If you look at a picture of the District 91 school board, you’ll notice that there is only one person of color among the seven board members.
For that reason, some Forest Parkers criticize the board for not representing the demographics of our village, for not being diverse enough. Five women — four of whom are currently board members and one who is running unopposed in the April 4 election, sat down with the Review to explain that you can’t always tell a diversity book by its cover.
Shannon Wood, for example, is white but her husband is biracial and so are her two children.
“I haven’t ever noticed that people think a biracial family is not normal,” she began, “but my husband has.”
Then she added, “Early on when we were dating, we had some family members say you can date but you can’t get married. And then they said we could get married but we couldn’t have children. They’re no longer a big part of my life because I don’t have time for closed minds.
“Some people don’t like other people because of the way they look, which is unfortunate because if you look past the cover of the book and you get to know somebody, you might be missing a great friend or learn a lot from them.”
Likewise, Kim Rostello looks like an ordinary middle-aged, white, professional woman — until she tells you she is a lesbian raising two black children.
“I work hard with my kids,” she said, “to help them really understand who they are as black people in a majority white society. I want to make sure that they get the experiences that allow them be part of both the black culture and white culture because that’s how they’re growing up. They need to be able to navigate through both those cultures. And then they have a white mom who’s a lesbian, which adds another piece to the puzzle.”
Acknowledging that she is able to “pass” in a straight, white society, she said, “I don’t go up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, I’m a lesbian.’ I define myself as me. I’m an interfaith minister and a parent of two wonderful children. I’ve been in a relationship for 29 years, but it’s only been in the last five years that we’ve been able to get married. I’ve come through a long, hard process of what the society thinks about folks who are gay.”
Kyra Tyler said, “I probably represent what people, at first glance, think of in terms of diversity. I would still say that I am a black American, but with the recent world events I think my role is to be more of an educated, black female, married to a white man, who is raising a biracial daughter. I see myself as being defined by a lot more than my facial features. I’m a mother, wife, daughter, sister and Forest Parker.”
Tyler noted she is different from other people more in how she views the world than the color of her skin. “It’s almost not racial toward me anymore,” she explained, “but it’s class level and education. My grandparents and parents went to college and so have I. That is where I have felt the difference.”
When she encounters “difference,” she often feels it’s on her to bridge the gap, to make the first step toward understanding, and she takes that task seriously.
“Do I have a bubble mentality?” she asked. “No. I check in on Fox News and the Breitbart News Network. I’m insulted by the words I’m reading and hearing, but I think it is important to recognize what other people’s versions of reality are, and I’m not so caught up in myself to think I know everything. I may disagree, but people have a right to their version of the truth. We need to understand. We need to empathize.”
Mary Connor, who has been on the D91 school board for 10 years and is currently its president, looks like the Irish Catholic girl from River Forest that she is.
“I’m one of the few pure-breds left,” she joked. “I am genetically Irish all the way back on both sides.”
“My diversity,” she continued, “is due to the fact that my marriage fell apart when my daughter was 3 months old. I had no job and no money. I struggled financially. I struggled with getting help taking care of my child. There were times when I worked seven days a week to pay the bills. I know how that life goes. It’s been 20 years and I’ve never forgotten those days.
“Because of that experience, I feel for the women who don’t have the time to sit down and help their children with their homework or have the time to go to the PTA or be a room mom. Some of them don’t even get to go to their children’s games because they are working. I understand that, and I don’t hold anything against them because of that.”
Similarly, Christina Ricordati is white, is married to a white man, has a white child and another one on the way, grew up in Elmhurst and has had a life which more closely fits the American mainstream.
“I had grown up absolutely in a bubble,” she said, “and I think that has made me want to expose my kids to a more diverse environment.”
Her claim to diversity is that she is a lot younger than everyone else on the D91 board. “People on boards like this one tend to be older,” she explained. “I bring age diversity since I’m younger than the other board members by a decade. I represent a demographic that is very prevalent in Forest Park but which hasn’t always had representation on boards.”
The fact that her family rents, she added, makes her a part of a demographic in town that might not always have a voice commensurate with its size. “One of the things in this community that is important regarding diversity,” she said, “is owning a home vs. renting. In Forest Park, 50% of the residents rent the space where they are living and their representation on boards and commissions is a lot less than half. I think there is a perception that the only people who rent in Forest Park are young people who stay for a year or two and then move on, but I don’t think that’s actually true. Part of my concern is to represent renters as well as home owners.”
Wood thinks that the growing edge in our society in terms of diversity might be religious affiliation. “When I pick up my older daughter from Grant-White,” she explained, “I see three women who wear a hijab. They generally keep a low profile. It seems that they feel on guard. That makes me feel bad because they sit together in their own little group. I can’t imagine what that feels like because visually they are wearing something that separates them.”
Mary Connor described the three men on the board, who were not present for the interview, this way: “Rafael Rosa grew up in Kentucky but is of Central American heritage. Blake Harvey is Caucasian, but he and his wife have two Korean sons they adopted as infants.”
She jokingly called her husband, Eric Connor, a “boring white guy” who grew up in the Beverley neighborhood in Chicago and went to all Catholic schools until he attended law school.
Come to think of it, though, that makes him just as much a minority as everyone else on the board.
Tom Holmes, in addition to writing regularly for the Forest Park Review, is a member of the Forest Park Diversity Commission.