Park District of Oak Park to adopt equity policy

Initiative expected to be passed by commissioners on Nov. 21

November 12th, 2019 2:04 PM

By Igor Studenkov

Contributing Reporter

For the past few months, the Park District of Oak Park's social equity committee has been working to develop a social equity policy that aims to increase diversity of residents using park district programs and its own staff, give all residents input on the decisions, pay special attention to unintended consequences of policy decisions and regularly ensure that what the park district is doing is effective.  

The policy officially was presented to the park district's board of commissioners during their Nov. 7 committee of the whole meeting. The board is expected to give it a final approval during its Nov. 21 meeting. 

According a memo to the board, the social equity committee was created earlier this year as part of the implementation of the park district's 2019-21 Strategic Plan. It is made up of 11 full-time and part-time staff members and Executive Director Jan Arnold.  

As the committee member and park district finance manager Illiana De La Rosa explained to the board, for the past seven months, they learned what equity and inclusion means, and talked about where the park district is already doing a good job and where it can improve. Then, it used the template provided by the National Recreation and Park Association to create a policy. 

The equity policy itself touches on several areas. It states that all staff members will get extensive training "using evidence-based content."

"Training will be comprehensive (covers multiple topics), based on credible research and delivered by qualified personnel," the policy states. "All new staff members will be quickly oriented to inclusive policies and practices. Trainings to be provided by WSSRA, Thrive, Oak Park Township and others as identified."

Another major area is "organizational support" -- taking steps to ensure that all staff members and residents feel welcome and that all of their needs are accommodated. A major part is trying to anticipate unintended consequences "to ensure that they do not limit participation or cause worse outcomes based on ability, race or ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender, socioeconomic level, religion or country of origin." 

Other major aspects include "developing an advisory group and/or community network of groups that support inclusive behaviors in the community" and looking at the park district hiring practices to ensure that "staff is representative of the diverse community and is an equal-opportunity employer."

The policy also explains that the park district will monitor the effectiveness of implementing the policy by getting feedback from staff and the community through meetings, surveys and outreach events. 

Among other things, the park district would specifically look at minority populations and people with disabilities "engaged in programing, utilizing facilities and taking part in future planning conversations," whether all residents saw improvements in physical and mental health and whether the staff had adequate time to work toward the policy goals and objectives.

De La Rosa emphasized that the policy isn't meant to be the final word on the matter, because the park district must always try to learn from its mistakes and do better. But it was, she said, a positive step forward.

"It sets expectations, and also serves as a way to hold ourselves accountable, and it supports the long-term change," she said. 

Commissioner Jake Worley-Hood, who made equity a major part of his election platform, said he was happy with the policy, especially with the fact that it didn't presume to have all the answers.

"It's embarking on the path [where] we'll be learning along the way, and we're charting the course," he said. "This is what a systemic change looks like. It's exciting. It's amazing."

Board President Sandy Lentz agreed, adding that she appreciated the language regarding unintended consequences.

Arnold also noted that, because the park district reviews its policies every year, there will be regular opportunities to make changes if something doesn't work.

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