In DEI training, Oak Park board talks plain about English - Oak Park

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When the Oak Park village board first embarked on cultural competency training, its first session, held June 26, was dedicated to deconstructing what racial equity really is and the myths surrounding it. That deconstruction work continued July 5 during the board’s second session but evolved into an interesting discussion of how the prevalence of the English language in the United States has been used to assert cultural dominance. Fiber Board Insulation

In DEI training, Oak Park board talks plain about English - Oak Park

“I think being able to speak multiple languages is like a superpower, but it’s not always necessarily considered a value,” said Danielle Walker, the village’s chief officer of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The discussion of the English language’s influence on American culture was spurred by Trustee Lucia Robinson, who used English-speaking mandates in areas along the United States-Mexico border as an example of how policies and practices can reinforce the systemic social barriers that create inequity.

This statement from Robinson, a consistent advocate for the inclusion of other languages in the village’s equity work and outreach, led to a wider discussion of how language can be a tool of assimilation, but also stereotyping. Such stereotyping can be combatted through shifting cultural values, said Walker. Shifting cultural values to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion leads to sustainable, proactive change rather than transactional, reactive change, according to Walker.

Language became the predominant example used throughout the rest of Walker’s presentation of the theory of change, representing how a societal predilection of one quality can render other qualities inferior on the basis of being different, which can cause pressure to conform.

“Ultimately, the U.S.’s goal is everybody speaking English,” said Walker.

Village President Vicki Scaman spoke of her experience growing up as a first-generation German immigrant whose parents actively chose not to teach her the German language in an effort to Americanize her.  

“I was going to be American,” she said. “It just wasn’t popular to be speaking German.”

Conversely, Trustee Ravi Parakkat shared how his eldest daughter was asked to take an English language proficiency test upon entering an Oak Park middle school due to her father’s Indian last name. As English is the primary language spoken in American schools, school officials drew the conclusion his daughter, based on the Parakkat name, may not speak English fluently, he said.

Walker called Parakkat’s story a “good but unfortunate example” of how U.S. culture is largely influenced by the prioritization of the English language over others.

Trustee Cory Wesley brought up the idea of there being a distinction between polyglots and bilingual speakers depending on which language they learned to speak first.

“In the U.S., if you are a native English speaker and you speak a second language, that’s valued, but if you’re a non-native English speaker and you speak a second language, which is English, then that’s not valued,” said Wesley. “It’s interesting how the same perspective gets applied differently to different people.”

The theory of change, according to Danielle Walker 

Normalize: Be clear and specific regarding the importance to the community of diversity, equity and inclusion to develop a shared community value with accountability and urgency.

Organize: Grow capacity for change across organizations then “go deeper” in cultivating that change, create spaces of accountability and find support partners by connecting with other communities.

Assess: Use data to shape goals and identify priority areas, but don’t “data dump” as that lacks depth and can perpetuate stereotypes.

Operationalize: Build a data-driven action plan to create benchmarks and performance metrics, as well as increasing training opportunities and developing such resources as guides and scorecards to support decision making.

In DEI training, Oak Park board talks plain about English - Oak Park

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