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Close to three years after launching a comprehensive review of the village’s policies, procedures, and practices, Park Forest is now taking official action to establish and implement a race, equity, and leadership plan.A resolution passed by Park Forest board members March 18 clears the way for officials to put on the books a plan aimed at “leveling the playing field,” according to Mayor John Ostenburg. The new resolution “reaffirms Park Forest’s commitment to the tenets of equity for all people regardless of race, national origin, gender, religion or sexual orientation.” Park Forest will build on efforts made in the areas of race, equity, and leadership, which, in recent years have seen increased focus from Village officials.Following unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2016, the National League of Cities developed a new initiative, Race Equity and Leadership (R.E.A.L.), aimed at empowering local leaders with more tools and resources to combat racial disparities.“Ferguson, Missouri really had some unfortunate circumstances. But when you look at that community compared to Park Forest; eerily similar in size, demographics, location to a larger urban area…if you’re not continuing to be proactive, you’re only a step away from something like that happening in our community,” said Village Manager Tom Mick.Realizing similar circumstances plaguing Ferguson could develop in Park Forest, Ostenburg became active in the R.E.A.L. initiative shortly after its formation. Within months, Ostenburg called a meeting of village stakeholders at Park Forest's Village Hall to introduce the R.E.A.L. program. Ostenburg sought the participation of fellow elected officials, Village staff, and residents while calling for a comprehensive review of Park Forest’s policies, procedures, and practices. The study aimed to uncover any disproportionate targeting, or adverse effect, on any group of residents in Park Forest that resulted from biased measures. The findings identified that newer residents to the community were more likely to receive citations. The Village responded by developing and printing thousands of bookmark-style pieces that highlight the most common citations issued to residents and how to avoid them. Park Forest Police and Park Forest’s Building Inspectors now use the bookmarks as a way to first educate residents on infractions prior to citations being given.Now, nearly three years since taking a deeper dive into issues or race and equity, Ostenburg hopes efforts similar to the those carried out in recent years continue well into the future.“We’ve have made a concerted effort to maintain as level of a playing field for all of our residents as possible,” said Ostenburg.
“We recognize that there’s a constantly moving target – I mean, things don’t stay the same – and so as we progress and as we have changes in our community, we have to make sure that we make a commitment that we’re going to try, to the greatest extent possible, as a municipal effort, to make sure that everyone in our community has a level playing field when it comes to employment, when it comes to how they’re treated in regard to tickets that may be issued on building code violations – any one of a number of different things.”Last week, nearly 150 municipal leaders from the Chicago area participated in Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) 101, organized by the National League of Cities. The daylong session was the first in a two-part training series that acquaints elected officials and municipal staff with ways that local policy and procedures can contribute to racial inequity and provide tools to change them. During the session, organizers recognized Ostenburg for his leadership in rooting out racial disparities.
“Our commitment as a Village is we’re going to actually adopt a plan so we can constantly stay on top of that. If you’re not constantly look at things, it’s very easy for things to start to slip in and start to be that way,” Ostenburg said.