It’s not easy being young and black in Oak Park

May 5, 2011
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By Eireann Dolan

Lent has just ended, and this time of year always gets me thinking — what am I grateful for? Sure, I’m thankful that I’ve got a wonderful family, a fridge full of food, a tank full of gas and some incredible friends.

But, upon thinking about one of these friends, a young man named Gregory, I started to realize that I was grateful for just one more thing: that I’m not a young black man in Oak Park.

In last week’s Wednesday Journal, a woman named Leslie Blackburn wrote a piece for Viewpoints about people questioning her neighborly values because of her appearance and ethnicity. Many of you might think her inference that her neighbors only thought she wouldn’t clean up after her dog based on her ethnicity was a bit glib.

And before I met Gregory, I might have agreed with you. But let me assure you, she was dead right.

I grew up in Oak Park, and after college I moved back to Oak Park because I’d always known our village to be among the most welcoming, inclusive and open-minded in the world. Of course we are open-minded and inclusive; after all, we keep saying that we are. And all my life I was lucky enough not to ever have cause to question that specious reasoning.

A year and a half ago, I met a then-12-year-old boy from our neighboring Austin neighborhood named Gregory. His school had put him in a “self-contained” class, which was something I was familiar with, as my older brother has autism, and he faced an uphill battle with Oak Park’s special education system.

Gregory shares my love of dogs. He often comes over to play with my two dogs, or he brings his dogs over, and we take walks with them in nearby Taylor Park. We became fast friends. He’s met all of my neighbors, and they all quite like him. He even takes care of my dogs when I go out of town.

The first time the police were called on Gregory, when he was at my house feeding my dogs, I was out of town. I’d given him a house key to do this. I got a call from a neighbor and friend of mine telling me that my house was surrounded by police squad cars. Apparently, someone who’d been passing by my house saw Gregory opening my front door with his key, and she’d called the police, suspecting a break in.

The second time Gregory had a run-in with Oak Park police, I was there. A few weeks after the first incident, Gregory and I had made plans to hang out after he got out of school. He came over, but I was late running errands. I told him to wait on my front porch, as he didn’t have the house key on him.

To read the rest of Dolan’s piece, click here.

And let us know what you think.

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