Mike Isaacs | firstname.lastname@example.org | @SKReview_Mike
Nov. 8, 2014 6 a.m.
Samina Hussain of Morton Grove defines a diverse and inclusive community this way.
“People are no longer looking at you for your skin color or what race you’re from or where your religious background is from,” she said. “It’s very touching when I see my son, and he has friends from all different backgrounds.”
Hussain was one of three panelists Nov. 2 who engaged in an open and frank discussion about diversity in North Shore communities.
The give-and-take, “We Are Here. Now What?,” was part of an annual meeting of Open Communities, a nonprofit organization which aims to educate, advocate and organize to promote just and inclusive communities in north suburban Chicago.
If some people are not familiar with the work of Open Communities, that may be because it changed its name not long ago.
Once called Interfaith Housing Center of the Northern Suburbs, “Open Communities” is not only more succinct but a better summation of the nonprofit organization’s goals.
“An inclusive and diverse community is one which is affirmatively welcoming, with an infrastructure that accommodates families of all incomes and types, people with disabilities, adolescents and seniors, and new immigrants,” Open Communities states.
Created in 1972, the organization has been advocating for fair and affordable housing for more than 40 years in the North Shore area. It recently helped update two important fair housing measures.
But Open Communities has expanded its mission beyond just housing to address many issues regarding diversity. The demographics of communities along the North Shore have changed significantly in the 40-plus years since the nonprofit was created.
In Skokie, for example, more than 90 languages are now spoken in homes across the community.
The name change occurred in 2012, and Open Communities, which covers more than 15 cities or villages from Skokie and Lincolnwood on the south to Highwood on the north, is still paving its own path.
The Nov. 2 panelists and moderator not only reflect the region’s expansive diversity, but they also have day-to-day experience with diversity in their communities.
Hussain is a member of the Golf School District 67 School Board and the Morton Grove Community Relations Commission; Highland Park resident Galya Ruffer serves as director of International Studies at Northwestern University and is the founding director of the Center of Forced Migration Studies; Skokie resident Corrie Wallace works as the bilingual educator/director of Equity and ELL in District 219 and founded the Niles Township Schools’ ELL Parent Center.
Moderator Dr. Mary Trujillo of Evanston is a professor of intercultural communication and conflict transformation at North Park University in Chicago.
Goal of inclusiveness
“Inclusive to me means people can, regardless of who they are, what skin you’re in, what religion, your socio-economic status, you can be comfortable living in a place without feeling like you’re an outsider,” Wallace said.
That’s also a pretty good summary of Open Communities’s mission — assimilation where people of diverse backgrounds live peacefully and harmoniously together.
The communities of the North Shore have always celebrated their growing diversity and taken pride in the transformation of their demographics.
But that doesn’t mean challenges associated with diversity in these communities have been nonexistent.
Ruffer said she had “an awakening moment” when she was told by her two older children that the lunchroom inside their school is segregated.
“Then I started to really notice certain things,” she said. “Every time there was a field trip, the dual language kids were shuttled on one bus.”
It wasn’t done intentionally, Ruffer said, but all the kids got the message: “the dual language kids are separate from us.”
A more publicized example of challenges springing from diversity concerned the controversial expansion of a mosque in Morton Grove.
“Shortly after I moved there, a bunch of neighbors began protesting at meetings. It was a nightmare. It was truly a nightmare,” Hussain said.
The protests were framed as concerns over parking, she said, and one-half of the street was zoned for Morton Grove residents only.
The issue became political, too, and the mosque expansion was initially rejected. The Department of Justice became involved.
“The mosque was used as a political tool during that time,” Hussain said.
After the mosque project was finally completed, a neighbor used an air rifle to shoot at the mosque in protest.
“I didn’t see much uproar,” Hussain said.
She still doesn’t see much uproar when anti-Muslim sentiments are expressed.
“It’s very, very acceptable now to say things against Muslims without batting an eyelash, without any politicians getting disturbed and speaking out against it,” Hussain said,
Highly-publicized incidents like controversy over the mosque reflect diversity challenges, but so, too, do smaller everyday issues, Wallace said.
“I think diversity is all of the subtle things, too,” she said, “like when you talk about who rides the bus and who doesn’t. These little things that sort of happen that you you don’t even realize are happening. The kids are getting those messages when they’re very young.”
Wallace lives in a diverse part of Skokie shared by Orthodox Jews. She said she feels frustrated when Jews walk outside on the sabbath and will not speak to her. Ruffler gave examples of how insensitive comments have hurt and made her feel like an outsider.
Toward the end of the discussion, Trujillo referred to Martin Luther King Jr’s concept of “the beloved community.”
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” King said during one of his addresses.
To Open Communities, that “network of mutuality” needs to translate into diverse, inclusive and harmonious communities across the North Shore.
Don’t forget to check out Open Communities’ photo album, too!
Open Communities extends a warm thank you to our photographer, Lauren Heckathorne.