to discuss the diversity agenda, Peddakotla-Walker said. "Maybe we should have moved it to the beginning of the agenda, but we purposefully put it at the end."

The meeting continued with an intense discussion of semantics related to previous concerns from Trustee Dan Moroney and Trustee Deno Andrews over use of the term "systems of oppression." That discussion led to an intense outburst by Trustee Susan Buchanan who questioned why white male trustees were offering opinions on the wording of the diversity statement.

"I am so tired of hearing two white men tell us what systems of oppression are!" said Buchanan to applause from the audience. "For Christ's sake, no! You don't know what systems of oppression are; you haven't been oppressed," she said. "This is like if you guys wanted to tell us what it's like to have a menstrual cycle. You don't know what you're talking about."

She added, "You have not spent a day with dark brown skin and tried to walk through this society. From birth, you have been white. Why are you arguing what is a system of oppression? You've never experienced one, so shut up!"

Buchanan went on to tell Andrews and Moroney that they are not oppressed, but others in Oak Park are. 

"This mayor and this board are obviously not willing to face history," she said. "It is time for this community to face equity."

To Andrews, Buchanan said, "You stop it. You are a white male!" 

When the mayor, a native of Palestine, tried to intervene, Buchanan told him, "Your skin is white enough!"

Moroney responded saying that when it comes down to elected white males being told they can't have an opinion "that we're not doing this right."

In the earlier discussion over language in the statement, Andrews said overall, he "loved" the CRC diversity statement, but wanted to edit one sentence prior to adoption.

"My only real proposal is to change the second sentence in the second paragraph," he said. That sentence reads, "By embracing equity, with an explicit but not exclusive focus on racial equity, we work to break down systems of oppression and achieve a society where race no longer determines one's outcomes; where everyone has what they need to thrive."

Andrews proposed to clarify the language "break down systems of oppression." He suggested replacing that sentence with, "By embracing equity with an explicit, but not exclusive focus on racial equity, we work to eliminate racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia and all other forms of hate."

Trustee Simone Boutet did not agree with Andrews idea to take out "systems of oppression" and supported the CRC statement completely. 

In lieu of using "systems of oppression", Moroney suggested using the term's definition. Moroney was concerned the police department was being construed as a system of oppression. 

Peddakotla-Walker then suggested that, due to the late hour, people weren't using their best judgment.  

With a laugh, Buchanan asked her, "Are you the even keeled one now?"

The board finally agreed to add language to clarify the meaning of "systems of oppression." Boutet asked that the word bias be added to the sentence related to eliminating hate. 

The board then voted quickly and unanimously to accept the CRC version of the diversity statement.

In a public comment prior to the board discussion, Cate Readling, community outreach coordinator at the Park District of Oak Park, told the board she was speaking in support of the CRC version of the diversity statement. "It was the only version created by a diverse group of people," Readling said. 

According to Readling, the CRC used a multi-step process that included input from the community and racial equity experts to develop its version. 

John Duffy, chairperson of the Committee for Equity & Excellence in Education, said the village board had fallen behind in promoting equity. "The schools have taken over that role," he said. "They haven't hired experts; they've gone to the community." 

According to Duffy, Oak Park schools have implemented racial equity policies and procedures. "It's time for this board to move," he said. "You're behind the times."

He urged the board to adopt the revised CRC diversity statement. He called two issues the board addressed earlier in the meeting – trick-or-treating hours and teenage e-cigarette usage – "painful."

"Racializing trick-or-treating! Running the black kids back to the West Side, that's what that's all about," Duffy said. "It upsets me."

Duffy also said that, while the intentions behind giving citations to children for smoking to prevent addiction are good, the history behind it is completely racialized. 

"It's at the heart of inequity, the criminal justice system," he said. Racial equity is all about examining the impact decisions have on other people, which Duffy said, the schools are doing, and the village board needs to follow suit. 

CONTACT: stacey@oakpark.com