The Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC) held its Annual Benefit at the Nineteenth Century Club on October 5. People in attendance included elected officials, village staff, Oak Park residents and volunteers. This year’s fundraiser, “Embracing the Past, Envisioning the Future: Celebrating 50 years of Fair Housing,” commemorates the passing of the Fair Housing Act that made it illegal to discriminate in the sale, lease or rental of housing due to race, religion, sex, handicap, family status or nationality. The benefit featured an awards ceremony, and a panel discussion. The Echo Theatre Collective performed a theatrical reading from the play Clybourne Park.
Interim Executive Director Michele Rodriguez Taylor kicked off the event with a speech focusing on the work of the Housing Center and her experience working in Oak Park, she said, “The diversity, I see, when I walk down Marion or Lake or Harrison [streets] it’s unlike any other neighborhood I’ve ever lived in. It’s not in transition; it’s not temporary. It’s something that we’ve worked hard to achieve; it’s something to be proud of.”
Awards were presented to the village of Oak Park, Dr. David Ansell, Mattie Langenberg (Volunteer Award), Louise Varnes, and posthumously to Jim and Lynn McClure. Varnes, who recently retired from OPRHC after 45 years of service, received the Founder’s Award. In accepting his award, Ansell, the Senior VIce President for Community Health Equity at Rush University Medical Center and author of The Death Gap: How Inequality Kills, described health disparities caused by segregation, siting research where he discovered that directly across the eastern border of Oak Park, mortality rates increased by 11 years for Austin neighborhood residents as compared to residents of Oak Park. A panel discussion focusing on the effects of segregation was moderated by Kamau Jones, founder and Artistic Director of the Echo Theatre Collective. The panel featured Ansell; OPRHC board member Dr. Maria Krysan, author of Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification; and Oak Park Trustee Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, JD, who is a policy advisor at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Krysan, Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Illinois, thinks more needs to be done than simply having people of different races and ethnicities living side by side.
“We need to still continue those efforts to preserve that diversity,” she said. “We can’t stop our programs that encourage renters to consider options they might not otherwise consider because those renters come to our doors, holding tightly onto what they’ve learned and experienced in this deeply segregated, racist metropolitan area. To stop intentionally supporting these moves is to risk losing the diversity that we have maintained.”
Krysan would like Oak Park to find ways to address concerns for race and equity as it did when the Housing Center was formed 45 years ago.
“I want to see Oak Park figure out how to be a leader and [be] ahead of its time on this issue,” she said. “That is to make sure Oak Park is not only just diverse, but also integrated and inclusive, so that racial background no longer shapes your experiences in Oak Park.”