In my work at the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance and at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, it has been clear to me that young people are often the most capable and willing leaders in efforts to improve diversity and integration. That is why I was honored to return to my alma mater, Oak Park River Forest High School, to lead a group of engaged students every Monday to discuss what some may consider a heavy topic: race.
The Oak Park Regional Housing Center partnered with Devon Alexander, an African-American History and Literature teacher who started a mentoring program for black males at the high school and also leads the Minority Student Achievement Network. He graciously allowed me to connect with his students through a pilot program known as the Young Integration Leaders Alliance (YILA). It was through this group that we discussed racial integration in our community, the students’ experiences with discrimination, and why it is important to sustain our integrated legacy.
The program was based on extensive research on community diversity, the Housing Center’s integration practices, and our professional experience with training and engaging youth. We utilized hands-on activities and in most of our sessions, shared an organic dialogue about current events in society and within their high school.
The goals of the Young Integration Leaders Alliance were to:
- Train young ambassadors who can lead dialogues about racial inequities between students and promote racial integration within the high school.
- Involve youth in dialogue with the villages’ board members about the future of diversity and integration in Oak Park and River Forest.
- Promote leadership among participating youth to serve as examples to their high school peers.
- Increase youth post-secondary preparedness through summer internships.
There were numerous benefits to this student-led program. Students had the opportunity to positively impact their community by promoting racial integration among their peers, communicate the successes and challenges of this group with the school board, and gain leadership skills. These benefits also stretched beyond the participants. By educating the next generation on the history and realities of our community, we equip them with the tools to positively impact society once they are adult citizens. Most young people, even those raised in Oak Park, assume that neighborhood diversity “just happens” and may even think there are many other communities just like Oak Park. It is not until residents explore other cities and towns that they realize how remarkable Oak Park truly is.
How It All Began
We started with a group of seven African-American students. I came to the meeting expecting to enlighten them of the unjust ways of society, but instead we spent those two hours sharing stories, that were all too similar, of what it is like to be black in America. The tone was melancholy and at times angry, but it was also therapeutic to express our resentments towards these consciously constructed institutions that separate African-Americans from the “other.” I never had the opportunity for such a discussion while I attended high school. A part of me feared that the dialogue was too honest, but I knew we needed to have this conversation to prove to the students that this was a comfortable space and to make them aware of what we were up against.
Meetings going forward were more optimistic, but no less robust. Conversations focused on Oak Park’s history and how the concerted efforts of Oak Park residents, both black and white, enabled this integrated tradition that we now pride ourselves on. This group of honest and creative leaders talked about their responsibility as young Oak Parkers to continue this diverse legacy at the high school and in the community.
“We need to lead by example,” said YILA participant Deja Johnson, “if we expect to make a difference at OPRF.”
The students talked about this responsibility not only among black students, but with all students. They decided to encourage this dialogue about race with a diverse audience. So an inclusive invitation was made to the student body. Flyers plastered the orange and blue walls of the high school and we posted an ad in the Huskie parent newsletter to encourage more students to join the YILA. It was through these efforts, and probably a little nudge to their friends, that the group grew in number and racial diversity.
To support their discussions and activities, Mr. Alexander invited sociologist John Stovall from the University of Illinois at Chicago to facilitate a meeting about the racial challenges students have experienced and how they can develop their leadership skills to promote interracial relations and build a healthy community. This event recruited more than 30 high school students to discuss responses to racial discrimination and why it is important to not react violently in these instances and instead work towards understanding, disproving stereotypes, and building relationships with peers.
I also invited my college roommate, Annaliese, to share her insights about integration. Annaliese and I lived in an intentionally diverse community called Mosaic for two years while in college. It was interesting to see the differences and parallels in our experiences in the community. Annaliese and I came from very different backgrounds—I am African-American and was raised in a diverse suburb and Annaliese is white and was raised in a segregated Chicago neighborhood—still we both found immeasurable value in living in a diverse environment. Also, while many researchers believe it is difficult to build lasting relationships among those that are racially different, Annaliese and I continued to live together off-campus and as if we didn’t have enough of each other before, moved in together once we relocated to Chicago. I enjoyed sharing that aspect of myself with the students and I hoped they would consider that promoting integration goes beyond preaching it to other students. I hoped they realized that meaningful friendships can be built with someone of a different race.
Through all of these exercises and dialogues, the YILA decided to focus their efforts on these central issues: How we, as a community, perceive one another. How we live out racial stereotypes and prejudice.
The students wanted to develop a conceptual understanding of this issue, so each week we covered a different topic on how segregation is illustrated among OPRF students: segregation in classrooms and in the cafeteria, being ignored because of your race, the fear of losing one’s racial identity, and stereotypes that are perpetuated through conversations, jokes, and the actions of many students. It was through these topics that the leaders drafted an action plan for how they would improve integration in the high school. Some of action steps included: Building one-on-one friendships with students from different backgrounds, standing up against conversations and jokes that promote racial stereotypes, being role models so that they prove racial labels wrong, and equipping future generations with the same tools they have learned through the YILA. The YILA was invited to share these ideas with the OPRF school board. The Alliance provided its insight on integration, youth achievement, and progress in Oak Park and River Forest.
The Future of the Alliance
So what happened next? The students still meet weekly to continue this conversation with their peers. I try to stay connected to the students, checking in periodically, but I’m confident that they’ve taken the torch and are shaping this group to reflect their vision of diversity and inclusion. My hope is that the program will continue each school year as an after-school club at the high school and that the students will educate new members on the integration and leadership principles they have learned in the program.
Instead of working at summer internships, which was the original plan for this group, the students wanted spend their break giving back to younger students in the community. Mr. Alexander has coordinated a mentoring session with YILA participants for seventh and eighth grade grade students who are a part of Connections, a summer enrichment program required for students who did not perform well during the school year. This opportunity will help young students get on track for the upcoming school year and build a positive relationship with older students who are leaders in the community. YILA hopes that through this partnership, fewer young people will fall through the cracks.
For the next school year, YILA hopes to recruit more students with a lip-synch performance event that exhibits the talent and humor of the student body. This community-building exercise is designed to highlight the diverse talents and styles of the student body through a fun event that everyone can enjoy. YILA hopes this will further promote healthy engagement, relationships, and cultural celebration among our young people.
Photo: Flickr user Kate Ter Haar