By Nona Tepper
A controversial statement made by Mayor Anthony Calderone on social media — which many interpreted as insulting to the #MeToo movement — has some questioning his commitment to inclusivity in Forest Park. In the nearly three years since the village's diversity committee was formed, the group's head said Calderone has never asked for advice on #MeToo — or any other matter — and has often ignored the group's suggestions.
The #MeToo movement started in 2006, as a way to help survivors of sexual violence — particularly low-income women of color — find support, resources and a community. A decade later, the movement has received international recognition, particularly in late 2017 after several actresses accused media mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment. Actress Alyssa Milano — who accused Weinstein — encouraged those who have been victims of sexual assault to tweet their experience or solidarity with the hashtag #MeToo in October 2017. Several celebrities have since embraced the movement, and #MeToo has led to important conversations about male privilege and power across the world. The discussion has now found its way to Forest Park.
On Dec. 25, Calderone posted on Facebook, "The drones started an It Too movement" with a laughing emoji, in response to a question about whether recreational drones can be used in town. Calderone later commented that he was referring to the movie It, which is about a killer clown.
His Facebook comments struck resident Katherine Andersen Rialmo as "ignorant," and she said she did a double-take when she first saw them, to make sure that she wasn't misinterpreting what Calderone was saying. "It was just so blatantly obvious that #MeToo was what he was referencing," she said in a phone interview. As a victim of sexual assault who is now raising a daughter, Andersen Rialmo said she wants to set an example for her child, speak up for a movement she believes in and advocate for other survivors.
"This is absolutely disgusting and insanely disrespectful to those affected by the Me Too movement, including myself," she posted in reply to Calderone's comment on Facebook. "I expect more from those who hold public office in our town, especially the mayor. You need to publicly apologize for your insulting comments."
After she posted her comment, Andersen Rialmo said she received several messages to her personal and business social media pages, calling her "crazy," a "drama queen," and saying that "she needed to get laid." She said she reported the comments to Facebook and the internet company has deleted them. In addition to Calderone's offensive comments, she said his complete denial of her feelings — and those of other residents who were offended by his post — upset her. Andersen Rialmo believes this could have been a "teaching moment for Calderone," and he should have apologized to those whose feelings he upset.
"He's not going to be re-elected, he's not running again, so that's awesome. I would just hope that whoever's coming in [should] just give a little bit of respect to the people who have been through this," Andersen Rialmo said.
"I feel like in Forest Park there's a pretty hard political divide, with the more liberal Democrats and the very conservative Republicans," she added. "There's not a whole lot of middle ground here. There's bound to be disagreements; often that can happen in a respectful way. Because #MeToo affects me so greatly, I'm not going to ignore it because if nobody else says anything, he's going to think that's OK, and it's going to happen again and again."
In an email to the Forest Park Review on Dec. 27, Calderone said: "I would never, ever make fun of the MeToo movement; to even insinuate such a thing is simply absurd."
This is not the first time Calderone has gotten in hot water over cultural insensitivity. In November 2014, Calderone attempted to pass the now-infamous "saggy pants" ordinance, which would have criminalized those whose pants drooped below the waistline. He faced local and regional pushback over the issue, with many saying he was advocating racial profiling. As a reaction, he promised to form a diversity commission in the village. After two years of waiting, the commission was finally formed, with resident Kate Webster appointed as its chairperson. Webster serves as director of student diversity and multicultural affairs at Rush University Medical Center.
She was not surprised by Calderone's comment about the #MeToo movement, noting that it was reflective of a larger issue Forest Park has with diversity and that change is needed to make the village more inclusive.
"You have to know as a political official there's going to be a lot of eyes on your comments," Webster said, "and to specifically use something that has had so much of positive impact to empower women, it's almost beyond poor taste. It's incredibly dismissive.
"I think it's reflective of a larger problem Forest Park has, of feeling like it's either one thing or another, Christian or not, old-school working class or not, which came up with the video gaming. It's incredibly binary, very, very outdated in the whole world of diversity and inclusion. You just can't roll like that anymore; too many people have too many intersecting identities."
Webster said if she were an elected official, she would quickly reply to those hurt and apologize, clarifying that she didn't mean to offend and try to learn more about the movement. She wasn't surprised when Andersen Rialmo was instead personally and professionally attacked for pointing out Calderone's insensitivity.
"It's easier for them to blast her as an evil person than to potentially believe that Calderone is an insensitive person who doesn't care about women who are victimized and harassed, which his comment could say," she said.
"To the person who says, 'I'm walking on eggshells, everyone's too politically correct,' it's our job to be educated about the issues and to be curious and to ask questions. To be open."
When the diversity commission was created, Webster said, she was charged with serving as a voice for the community, advising the mayor and village council and helping craft policies related to inclusivity. But Calderone has "never reached out to me in my whole three years in office, never."
In addition to a lack of use — "there's no guidance as to what type of programming or events. My wife works on the plan commission; they have a set agenda in reaction to things that come up. There's never any prescription for things coming forward," Webster said — Calderone also recently appointed two additional members to the commission without asking her, increasing the number of members to nine.
"It made it much more difficult for us to have quorum," she said. "There's no discussion with me about who those two individuals are, what direction are you going in, what gaps do you see, do you want to expand to nine people. It was just, 'Here, you have two new members.'"
Without a quorum — which is the minimum number of members necessary at any meeting to make the proceedings of that meeting valid — the diversity commission cannot enact any ideas discussed.
Recently, the group recommended to Calderone that the digital sign outside the Howard Mohr Community Center read, "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," since "it's a privilege I get my holiday off from work," Webster said. "Nobody wishes Happy Diwali or Kwanzaa. Happy holidays is a start of being aware of the other holidays. It's not a religious thing; it's about inclusion."
Calderone ignored their recommendation and had "Merry Christmas" posted on the digital sign and sent to residents as a water bill notification.
"Change is needed. More work needs to be done to build community consciousness and using issues as a springboard to talk about how we talk about sensitive issues, rather than blaming the individuals," Webster said. "Look at it as reflective of what we need to do better. When you cross the aisle, you also need to be open to others' perspectives."
Come February, the diversity commission will meet on the second Thursday of the month.