Ridgeville Park District commissioners were understandably sent scrambling for answers last year when a group of residents showed up at a board meeting and raised concerns about the low number of minorities using District programs and facilities.

But  nearly one year, one consultant, and 242 interviews later, commissioners at the south Evanston park district feel they have made impressive progress bolstering the District’s stand on racial equity, such as launching  a website and appointing a committee to create the District’s first racial equity policy.

At the District’s Aug. 11 meeting, board members discussed a racial equity climate report by Efiom & Associates.

Patricia Efiom, the consultant the District brought in last year, prepared the report which assessed the current racial climate in the District and recommended steps the District could take on its way to establishing a racial equity policy.

The District, which is a separate taxing district from the City, maintains seven parks, covering more than 14 acres of green space in south Evanston.

Members of a group called Ridgeville United turned up at the District’s board meeting last September, raising concerns about the low percentage of minorities using Ridgeville parks and also the signals the District might be sending to discourage participation.

Speaking for the group, William Eason, a Ninth Ward resident,  noted that  Oakton/Dawes Elementary schools are made up of approximately 75% children of color and that neighborhoods in the District are close to 44% people of color.

He said that, according to informal drop-in counts that summer, the approximate percentage of people of color accessing Ridgeville Park District (RPD)  programming/parks was between 8-10 percent.

“We want to raise and maintain the definitive color in the program, so that it reflects the surrounding community,” Mr. Eason told the Board at their Sept. 12, 2019 meeting. “And we want to create a metric for the youth.”

Mr. Eason suggested other RPD policies or moves also sent negative signals against wider participation by minorities, including a ban on individuals barbecuing at RPD parks (RFD officials argued that was not the case). He also urged the board to keep basketball hoops up during the entire summer.

To facilitate greater participation, Mr. Eason offered his theater company, which attempts to bring children of color into the world of theater through social justice issues.

At the Aug. 11 meeting, Dr. Efiom examined some of the concerns in the racial climate report  presented to the Board.

The report represented “the culmination of seven months of work that includes conversations with over 242 community partners, park users, current and former Ridgeville Board of Trustee members, current and former staff, stakeholders, Evanston Police and City of Evanston elected officials and staff,” she said in its introduction.

Overall, the report noted, “Ridgeville Park District has a very large positive impact on the surrounding community. Park participants are generally pleased with the depth and breadth of program offerings. Many participants are returners.”

Reaching out to black community organizations and individuals for their view, Dr. Efiom, formerly the Chief Equity Officer for the City of Evanston, said she found that “many were unaware of RPD and had not taken advantages of the available services for that reason.”

Part of the reason might have been historical, she indicated.

“Those over 65 who had lived in the Fifth Ward reported that they weren’t allowed to venture outside of the 5th Ward when they were younger.

“The other question that came up was the number of times that the police will be called, particularly on Black males, particularly around the issue of basketball and basketball courts and late night playing hours, and the issue of barbecuing,” said Dr. Efiom at the Aug. 11 meeting, which was held on line because of social distancing constraints against meeting in person.

She said her staff pulled piles and piles of documentation on the police stops from 2020, and found  “there’s just not a body there that suggests a pattern of anything.”

Dr. Efiom said the report included a comprehensive review of the RPD ordinance that sets out the mission of the District, “and while finding it not glaringly racist or inequitable, we did find places where language could be clarified.”

The consultants work also entailed training sessions with board members and staff, holding “what can be difficult conversation,” in small group discussions, she said.

“I do believe that this group now fully understands what it means to get into racial equity work,” she said. “I believe that the group understands that it’s a long haul journey.”

The Board has already acted on one of steps along that path, establishing a website, ridgeville.org/equity.

At the Aug. 11 meeting, the Board also moved forward on another important step— the appointment of a Racial Equity Diversity & Inclusion (REDI) Committee.

The committee is a necessity, Dr. Efiom said, for the District to have “a meaningful way to engage communities of color, to address racial equity issues that might arise, make recommendations to the RPD Board and ensure that equity goals are realized and sustainable.”

The Board also agreed to set aside $14,000 as a placeholder in next year’s budget, continuing to work with Dr. Efiom’s on development of a racial equity policy in 2021.

Board member  Debby Braun was among the board members expressing thanks to Dr. Efiom for the progress the District has made. She expressed hope that community members would read the climate assessment report, “because I think that it could clear up a lot of misinformation that’s been out there and see what we’re working on and what we’re doing and what we have done.”

Board President Martha Gaines told Dr. Efiom that for her the greatest value has come through the training sessions that were done and “the awesome in depth discussion that you helped facilitate.”

“And I just hope that other organizations are paying attention and can try to do this if they haven’t already,” she said.

In seeking help initially, she said, “many of us felt like we so desperately wanted to focus on these things, learn about these things, and we did not know how, and I think a lot people are in that boat.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.