Forest Parkers may have seen Nick Ardinger walking around town wearing a kilt. That fashion choice, Ardinger said, is partly because of his Scots-Irish heritage, partly because kilts are comfortable and partly because he was bored at work one day, looked kilts up online, found one on sale and thought wearing one would be fun.

“Wearing a kilt,” Ardinger said, “challenges some of your assumptions. People try to figure out which box this goes in: the Scottish box or the punk box or the cross-dressing box.”

Many Forest Parkers call Ardinger a local “activist.” That reputation isn’t off base. He serves on the village’s Diversity Commission and has been involved in local issues before, including advocating for the recently passed welcoming resolution and canvassing for 209 Together candidates in the April school board election. 

But he prefers the label “engaged citizen.” 

“I see an ‘activist’ more as somebody who is trying to draw out people who are not currently engaged and build coalitions,” Ardinger said. “I see myself as more of a participant in those movements. I am a willing volunteer for activists.”

His wife, for example, was one of the people who started Forest Park’s community garden on Harlem Avenue in the shadow of the Eisenhower Expressway. 

“When they started the community garden,” he recalled, “they asked me if I would move some dirt for them in my truck and I answered ‘sure.’ I naturally gravitate to that level of engagement.”

Another example was his involvement in 209 Together. He doesn’t see his canvassing for Ned Wagner and Claudia Medina in the context of partisan politics as much as coming together as a community around a shared interest and being a “foot soldier” for the activists.

“I see myself as just a citizen,” he said. “I think a lot of the problem is that the notion of citizenship has been degraded to simply voting. The baseline of citizenship isn’t just voting but being aware, learning about what is going on.”

Proviso schools, Ardinger said, suffered from lack of attention from community members. That needs to change, he said. 

Another label, “intellectual,” also describes Ardinger. He has a PhD from the University of Illinois Chicago. His 2012 dissertation wrestled with the question, “How do narratives compete to gain power?” 

By narratives he means “the stories we tell ourselves about how the world is made up” and how those stories or narratives “shape our ability to understand the world.” 

Ardinger points to the narrative of the “hopeless” Proviso high schools in the last several decades. But engaged citizens, particularly the Brown Cow 20 and the Proviso Together movement, changed that narrative. 

Another example could be the recent spat over Cook County’s new minimum wage ordinance and the split between workers wanting better compensation and business owners wanting to stay afloat in a competitive environment. 

The two sides, Ardinger said, were telling separate stories as the village council debated whether to opt out of the county ordinance. 

“I think the Chamber’s narrative or vision has worked,” he said, “because that’s one of the things that drew my wife and me   to Forest Park — the Brown Cow and Schauer’s Hardware. We like strolling up and down Madison Street. It’s not a car-based community.

“But that isn’t the only story that should be told to the exclusion of other stories. There are other competing narratives, which those in power too often experience as threats. They ask, ‘Why are you trying to disrupt things?’ Anything that doesn’t fit the dominant narrative needs to be pushed out.”

Instead of a zero-sum, winner and loser narrative, Ardinger argues for broadening the story to answer the question, “How do we treat workers well and how do we support small businesses to enable them to pay this wage?” 

Ardinger’s parents shaped his liberal world view. They had “a healthy skepticism toward authority” and believed that being well-informed was part of the duties of citizenship. They usually had the radio tuned to NPR. In the Ardinger family, being vocal was encouraged. 

“I remember during the Carter-Reagan election [1980] arguing with my 9-year-old friend whether Reagan would be good for America or not,” Ardinger recalled. “I always had that presumption that I should pay attention to these things and that they matter.”

He wore a pony tail in high school and in 1989 enrolled in what he called a “hippy school” called the Johnston Center for Integrated Studies at the University of Redlands in California, where students designed their own curricula and classes would be called off when there was a Grateful Dead concert in nearby Los Angeles.

“The amazing thing about Johnston,” Ardinger recalled, “is that you could believe whatever you wanted to believe as long as you were prepared to defend it. It made you both very good at arguing and strong in your beliefs because you came to them by having to defend them. I think that shaped a lot of how I approach problems today.”

While in college, he volunteered to be a clinic escort, helping women access to health clinics that were being picketed by Operation Rescue. He was even arrested and jailed for four hours for blockading a federal building while protesting the right wing death squads in El Salvador.

Knowing the narrative he has for his own life, therefore, helps people understand his final reason for wearing a kilt: 

“It’s a little bit of playing with identity,” he said. “I like the fact that it disrupts traditional narratives. I like to keep the narrative off balance because that forces you to try to incorporate or make sense out of new ideas.”