Forest Parkers are justly proud of the racial diversity in our town, but I witnessed two events earlier this month that made me think we are more segregated than some of us would like to acknowledge. Maybe “segregated” is the wrong word. Maybe, for now, let’s say that the two groups I observed seem to see reality through different lenses.

The first event was the town hall on May 1 at the Eagles Hall, which was put together by three more-or-less ad hoc organizations called Forest Park Town Hall, Forest Park Progressive Citizens, and Suburban Unity Alliance. The second event two days later was the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce annual meeting, held at McAdam Landscaping.

Only two people were in attendance at both events.

What the two groups had in common was affection for Forest Park and language revealing their sincere desire for unity in the village. The participants at both events were also far whiter than the demographics of Forest Park would suggest.

But the differences between the two gatherings were striking. Based on my observation, most of the participants at the town hall tended to:

  •  be under 50 years old
  •  be newer residents
  •  live here but work somewhere else
  •  be skeptical of people in authority
  •  want to change the system
  •  be idealistic
  •  talk as if the glass is half empty
  •  be idea- and statistic-driven
  •  be for an increase in the minimum wage.
  • In contrast, most of those attending the Chamber annual meeting tended to:
  •  be over 50 years old
  •  have been in town (as business people) a long time
  •  work here but don’t live here
  •  respect people in authority, because many of them are in positions of authority
  •  want to make the system work
  •  be realistic
  •  talk as if the glass is half full
  •  be relationship driven
  •  be against an increase in the minimum wage.

The image of a bubble is being used a lot to describe how folks these days tend to gravitate toward people who think like them — birds of a feather flock together and all that goes with it. I think what I witnessed at the two gatherings indicates that, even in a small town, there can be bubbles which insulate people from folks who view world through different lenses.

One of the members of the year-old Diversity Commission, Naoto Hasegawa, made a comment about the dangers of hanging out only with like-minded people and what is possible when people build conversational bridges to the other side. 

“If you have conversations on a person-to-person level,” he said, “I think a lot of preconceived notions and misconceptions would go away.” In one sense, the town hall was what Hasegawa was suggesting. It was a frank, mostly civil conversation.

However, some of the questions at the town hall addressed to Chief Aftanas had an edgy, skeptical tone. The questions expressed concerns that the police in town will be handing over undocumented persons to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials.

If the folks who asked those questions had gone in to the chief’s office before asking what a friend of mine refers to as “micro-aggressive” questions in a public forum, they would have learned that, in the words of Aftanas, “There is a lot of misinformation floating around the village. The Forest Park police are not working with ICE officials and will not be handing undocumented people over to them.”

That’s the way the “Chamber Commerce people” do business — for better/for worse. It’s all about relationships.

The Town Hall group understands, perhaps better than the Chamber group, that operating on the basis of “who you know is more important than what you know” can get you in trouble. One of the questions, the main question really, at the town hall was directed at Mayor Calderone: Why is it taking so long to pass the Welcoming Village resolution? The mayor responded that it is a matter of “wordsmithing.”

In response, Kate Webster, the chair of the Diversity Commission, respectfully but firmly stated that her commission’s concern is not about the wording but about the content of the resolution which the mayor has presented to date, that it dances around the issue and doesn’t clearly say what Rep. Welch’s bill HR426 states to ICE — no warrant, no entry.

To give Calderone his due, when he was first elected mayor in 1999, he was bursting the bubble of another cohort, the remnants of which have all but disappeared. That bubble protected a group that lived in the past and did not understand the necessity of village government being pro-business. To the mayor’s credit, he was one of the key leaders who made the Madison Street renaissance happen.

Now, however, he is one of the Chamber of Commerce people who are living in a business bubble and are satisfied with the unintentional progress Forest Park has made regarding diversity. The Town Hall folks are thankful for the diversity that exists but are saying the Welcoming Resolution glass — and a lot of issues connected with diversity — is half empty, that a Ferguson-like event is still possible, especially if we don’t get more intentional about creating and maintaining social justice for all who live here.

My point is that the diversity glass is, of course, both half full and half empty. Hasegawa’s challenge waits to be responded to by both groups. The Town Hall people need to sit down and have a beer with the Chamber of Commerce folks and listen to the story of how the Madison Street and diversity miracles happened here, and the Chamber people need to pay attention to where the Town Hall folks want to take the village with small-town charm in the future.

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