By Helen Quinn Pasin
After the 2016 presidential election, concerned citizens of Oak Park and the surrounding areas formed Western Front Indivisible and Oak Park Call To Action. They are dedicated to holding Oak Park to the standards of diversity and inclusion that the village has prided itself on since 1968 when local legislatures decided to stop “white flight” by passing a fair housing ordinance.
Etta Worthington, 70, is the head of Western Front Indivisible and a retired professor turned activist by the 2016 presidential election.
“When I woke up the morning after the 2016 election, like many other people, I was sick,” Worthington said. “I announced to my class the good news, which was that the Cubs had won, and then I started crying.” She went home that day reeling, tried abstaining from the news which didn’t last long, and came to the conclusion that she needed to get involved in community organizing to fight for democracy.
Worthington started with the Chicago Women’s March in 2017.
“That’s a high point of my life,” she said, “Being with such a wonderful group of people who all unified in order to make a really grand statement.” She continued by organizing weekly demonstrations outside senators’ offices and protesting against racism, sexism, and reproductive health rights.
In a car-caravan protest after the murder of George Floyd, Worthington wrote #BlackLivesMatter on her back windshield. The car’s back windshield was smashed in the middle of the night while parked outside her home. “Somebody here in my community just found that hashtag to be so intolerable that they had to smash my window,” Worthington said. “Racism is here. In Oak Park, in River Forest, in Forest Park, we can’t deny it. People are doing aggressive things.”
Cate Readling, 50, is an activist with Oak Park Call to Action (OPCTA) and a candidate for village president in the April 2021 election. Through OPCTA, Readling has fought hard to protect the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, which is dedicated to protecting integration. Readling knows that if integration is not intentional, segregation will prevail, she said: “If we want to be the place that we tell people we are, then we have to protect that.”
With OPCTA, Readling passionately fought for all six taxing bodies to attend a Crossroads antiracism training. They wrote letters, had difficult conversations, and organized around making the training happen because they believed it would make Oak Park more prepared for progressive systemic change. Staff from four out of six taxing bodies attended the training, and Readling says she’s seen direct changes as a result.
In the boardroom of Oak Park’s Village Hall where community meetings are held, there used to be a mural of words that represented Oak Park’s values, such as sustainability, integration, and diversity. Often, concerned citizens would reference the words on this wall when making public comments at meetings. A few years ago, village president Anan Abu-Taleb’s administration had the mural taken down. “There was nothing wrong with the wall, it didn’t need to be repaired, it was really just an act of shirking accountability,” Readling said. “That physical manifestation of being silenced, of being erased, has really really set deeply with me.”
Readling believes that building people’s power in Oak Park relies on conversation and connection that doesn’t stop once someone is elected into office. Readling believes that in order for Oak Park to thrive, it needs more access points for citizens to participate in the democratic process. “We need to elect people who are going to be accessible and open to having conversation, sharing information, and trusting the community to participate.”
Post-Trump, Oak Park Call to Action, and Western Front Indivisible are making phone calls and writing postcards to help elect democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock to Georgia’s senate. Worthington said, “I hope that the biggest thing we’ve learned from Donald Trump is that we cannot take democracy for granted anymore. We have to fight for it every day and we’re going to have to continue fighting.”
Helen Quinn Pasin is an investigative reporter who covers social justice at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @HelenQuinnPasin