More than 15 people – or voices, rather – attended the Village of Oregon’s inaugural Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board meeting Thursday, Feb. 20.
They told stories of uncomfortable encounters in the community, which is 90 percent white, according to U.S. Census estimates, and shared ideas for making it more inclusive.
Voices included village residents who have struggled to feel they belong in Oregon, and employees of the Oregon Area Senior Center and Oregon School District. Also in attendance were Village Board Trustee Jenna Jacobson and advisory board leader and University of Wisconsin Madison social work professor Alice Pearson Egan.
Most attendees were Caucasian, but a few were of African American, Latin or Asian descent.
Pearson Egan said the board was initially looking to hear perspectives from anyone who is a person of color, people who have immigrated from another country and/or people who identify with the LGBTQ+ community. In the future, advisory board members might expand the discussion into issues surrounding gender, sex, disabilities, age, mental health and how the village can better respond to those problems.
The council will meet monthly, and leadership will communicate regularly with the Village Board through agenda reports, village administrator Mike Gracz said in January. From there, the village will address the problems and ideas the council brings to light, Jacobson said.
Before discussion began, the group established meeting guidelines to ensure it would be a safe space for people to tell their stories. That included trusting the intent of participants – they are present to help make Oregon a better place – using respectful language, being mindful of privilege, listening to understand and not just respond, balancing confidentiality and transparency and striving for a supportive environment.
The Observer agreed not to publish names or photos of anyone who wished to remain anonymous.
Some visitors opened up about derogatory terms people have used against them, even while engaging in tasks like buying groceries – the N-word in particular. Others discussed how their children of color endured the same treatment at school, with some even being pushed to drop out. More offered solutions for how the village can be a more inclusive place, which they concurred starts with the Oregon Police Department and school district.
Harry Hawkins, an Oregon resident who has in the past opened up about his experiences living in the village as an African American, offered some ideas for how the police department could be held more accountable.
He said as the village searches for its next chief, the community should play a role in who is hired. In the meantime, the group decided to invite interim police chief Jennifer Pagenkopf to its March meeting.
Hawkins also said understanding other races starts with the school district – taking action when a student of color is mistreated and offering more lessons about different cultures.
One Fitchburg resident said she has had four children attend school in the district, but two stopped because they could no longer handle being mistreated for the color of their skin.
She said the teachers didn’t take action, even after her children were called the N-word. The mother even advised her kids to no longer drive through Oregon in an effort to keep from being pulled over by police.
Jacobson listened intently to the stories and ideas attendees offered. She acknowledged while there isn’t an immediate solution to their concerns, the village will work to make Oregon a more welcoming place to live.
The next Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Board meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at Oregon Village Hall, 117 Spring St.
For information about how to participate, call Pearson Egan at 575-3937.