Three residents of diverse backgrounds shared their life experiences and insights at Open Communities’ 42nd annual meeting. Under the title “We Are Here. Now What?”, the panel discussed what makes communities in Chicago’s northern suburbs truly welcoming and inclusive.
Through Open Communities’ community organizing, fair housing programs and foreclosure prevention counseling, we often contemplate why some of our suburbs are stereotyped as “affluent and white” while others are categorized as being “proud of the diversity”. Do the residents themselves feel welcome? How can a community be truly inclusive? What can be legislated and what is a matter of everyday expression of neighborly respect?
Instead of spending a lot of time thinking about hypotheticals and stereotypes, we invited three people who already live in these suburbs to share their personal stories.
The panelists, Corrie Wallace, Galya Ruffer and Samina Hussain, are African American, bi-racial, Israeli, Asian, Muslim, bilingual leaders and residents of three northern suburbs (Evanston/Skokie, Highland Park and Morton Grove).
Moderated by Dr. Mary Trujillo of Evanston, each panelist shared stories of challenges of feeling fully accepted, or as Galya put it, of “not having to live a hidden identity”. An inclusive community, Corrie said, is one where “you can be comfortable without being an outsider” and where you “break bread with people not like you”. It’s also where you are not in fear when you take your child to the neighborhood religious school, as is the case for Samina.
We also heard stories of triumph and encouragement. We heard that a “welcoming community” touches on personal, social and structural aspects. Corrie reflected that her desire to become an educator may not have been realized if she had not had teachers who were Black like her in Evanston. All the panelists echoed that it is important for schools to have teachers that have diverse backgrounds. Not only do they express a need for diverse people who teach our children, but also who govern our towns.
Samina talked about some neighbors’ hostility when the Muslim school in Morton Grove expanded, expressed in an air gun shooting and having the Village institute restrictive parking that does not exist by any other house of worship. She offered solutions for making diversity work including hosting public meetings are times that are convenient for people (due to religious reasons, childcare, etc.)
Audience members contributed that “affordable housing is key to creating socio-economic and racially diverse communities” and “one of the things I think that can be done to have a more inclusive community is to facilitate conversations, especially in schools, in which people learn about different beliefs”.
Several comments repeated what the panelists already said: we need more people represented in leadership. We also need people to know they are stakeholders. “I believe continuing with Fair Housing Advocacy is a great start because it pushes communities to open their doors to people of various backgrounds. Once you have this rich diversity in the communities, the next step is to find ways and mechanisms to get people involved in their schools and towns, communicate what a difference they can make, that they are stakeholders. A good start is to diversify leadership–in schools, villages and boards.”
Open Communities has been working to promote inclusive, diverse and welcoming suburbs since 1972. We are at a crucial point, 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited our suburbs at a North Shore Summer Project rally when he exhorted us to “live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. Whether it is through immigrant leadership programs in Skokie schools such as the Parent Mentor Program, becoming a Fair Housing Tester, joining a local board or commission, or in commemorating MLK’s mission with the 2015 Justice Project, it is evident that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”.
To get involved today or inquire about volunteer opportunities, e-mail Jes Scheinpflug or call (847) 501-5760 ext. 502