Saving the District 97 Multicultural Center

By Jordan Mann

Public School District 97 and the village of Oak Park are in danger of losing a valuable resource. The Multicultural Resource Center, housed at Julian Middle School, must move by the end of the school year.  Julian Middle School was built to hold 800 students, but next year’s enrollment is expected to exceed 1,000 students, so the space the Center now occupies is needed for classrooms. At the moment, the Center has nowhere to go.

IMG_0899The Multicultural Resource Center contains a collection of information, including more than 16,000 artifacts for promoting diversity and cultural understanding. Tom Zapler, the chairman of the Oak Park Community Relations Commission, stated that the Center “is something really special” and holds “a fantastic collection.” He feels that “one of Oak Park’s most important goals is diversity and treating everybody equal, and this Multicultural Center does a great job of teaching kids about diversity and about equality.”

The Center has one full time employee, director Lynn Allen. Allen has a bachelor’s degree from UIC in history with a minor in physical education. After graduating from UIC, she began teaching high school history in the Chicago public school system. Allen taught American history, Black history, and women’s history. Allen later earned a master’s degree in School Leadership from Concordia University Chicago (CUC).

The Resource Center was started about 35 years ago with help from a grant for desegregation. Allen became aware of the Center while volunteering on a multicultural advocates committee. She began working at the Center as a part-time volunteer, became an employee two years later, and continued to work for the Center for another six years. In 2003, Allen became the Center’s director.

IMG_0901The Center’s artifacts cover numerous cultures, including: Black American, Native American, African, Lithuanian, Polish, Jewish, Muslim, Japanese, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. Allen has helped build this Center into an all-inclusive resource for teaching about diversity. Artifacts include: clothing, books, musical instruments, sculptures, toys, pictures, and posters. Some of the early artifacts were created by teachers who started the Center, others have been purchased and many have been donated.

Allen encourages schools to visit the Center, but it they are unable to make the trip, she loads up her van and brings a portion of the center to them. This includes schools both inside and outside district 97, grade schools, middle schools, high schools, and universities. For younger children, the Center is designed as a hands-on resource. The children can play the musical instruments, dress up in the various ethnic costumes, and touch or hold the artifacts.

In addition to providing cultural lessons for students, Allen feels it is important to talk to future teachers about cultural diversity and how resources from the Center can be used to create diverse and inclusive lesson plans. She explains to new teachers how important diversity is in Oak Park.

“If teachers make a mistake [related to cultural diversity], the public will call them out on it,” Allen explains. “The spectrum of awareness has to keep evolving as society changes and this Center helps with that awareness.”

IMG_0900She makes clear to teachers that she is there to help; they have a resource when cultural conflicts arise. She has worked with CUC and Kennedy King College and with community groups, businesses, churches, and the public library.

Allen has been searching for a new location, but has yet been unsuccessful. There is no room in any other buildings run by District 97. The Center must move at the end of the school year, and that deadline is quickly approaching.

Allen is hoping she will be given the opportunity to “make a pitch to the school board and the village board.” This could be the start of the multicultural museum that the village board approved in September of 2014 as part of the Envision Oak Park Strategic Plan. But Allen is concerned that the village will not be able to move fast enough on the final museum to save the Resource Center.

There are vacant properties owned by the village of Oak Park. Moving into one of these would “create a new entity that would be a part of the Village of Oak Park as well as continuing to be an integral part of Oak Park Elementary School District 97,” Allen says.

Allen has ideas regarding what this larger center could offer, including ways it could become economically self-sustaining. She is presently waiting for permission from the new District 97 superintendent, Dr. Carol Kelley, to present her ideas to the village board.

The Oak Park and River Forest Historical Society is almost ready to move into their new home in the historic fire house at 129 Lake Street in Oak Park. Zapler is in the process of scheduling a meeting with Allen, Kelley, and Frank Lipo, the executive director of the Historical Society, to see if the cultural center can move into the historical society’s new home.

As Zapler stated, “it is just not acceptable that this Center does not continue.”

The Multicultural Resource Center is open to everyone by appointment. To make an appointment, contact Lynn Allen at 708-524-7700 or LAllen@op97.org.

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