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'We are the equity statement,' activist says

New equity director confronts skepticism about district vows of progress

August 21st, 2019 10:21 AM

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

During a Committee of the Whole meeting on Aug. 13, LeVar J. Ammons, District 200's new executive director of Equity and Student Success, presented an overview of the district's plan for implementing the racial equity policy that the school board approved in April. 

From August through December, the district will evaluate its current practices through an "equity lens" — the first step in ensuring "that academic and social outcomes [at OPRF High School] can no longer be predictable by race," Ammons explained in an Aug. 13 memo. 

The next day, he saw what the district's decades-long grappling with race and its discontents looks like, raw and unfettered. 

Antoine Ford, the OPRF junior who organized and led a controversial protest march from the high school to the Oak Park police station in February, commanded the stage inside of the Oak Park Public Library's second-floor Veterans Room.  

In the darkened room, as Ammons and roughly a dozen other people looked on, Ford used a series of PowerPoint slides to illustrate the purpose and goals of an organization he recently founded called Black and Brown Street Reinvention.

The organization, Ford said, would unapologetically focus on the growth of people of color by means that may be impolite, irreverent and uncomfortable for many people, especially whites. 

"This campaign is a movement," Ford said during an interview before his presentation, adding that the initiative will be a lot different from any march or affinity group the community has ever seen. 

"This is going to be totally different and more brutal because it's not sugarcoated. It's not meant to make nobody feel comfortable. It's not meant to come to the agreement that it's diverse in Oak Park," he said, before repeating a phrase that would become the day's mantra for him. 

"This group will give black and brown students a chance to express themselves how they need to express themselves without trying to adapt to the climate of what white people consider to be normal," he said. "A lot of people talk about the equity statement and stuff. We are the equity statement." 

After Ford laid out his organization's goals and demands — he plans to put a spotlight on what he said is the routine abuse of black and brown young people by Oak Park police, he wants the D200 administration to recognize Black and Brown as an official club and provide it with a faculty sponsor, and he wants the Oak Park Public Library to build a free recording studio for young people, among other things — the student-activist gave the floor over to a panel that included local young people, parents and OPRF teacher and activist Anthony Clark. 

Black OPRF students spoke of feelings of inadequacy; a black mother spoke about the terror her 11-year-old son felt during a routine traffic stop by Oak Park police; and Clark spoke about the revolving door of black leaders who are designated to prop up the fanciful myth of diversity — not to fundamentally change what many attendees described as two different communities: one for whites and one for people of color. 

At times, the feedback from panelists and young people in the audience sounded like an indictment of the change-from-within status quo from which administrators like Ammons and bureaucratic measures like the district's equity policy emanate. 

"Oak Park is built on falsehoods," Clark said. "This is a community where we bring in individuals under the guise of social change, but we don't have too many people who are willing to rock the boat." 

"A lot of people feel like [the equity policy] is just paper," Ford said. "A lot of people feel like they can write some words on paper and they've done their job." 

Cynthia Brito, the coordinator of the Social Justice Club at Julian Middle School, said that, often, policies and laws are embedded in systems that prioritize comfort for whites over mitigating pain suffered by black and brown people. 

"If high school students are going to organize around an issue, what I don't want to see happen is for them to say, 'We need this to change and this is harmful to folks right now,' and for folks to say, 'Well hold on, if the policy is going to be implemented you need to wait six months to a year to feel the change.' That can't happen because that is racist." 

Ammons said he understands that leadership behind racial equity work "has to be authentic, it has to be real," adding that "we can't suppress who we are in this work." He also "challenged" Ford to join OPRF's student leadership group, a request that Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams also made earlier this year. 

"I've always had to go through life understanding that if you don't have a place at the table, you're probably going to be on the menu," Ammons told Ford. "You're already in the political process. In navigating that process, ensure your voice is truly heard in places where decisions are being made."  

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com