NORTH LAWNDALE — City leaders mostly ignored West Side students for three years as they campaigned to rename Stephen Douglas Park in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Now the student organizers are finally seeing their goal realized — only to have their years of work overlooked again, they said.
Earlier this month, students from Village Leadership Academy relaunched their campaign to rename the North Lawndale park and demanded Chicago Park District officials explain their years of silence around the issue.
Then, with no advance notice provided to the students or their mentors, the Park District Board voted unanimously at an emergency meeting Wednesday to begin the process to strip the name of Civil War-era slavery advocate Stephen Douglas from the park in favor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Students said they were not notified about the meeting or that the official process to rename the park was beginning.
Organizers were not invited to speak at the board meeting where the proposal to rename the park was the only agenda item. They had no opportunity to sign up for public comment because they didn’t know the meeting was happening until they were informed by a Block Club Chicago reporter just hours before the vote.
Not involving organizers as their own proposal moved forward added insult to injury, students said. Even in victory, they said, the situation feels like erasure of their work and a failure to acknowledge how the city has historically failed to listen to young Black voices, the students said.
“In the beginning of the meeting I was excited because all of our hard work for three years, everybody would have realized it and Douglas Park would have been finally changed,” said student Raniya Thomas. “But towards the end, I was a little frustrated because we didn’t get a chance to speak.”
At the meeting, board members recognized the Lawndale community had showed overwhelming support for the name change and indicated the new name would almost certainly be finalized after the 45-day public comment period initiated by their vote to start the official process.
Board member Jose Munoz acknowledged the change would never have happened without the work of neighborhood youth.
The board said the historic vote would be the first time a name has been stripped from a Chicago park, and so they were establishing a process for evaluating public icons that communities find objectionable.
But Park District officials did not give a reason for why leaders never responded to organizers, who first proposed the name change in 2017.
“It will be done and we have heard you. But what we want to do today is create a thoughtful, deliberative process for future considerations because we don’t feel like this will be the last request to come before this body,” board President Avis LaVelle said at Wednesday’s meeting.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office echoed the sentiment in a statement, saying there is no precedent for renaming a park honoring a historical figure. The statement made no mention of youth organizers.
The Mayor’s Office did not respond to questions on why the students’ campaign was not acknowledged until now and why they were not notified about the vote.
“The students have been unheard and not acknowledged and ignored,” said Jennifer Pagan, a teacher helping the students with their campaign. “It’s just a further exclusion of their voice in this larger anti-democratic decision-making process.”
Pagan said the Park District’s exclusion of organizers feels like an attempt to control the narrative around how residents should push for change in Chicago.
After protesters unsuccessfully tried to pull down the Christopher Columbus statue in Grant Park, Lightfoot said destroying monuments was not the answer and the city would conduct a review of all memorials to see who they honor.
It isn’t clear what finally prompted the move to rename Douglas Park. But the emergency meeting occurred just days after the Columbus protest. By the end of the week, the Columbus statue was gone, too.
“It calls to helm their real intentions behind calling this meeting, and why they wanted to meet now about this after a weekend where people were brutalized by the Chicago Police Department for demanding the same change,” Pagan said. “It’s an attempt to try to control the narrative and delegitimize the protesters.”
Teacher Bianca Jones, who helped support youth in the campaign, was similarly cautious about the timing of the city’s decision to finally rename the park without including organizers.
Jones fears the work of Black youth will be leveraged politically against demonstrators.
“I feel wary about the fact that we’re being used in opposition to the folks who demonstrated outside the Columbus statue last weekend, and I don’t want to be a case for respectability politics,” Jones said.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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