“Really, at the heart of the work of valuing diversity is inclusion,” says Debbie DePalma, a Northbrook resident, mother and a modestly self-described “full-time volunteer.”
It was in her capacity as chair of the Northbrook Community Relations Commission in 2003 that she first crossed paths with the Interfaith Housing Center, gathering her fellow commissioners to participate in Interfaith’s Fair Housing Advocate Training.
It is as a “bridgebuilder, a doer and a healer,” in the words of the Society of the Divine Word at Techny, which honored Debbie, pictured at left with her daughter Safaya, with a Peace and Justice award in 2004, that she is best known and widely praised by local religious and civic leaders alike.
She is especially passionate about breaking down barriers that separate people. As a community builder and a member of the Islamic Cultural Center, she has organized interfaith walks and dialogues, block parties, programs for people with disabilities, and currently serves on the board of Northbrook’s farmer’s market.
She has a clear picture of what an inclusive community looks like. “Each community has its own culture. Some communities seem to be more aware of the importance of diversity and promote policies that favor diversity more than others. I lived for a long time in New York City. Some of the aspects of urban living are appealing like mom and pop shops and people being together. In the suburbs people can become anti-social because everybody is stuck in their houses. There are not a lot of gathering places. I love the feeling of people being together. You don’t get that so much in the suburbs. I would like our communities to have some of the positive aspects of having a lot of people living together.”
With all her varied interests converging on inclusion, she helped provide the vision behind Interfaith’s rebirth as Open Communities.
“I’m very interested in working with Open Communities because of the way they have expanded what they consider the issues they want to work on. They have broadened out and this opens a lot of possibilities to collaborate with a lot of organizations, not just housing organizations. I think congregations and temples have an important role to play. There are a lot of very strong clergy and religious leaders who will definitely take a stand on social justice issues. So I really like working with people from these communities.”
Today, with organizing staff from Open Communities she is working to pull together neighbors to advocate for affordable housing, housing for people with disabilities, and strategizing on community education for people of all ages to promote the value of welcoming communities.
Debbie is full of creative ideas for working collaboratively with Open Communities in the coming year, such as having professional storytellers collecting anecdotes of neighbors helping neighbors in Northbrook and sharing them in a public reading. And putting on a library display of innovative designs for accessible housing, perhaps by children with the help of architects.
“There are a lot of things people can do. You’d be surprised how you can have a lot of input at a village meeting or a hearing because very few people do this work. It doesn’t take a lot of people to make people sit up and take notice,” says Debbie. “Open Communities is strong. I feel more confident in doing advocacy now that I know Open Communities is laying the groundwork. We’re going to try to get things done in our community.”