One Small City’s Big Steps to Undo Systemic Racism

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The Village of Park Forest, Illinois was established in 1948 to house military veterans as the nation’s first planned community after World War II. Park Forest was initially designed as one of the few communities without restrictive covenants by religion. Building on that ten-year tradition, Park Forest was racially desegregated in 1959 when the first African-American family was invited to live in the village through efforts by some members of the local Unitarian Church. Perhaps as a result of the planned integration of Park Forest, the town faced a smaller degree of white flight in the 1980s than did many other suburbs. Much like other cities, Park Forest faces a lack of diversity in the village’s staff, which is currently predominantly white even though the current village population is approximately 65 percent black.

 

Park Forest began its explicit work to advance racial equity in 2016 when Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg gathered a group that included elected officials, all senior administrators, and chairs and vice- chairs of volunteer commissions and presented a brief training to them, based on what he had learned from a National League of Cities’ Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) council session he had attended earlier in the year. Struck by what he perceived as many similarities between Ferguson, Missouri and Park Forest, and concerned that the good intentions of Park Forest staff and residents might not be enough to avoid furthering systemic racism, Mayor Ostenburg designed the training to convey to staff and community leaders the ways in which they might be unintentionally perpetuating systemic racism without knowing it, and what they could start doing to address it.

As an example, he pointed out that as an intentionally integrated city, early municipal staff kept track of each new African-American family that moved into the city in order to make sure that realtors weren’t trying to concentrate black residents in one area or another, a common practice in many parts of the country at that time. Although this record keeping was discontinued in the 1980s, the importance of moving to race- neutral practices made the mayor question whether there were other policies or procedures that might be obscuring existing racial inequities.

 

Developing Infrastructure to Change Village Systems

Following the REAL training, the mayor developed a REAL Steering Committee to begin examining racial inequities that may be perpetuated by the village’s governance. The Steering Committee, which meets monthly, consists of three elected officials (two Trustees and the Mayor), four members of the village’s professional staff (village manager, police chief, director of planning and economic development and director of recreation and parks), and two citizen representatives (chair of the commission on human relations and vice chair of the cable communications commission), along with two young adult residents of Park Forest. During 2017 and 2018, the Steering Committee has been reviewing the history of the Village and seeking to identify those things which

may have unintentionally hidden elements of structural racism and white supremacy lingering within the governance structure of Park Forest.

Drawing on the village’s history, issues in the community and potential problem areas, the Steering Committee has been developing steps for increasing citizen participation and identifying ways to provide more racial equity training for elected officials and staff in the city.

 

Reviewing the Village’s Policies, Procedures and Practices

Three sub-committees made up of elected officials, staff and community members were created in tandem with the Steering Committee; each of the Steering Committee members serves on one of the three subcommittees, each of which has a different charge. The first subcommittee is responsible for policies and is reviewing the direct language of the village’s ordinances to unearth any explicitly discriminatory language.

The ordinance subcommittee is using the backgrounds and expertise of each committee member to better understand language that may unintentionally be discriminatory. For instance, there was subjective language in some of the licensing ordinances like the word “immoral” which could be influenced by a dominant white culture. In another case, the subcommittee identified gendered language throughout their ordinances, prompting a change in language.

The second subcommittee, focusing on procedures, is reviewing strategies currently in place for implementing policies to see if the protocols for implementation may be contributing to any racial inequities. And the third subcommittee, reviewing city practices, is looking at staff behaviors in implementing these policies to identify any unintentional disparities. Staff members on each of the subcommittees are charged with conducting outreach to colleagues within their professional fields to identify best practices and learn from other communities.

Through this process the village identified policies that could be discriminatory in impact, such as the use of the word “unwholesome” to refer to prohibited businesses. In a similar process designed to support sustainability in building codes and practices, the village conducted a complete ordinance review and passed a Unified Development Ordinance in 2017, which was able to alter some codes that were restrictive.

For the two subcommittees looking at procedures and practices, the details around implementation and resident perception are critical. The 1997 Illinois state law dictating that local ordinances are subject only to local adjudication gives the village some latitude in determining cases where infractions disproportionately impacting residents of color could be addressed without levying penalties. In one case, some Latino residents were facing building code violations. When the city understood that some of the Latino residents may not have received the requisite permits due to a language barrier, the village decided that the government may not have been communicating effectively to all of its constituents. In some cases, the village waived fines as a result. They also utilized a bilingual staff person in conducting adjudications to address the communications breakdown.

One of the challenges for a small city like Park Forest is finding enough accurate data to understand disparate impacts of policies and procedures by race. While some of the village’s police data has race/ethnicity fields attached to it, and the local health department had some records of race and ethnicity data, though until recently it was shut down for cost reasons, there is little additional capacity in other departments for data collection. While this does not completely address the data gap, the practices subcommittee has been creating a series of public questionnaires to get qualitative data from residents on how they may have experienced inequities when dealing with local government.

Learn more about Park Forest’s work here.

 

NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative serves to strengthen local elected officials’ knowledge and capacity to eliminate racial disparities, heal racial divisions, and build more equitable communities. Learn more at www.nlc.org/REAL

This City Profile is part of a larger series made possible through the generous contributions of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

About the author: Aliza R. Wasserman is the senior associate with NLC’s Race, Equity, And Leadership (REAL) Initiative.