Photo credit: Winnetka-Glencoe Patch
By: Gabriel Machabanski, Fair Housing Testing and Education Coordinator at Open Communities
Neda Nozari Brisport, Esq., Director of Fair Housing at Open Communities
In response to the Patch article about the hate messages written on the community blackboard at West Elm
In recent weeks, two blackboards appeared along the sidewalk in Winnetka, one in the West Elm business district and the other in Hubbard Woods. People were prompted to “fill in the blank” to share their ideas about what they would love to see in downtown Winnetka. It was a wonderful initiative by the Village of Winnetka, meant to catalyze widespread participation as part of a downtown revitalization project, but unfortunately resulted in highly inappropriate and offensive contributions. The alleged youth culprits wrote that they would love to see “less Jews” in downtown Winnetka. This was written over what appeared to be the erased letters “KKK”.
Some may attempt to downplay the gravity of these actions due to the age of the perpetrators or the fact that these hateful messages could be erased. But the reality is that these sentiments exist. Stigma, prejudice and biases are learned and sustained. They are cultivated and reproduced across time and space, and continue to shape the way we interpret the world around us.
By scrutinizing the context within which people felt they could express their hate, it opens up an opportunity to ask some important questions.
The question is not whether a public forum of such nature should exist. Freedom of expression and speech is enshrined in our constitution. The issue is why these sentiments are thriving within our culture and the implications of such underlying sentiments. How do we foster a healthy and growing community without addressing the subtle ills that exist, not only in individual hearts, but in the fabric of communities that once were allowed by law until the last generation?
Rather than treat this as an isolated event, I would encourage a public dialogue, as well as personal reflection, about what truly makes Winnetka special and what could make it more special. Is Winnetka a place where people of varying backgrounds are truly welcomed?
This act will undoubtedly cause a sense of insecurity in every Jewish family throughout Winnetka – and Jewish students through the Township at New Trier and other schools. The immediate distress caused by this will pass. These moments have occurred periodically with varying levels of severity over the years. This incident is a window of opportunity to consider how exclusion plays out in its most subtle of forms, within families and in social and community spaces, and through micro-aggressions in schools, parks, businesses, and so on.
I would also challenge all Winnetkans to consider the unspoken messages conveyed to the working class that come to Winnetka every day to provide manicures, bus tables, stack groceries, beautify yards and care for children and the elderly. Winnetka is a vibrant and healthy community. In the spirit of the project encouraging all those who are invested in Winnetka to share what it is they would “love to see in downtown,” let’s ask ourselves what investment in community really means. Does real revitalization ONLY mean new shops and restaurants, or does it mean an affordable, accessible, inclusive atmosphere for all—native Winnetkans, new transplants, the labor force and future Winnetkans?
If the issues raised here are interpreted as incendiary rather than necessary, I would suggest that that in itself is highly problematic. Conversations about change and justice cannot be eternally swept under the rug. What are we teaching our kids in a homogenous environment? Winnetka may be viewed as perfect by many, but who is to be valued in its perfection? It’s critical to begin to consider what an open and inclusive community looks like. In doing so, we must face the difficult conversations together.