By Thomas Vogel
When Dr. Kate Webster moved to Forest Park from Chicago several years ago, her surroundings immediately felt different. Although she had enjoyed her time living in city neighborhoods, the transition to the inner-ring suburb was a welcome one.
"It's the first time I've been part of a community that I feel like I have a part of, or a say in, or a visibility in," the New York City transplant said. "It's a home."
Soon Webster decided it was time to contribute to her community. Her wife alerted her to the newly created Diversity Commission, formally established by Mayor Anthony Calderone and the village council in May. Webster, whom Calderone named chair of the 7-member group soon after its formation, said the commission's charter, which calls for promoting understanding and facilitating awareness, was instantly attractive and fit well with her professional experience.
"The common thread has been social justice," Webster said. "All that I've ever done has had that as a component."
Webster, who is an adjunct professor at DePaul University in the city and Dominican University in neighboring River Forest, worked at a Chicago-based self-defense and violence prevention center until 2014. During her time at the center, she found her students easily picked up on the physical techniques but struggled with the mental training.
"Over and over and over, people were so surprised at how difficult it was to use their voice," Webster said. "They're like 'I can't do this.'"
So Webster, who has degrees in comparative education from the University of Chicago and in psychology from Harvard University, founded her own business, Breaking Thru Barriers, in 2014. Tapping her academic expertise and personal experiences, Webster now helps individuals with confidence-building, self-empowerment and productivity, emphasizing both physical and mental training.
Webster's professional experiences also helped prepare her for the responsibilities of chairing the commission.
"It's about leadership and about guiding and directing," Webster said. "Those are things I do when I'm in the classroom at the university or when I'm giving a presentation or a training or coaching."
Her personal experiences have also influenced her course. After graduating from Harvard, Webster taught in Kenya for two years.
"That's when my first layer of liberal privilege bubble started to burst," Webster said. "I had never experienced gender discrimination and there I was living and breathing it every day."
Webster, who also taught in a New York City elementary school before enrolling in graduate school, said both experiences help inform her worldview.
Alongside Breaking Thru Barriers, she gives speeches. In 2015, Webster spoke at a TEDx event at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Amy Segami, who founded IIT's TEDx series, praised Webster's on-stage abilities.
"What Dr. Webster brings to the table is a different voice and a different angle," she said. "Her willingness to bare it all is very inspiring to a lot of people."
Robert Babcock, an administrator at Dominican University, helped bring Webster to campus last month. In an email to the Review, Babcock described Webster as "well-informed on issues of oppression, diversity, multiculturalism, and social justice" and said her speech was well-received.
As the Diversity Commission enters its fifth month of existence, it is in the process of soliciting community feedback on the current state of diversity, with members conducting surveys of Forest Parkers.
Webster, too, is working on expanding her knowledge of Forest Park, having coffee with commission members and reaching out to local organizations and businesses.
"I don't have the luxury of living here 20 or 30 years," she said. "I need to do some catch-up."
Forest Park, according to the census bureau, is roughly 50 percent white, 30 percent African-American and 10 percent Latino. At its inception, the commission drew criticism for its lack of racial diversity. While acknowledging this gap, Webster noted diversity isn't just about race.
She also noted that the commission must move beyond simple demographic statistics.
"We have diversity [but] is there inclusion? Are people feeling included?" Webster said. "The commission needs to be very mindful of both."
The commission does not have legislative power and serves in an advisory capacity to Mayor Calderone and the council. But Webster envisions the group acting as a liaison between the community and municipal government and as a repository for information, ideas and discussions on diversity.
For now, she is simply looking forward to helping the community.
"It's a role where I bring a lot to the table and I have a lot of room to grow," she said. "It's exciting."