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IPRA Enters "Seventh Heaven"

William J. M. Wald
IPRA Chief Executive Officer

Like many of you, I kicked off the December holiday season by attending a friend's party. It was a pretty typical evening. Thirty separate conversations created a modern-day Tower of Babel and the room seemed to grow smaller in the intimate glow of flickering candles. Food smells tantalized. A fire crackled. It was into this Hallmark setting that a single female voice emerged from the cacophony.

"Please don't mention the word diversity again tonight," the woman shouted. "If I have to hear it again, I think I'll get sick."

I wasn't sure if the remark made me curious or furious.

"What's her problem?" I asked the hostess.

"Teacher," Maria replied.

"Adult Ed, I hope."

"Nope. Fourth and fifth graders," she said, shaking her head.

I was speechless. In that moment, all I could think about was the fact that back home, a group of IPRA members, shepherded by IPRA Board member Tracey Crawford and staffer Sheila Lowrey, was working tirelessly to give birth to a history-making effort that was all about diversity. Just a few days away on December 9 the Illinois Park and Recreation Association Board would consider approval of its seventh and literally most diverse - special interest group, the Ethnic Minority Section.

Next to giving thanks that the aforementioned teacher was not a member of our profession, I began to consider how our 2,600 members were going to react to the news that IPRA would again step into a void that so desperately needed filling by creating this new section. Would they be supportive? Would some feel like the teacher at the party?

Like most industries, ours is not without its conservative voice, and change is not a dynamic some welcome with open arms. But, attend an industry function and you needn't be a rocket scientist to realize that the number of ethnic minority faces you see are few. That hardly represents the reality of a nation that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, will continue to maintain a three-to-one minority mix with Hispanic and African-American numbers projected to reach impressive heights by 2010. Given that reality, I began to ponder the question of how we fell behind in our efforts to attract minorities in the past and concluded that education likely starts the process. Have our universities targeted minorities with their recruitment efforts? Have they developed bi-lingual collateral and gone the extra mile to reach out to a more diverse population? Not as a general rule, but that is beginning to change and we will benefit from their efforts.

Has there been a need for representation from all aspects of our nation? You bet. For every minority in need of our critical services, there's a place for a park and rec professional from that culture, and teaching diversity can't be better taught than by example. Problem is, many youngsters weren't exposed to our field as a career. Apparently, recreation was world's biggest secret - who knew that you could have fun, earn money and change lives?

Happily, times have changed, and it's an unwritten segment of our mission statement

8 | Illinois Parks and Recreation

that we're committed to changing with them. Consequently, when the longstanding Ethnic Minority Society began making expansion sounds, then came to us with their objective of becoming a full-fledged section, it was with true excitement that we helped them down the path to become part of IPRA.

The lengthy process concluded with board approval. On December 9, 2003, an impressive contingent of EMS representatives arrived on our doorstep to be on hand for this exciting event. When at last the doors were open to the IPRA training room and the resolution was put to a vote, not a single dissention was registered. The Ethnic Minority Section was born.

Not since Administration and Finance and Communications and Marketing stepped outside the recreation box to expand the true diversity of our membership's vocational interests had IPRA approved a special interest group as timely as EMS. I remember thinking that the future of our association critically depends upon our willingness to bend like willow trees to accommodate the change that comes with the evolution of American society. By taking the step we did to sanction, welcome and encourage this new section, we were acting as a living example of how to bend with the wind.

That said, it is my hope that the inclusion of this new section into the IPRA family will give a home to anyone who has felt marginalized, out-of-step or just plain lost. EMS hasn't set itself up as arbiter of whom it will consider to be a minority, so if you identify yourself as one, hands of friendship await your time, enthusiasm and involvement.

I just wish the teacher I overheard at that pre-holiday party had been in the room the day we made diversity an IPRA priority by establishing our seventh section. This teacher could have learned a lesson or two from our members especially the newest ones.

The Making of a Section

Known as the Ethnic Minority Society since its formation, EMS took its lead from the NRPA's Ethnic Minority Society, using it as a model to form the Illinois chapter. Over the years, the Society' grew to become a strong presence at conference, attracting a diverse membership from inside and outside the field of parks and recreation. In 2002, IPRA members Tracey Crawford and Lonette Hall spearheaded a move to promote section status, which would henceforth require all members of EMS to belong to IPRA. The group collected the requisite number of signatures on a petition, revised its by-laws to comply with IPRA standards and on December 9, 2003 became what is believed to be the first statewide ethnic minority-focused park and recreation special interest group in the United States. The addition of mis seventh section will remain a jewel in the crown of Elizabeth Kessler who served as the board's first chair since IPRA attained non-profit status, also in 2003.

On record as the section's first EMS board officers are: Director Nathaniel Ward of the Robbins Park District; Director elect Lonette Hall, Village of Richton Park; Past-Director Cedric Banks employed by Milwaukee Recreation; Treasurer Valarie Pang with the City of Chicago's Department of Public Health; and Oralethea Davenport, Secretary and IPRA Board Representative, of the Lan Oaks Park District. Also sitting on the first board are: Constonsa Alexander of the North Suburban Special Recreation Association, Chicago State University's Gail Ito, Kendall Parrot of the Harvey Park District and Charles Dockery, employed by the Country Club Hills Park District.

February 2004 | 9

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