Today, these buzzwords are de rigueur for every organization.
At the Park District of Highland Park, these are much more than just words. They are a philosophy we live by every day. In 2019, your Park District was one of the first in the state to implement a transgender policy, designed to create a safe and inclusive environment in which community members, visitors and participants can be honest and open about who they are. We want everyone to feel comfortable using our facilities, participating in programs, and attending Park District events.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are also at the core of the mission of our Climate Task Force.
The Task Force was an idea that Executive Director Brian Romes had in 2021, and which was soon headed by Executive Coordinator Roxanne Hejnowski. As the district began to open up after a full year of the pandemic, and driven to some extent by the civil unrest unfolding across the country, residents began to contact the district about “utilizing our parks as a safe space for free speech and to express their views about all that was going on,” said Hejnowski. While Park Districts have always worked to be inclusive places to work and play, the times clearly required a more proactive approach.
To help steer the course of their DEI journey, the Task Force identified four distinct areas for developing initiatives:
The Task Force has grown significantly in the last year, and now includes 15 members who are making a difference every day in every area of the district. “We’re now a well-oiled machine,” said Hejnowski. In 2023 alone more than 35 initiatives have been created to ensure that the DEI principles are part of the fabric of the district, and more than 15 of those have already been completed.
The district has made a serious commitment to offering DEI driven and low-to-no-cost seasonal programs and events. One was Earth Day at Heller Nature Center on April 22, where 10 school groups came to learn about the wide variety of plants and animal habitats that surround the center. That event also brought 45 people out to help woodchip and clean up trash on the trails. The community worked together with Park District staff to learn not only about nature, but about each other.
The district is collaborating with the City of Highwood to promote inclusivity of services to students, something that has been top of mind for the Board, the staff, and the Parks Foundation for many years. The Foundation fully funds Foundation Youth Initiative (FYI) grants for qualifying Highwood families, to help cover up to 50% of Park District program fees. The FYI Learn-to-Swim programs can cover 100% of the fees. We know that Swim Lessons Save Lives. Making them affordable makes young lives better.
Through the combined efforts of Park District staff and the community to support Zac’s Zoo, we collected 254 stuffed animals. The Highland Park Fire and Police First Responders will now be able to give one to a child who is caught up in a crisis situation.
On May 17 this year, the Park District donated 40 bags of non-perishable food items to Moraine Township to provide families in need, living in Highland Park and Highwood, with meals over the Memorial Day Weekend.
For more than ten years, area residents have been able to simply click a button and translate the Park District website into Spanish, Polish, or Russian, so that our communication with those communities is much more inclusive. To help make our face-to-face interactions more inclusive,
Park District staff is being offered training in Spanish, so that on-site we can be much more effective when talking with our diverse population of participants.
Recently, the Board of Park Commissioners took another significant step to make it easier for families in Highwood to take part in our Park District programs. Those families—and most importantly their kids, who go to the same schools as their friends who live in Highland Park— can now register at resident rates and on the same day as district residents. The kids are thrilled, the communities have been brought closer together, and everyone benefits.
Many of the Task Force’s initiatives are internal (“Incorporate mandatory diversity training into annual all-employee trainings/on-boarding”) and while the public may not be aware that they are taking place, the result is a district full of employees—full-time, part-time, and seasonal—who respond to members the community with greater care and understanding. When anyone comes to work with us at the Park District, we make sure they understand what our values are. Employees are treated with respect, and in turn our participants—and all members of the community—are treated with respect.
The Park District of Highland Park is an ally for inclusion and equitable access, where everyone is afforded the same rights and opportunities that result in a sense of belonging, and the ability to safely express themselves authentically, without judgment.
Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. We’re proud to champion these goals every day at your Park District.
We invite you to be a part of those efforts as we all build a better community, and a better world.
We have more words about our values and our purpose that we live by every day. You can read them here.