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Controversy over diversity statement continues

Trio of trustees introduce alternative language to commission proposal

May 21st, 2019 4:13 PM

By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

The battle over Oak Park's diversity statement continued at Monday night's village board meeting after an alternative diversity statement surfaced, reworking the language recently submitted by the Community Relations Commission (CRC).

The topic became an issue two weeks ago, when members of the citizen-led CRC brought a revamped diversity statement to the board for approval at the first meeting of the newly elected board of trustees.

At that meeting, typically featuring the ceremonial swearing in of the new trustees and accolades for outgoing elected officials, trustees approved a diversity statement that was first written in 1973 and has been updated a handful of times over the years.

Trustees argued on May 6 that a revamped diversity statement was sprung on the board and public at the last minute, and they directed proponents of the new language to hold a meeting, inviting the public to reconsider the language – the logic being that it would be more transparent and inclusive.

CRC returned May 20 with new language, but were themselves surprised by the introduction of a competing diversity statement from trustees Dan Moroney, Deno Andrews and Simone Boutet.

The alternative language suggested by board members removed the parts of the suggested CRC diversity statement, including the words "intersectionality," "power" and the phrase "breaking down systems of oppression."

Newly elected Trustee Arti Walker-Peddakotla, who has spearheaded the effort to approve the CRC version, called the meeting "a giant mess" and the reworked language "infuriating."

She said that if the new language makes trustees uncomfortable that "comfort comes at the expense of our freedom."

Walker-Peddakotla added that "three white people creating their own diversity statement" illustrates a "complete lack of awareness" when it comes to equity and diversity.

"It's clear you're not listening to what the community wants," she said.

Multiple members of the CRC and those who attended its meeting to craft the language last week testified in favor of the CRC's proposed language.

Cheree Moore, a CRC member recently elected to the District 97 elementary school board, said nearly 30 people attended the commission's meeting last week to provide feedback on the proposed language, adding that she and others were surprised that a competing diversity statement surfaced.

"I don't even know the genesis of the statement," she said.

Resident John Duffy characterized the CRC meeting as a democratic process that was "respectful" and "productive."

He said the competing diversity statement "violates the whole spirit of the diversity statement."

Trustee Deno Andrews, who helped craft the competing statement, said constituents he has spoken with had issues with the phrase "breaking down systems of oppression" in the CRC's proposed language.

"Words mean different things to different people," he said. "A lot of constituents I've spoken to have no idea what this means."

Trustee Dan Moroney said some voices have been silenced out of fear that members of the commission will label them as racist if they oppose the proposed CRC language.

"A large part of this community feels that way and don't bring a voice to the table for fear of being silenced," he said.

Moroney added that the category of "political perspective" was removed from the CRC's proposed language and should be put back in.

Oak Park Mayor Anan Abu-Taleb took a stern position, saying that the leaders of the community have an obligation to hear all voices and "not shame one another and make one more righteous than the other."

Abu-Taleb, who immigrated to the United States from Palestine at the age of 19, said he has been discriminated against his entire life.

"If you want to talk about oppression, I can talk about oppression to you; to this day my family is profiled against," he said.

He called out Walker-Peddakotla by name, urging her to "stop the negative attacks" on board members with whom she disagrees.

"It is our obligation to listen to everyone and have … [a] much more respectful dialogue," he said.

The issue was tabled by a unanimous vote of the board but is expected to be revisited at a future date.

tim@oakpark.com