Today, the Skokie Park District was awarded the Illinois Park & Recreation Association’s first-ever ‘Champions for Change’ Award at the association’s state conference.
“The Champions for Change Award recognizes agencies with unique and exemplary practices of increasing access, and fostering diversity and inclusion within their community or organization,” said Oralethea Davenport, IPRA’s Diversity Leadership Taskforce chair. “It is an honor to announce that the Skokie Park District was selected as the winner of this prestigious award.”
Video: IPRA Award Presentation
Since its inception in 1928, the Skokie Park District has become one of the most diverse communities in America. Once primarily a German farming community, as the Village of Skokie became more urban after World War II, it began welcoming new ethnicities, including a large Jewish population (now 30%). By the 1980s and ‘90s, the district was also settled by dozens of other ethnic and religious populations, including a large Asian population (now 25%). Indeed, more than 90 languages are now spoken in Skokie homes.
In 1990, the district partnered with the Village of Skokie, the Skokie Public Library, the Rotary Club of Skokie Valley and the Skokie Human Relations Commission, to create the annual Skokie Festival of Cultures, every third weekend in May. Thirty years later, more than 70 Skokie cultures participate in the festival, with an average annual attendance of more than 25,000.
In spite of the district’s decades-long work to promote diversity (including its annual festival), in 2015, the district’s commissioned comprehensive master plan highlighted the need for even more community outreach and programing for the diverse population of the Skokie Park District.
Intent on providing more diverse programming for its residents, the district’s elected board of commissioners added the word “inclusiveness” to its mission statement’s list of values and set about developing many new paths to serving its residents.
Using the district’s five-year comprehensive plan as a template, a staff diversity committee was formed to help create and highlight diversity-related initiatives throughout the district. The committee first created a mission statement, including the following language:
The committee will work to ensure that all Skokie Park District staff and its representatives honor and celebrate all people, regardless of age, gender identity, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, political affiliation, or special need.
This committee now meets with the district's Programming Trends Task Force to create new classes for a more diverse Skokie population. It also created "languages spoken" name tags for staff, and a ten-foot-high "Welcome" sign featuring 72 languages, for the district’s anchor facility, the Weber Leisure Center.
Skokie residents have made diversity decisions, too, recently electing commissioners that have made the district’s board the most diverse it has been in its 92 years, now with three women, two of Cambodian and Indian descent, overseeing the management of the Skokie Park District. District staff members also come from diverse backgrounds, with a new first-ever (for the district) female executive director and 37% of full- and part-time staff who speak more than one language. And like the general Skokie population, district staff are diverse by ethnicity, age, gender identity, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background.
The district has also begun putting full-time managerial staff through the National SEED Project’s diversity training, in order to develop leaders who will guide their peers in driving personal, organizational, and societal change toward social justice. Thus far, seven full-time staff have participated in the program. In addition, two full-time staff have completed the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) trainer program. These experiences include abuse, neglect and traumatic experiences in children, which often have long-term effects on adult health, families and entire communities.
After full-time staff met with nationally-recognized speaker Ryan Sallans, who spoke about his journey as a transgender man –– with the help of staff and members of the LGBTQ community, the district then created a transgender policy. This policy was created to provide a safe and inclusive environment in which community members, visitors, and participants can be open and honest about who they are and feel comfortable using district facilities, participating in programs and attending special events.
Finally, in addition to continuing to coordinate the award-winning Skokie Festival of Cultures, the park district has recently organized many more Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. Listed below are just a few examples:
- Muslim History of Chicago
- “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” a nationally known interactive art exhibit that shared the stories of immigrant journeys to America.
- International Short Film Festival (This year’s focus was on inclusion.)
- “Holi” Festival of Colors Celebration – A spring festival celebrated across the Indian subcontinent, as well as internationally, Holi signifies the arrival of spring, and for many, a festive day to meet others, play and laugh, and to repair broken relationships.
- Jamaica in January
- Skokie Pride Event – The first LGBTQ event hosted in Skokie brought more than 2,000 visitors. This family event included a many activities and performances ranging from story tellers and comedians to musical acts and drag performances.
- A Polish speaker discussing the history of Poland
- Devonshire Playhouse: A Chorus Line-High School Edition (focusing on the LGBTQ community).
- The Barefoot Hawaiian Family Festival
- Ayodele African Drum and Dance Family Festival
- Gingarte Capoeira Chicago Family Festival
- El Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – In collaboration with Skokie United, local businesses and various community members.
- Coping with Covid – A community-wide event that targets the diverse populations of Skokie, who create a dialog allowing community partners to provide assistance.
- Members of Skokie’s South Asian community learned how to live a healthy lifestyle through diet and exercise, instructed by district personal trainers and dieticians, through Northwestern University’s SAHELI study (South Asian Healthy Lifestyle Initiative).
- Jewish Pride Event –Showing of the movie “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School,” followed by a high school LGBTQ community member-led discussion. Partners included Keshet (an LGBTQ Jewish organization) and Response for Teens (JCFS Chicago).
The Skokie Park District works closely with a variety of DEI non-profit groups that help shape and provide feedback on various initiatives, making the district a place where voices of the minority are listened to and are given a role in helping to change policy.