When the Diversity Commission of Forest Park first convened in June of 2016, we struggled to develop a unifying platform for what our role was and, more specifically, what role we'd have supporting village government to address issues of diversity.
As laid out in the ordinance establishing a Diversity Commission, we were tasked by village hall with creating awareness, encouraging tolerance, and promoting the understanding and acceptance of all people, including but not limited to, "those who have different racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, abilities, gender, and educational and economic levels."
In our first few meetings, we speculated as to what the larger community might think about diversity in Forest Park. Did members of the community believe our government was doing a good job dealing with diversity issues or not? To provide guidance, I suggested we obtain a diversity "word on the street," similar to the "word on the street" list highlighted in the village of Forest Park's 2014 Comprehensive Plan.
I asked each of the six members at the time (there are now nine) to ask 4-5 of their neighbors what Forest Park is doing well and what it could improve on to better sustain a diverse and inclusive environment. The responses of this small sample size were overwhelmingly positive — several commenting that it is comfortable to live in Forest Park, that Forest Park is welcoming to newcomers, and that there is a good mix of ethnicities and community festivals. The main area for improvement would be to have open conversations about diversity and to hold town hall forums promoting diversity initiatives.
If community members felt Forest Park was doing a good job and that there was not a particularly problematic issue, what then would be the role of the new Diversity Commission?
Recently in various online media, Forest Park's uneven representation of diversity in community events has been questioned. Some individuals pointed out that people of color are not seen at community events — in the displays, music, or background to the event. Other replies contend that it is not the fault of the Forest Park community but that people of color don't show up, don't volunteer, and don't participate.
Perhaps the truth of diversity in Forest Park is more complicated. Perhaps both sides are correct, and this might be where the Diversity Commission can play a role.
In the 2014 Comprehensive Plan, Forest Park's racial diversity was compared to two of its neighbors, Oak Park and River Forest. Of these three, Forest Park has the highest racial diversity with over one-third people of color, while Oak Park has one quarter and River Forest has one fifth.
In comparison to these two neighbors, Forest Park stands out as diverse. Many respondents of our small-scale survey also claimed our village is welcoming. However, just because there is diversity in numbers doesn't necessarily mean that all members, regardless of their background, feel included.
Does this distinction really matter?
Being inclusive goes deeper than just being diverse and takes more work. Being inclusive calls on each of us to embrace new ideas, values, and beliefs and not just adapt to the "way things are." In so doing, we have to let go of our attachment to our pre-existing ideals and embrace opposing points of view.
In Forest Park, inclusion would mean making sure the needs of a broad and diverse spectrum of people are included in the planning, implementation, and presentation of all events — regardless of the degree to which that diversity shows up and volunteers.
Currently, the Diversity Commission is working with village government to pass a Welcoming Village Resolution. This resolution is a public statement of the government promoting an inclusive approach to all residents, regardless of their racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, abilities, gender, or educational and economic levels."
Some members of the community are fearful of the consequences of such a resolution; some are fearful without such a resolution in place. Some members passionately support it while others are just trying to wrap their brains around what it all means. For those of us on the commission, it is one way to build on Forest Park's diversity and search for ways to be more inclusive.
The commission's main goal through all of this is to help the government reassure all members of Forest Park that our government supports and serves all of us. We strongly believe it is only together that we can share in the benefits of diversity in our community and the unique contributions each individual brings.