The past few years have been tumultuous. Americans have faced an ongoing pandemic alongside social unrest fueled by the continued oppression of members in the BIPOC community. It is a moment in history that has driven self-reflection and the evaluation of values. And for many like Erika Bachner, it has also created an opportunity for individuals to recognize they can play a more significant role in creating new paths that lead to meaningful change.
For Bachner, 2020, in particular, provided her with a unique opportunity to build diversity, equity, and inclusion within her community. An executive assistant at Adler University by day, outside of the office, she is an elected trustee for the Village of River Forest, a western suburb of Chicago.
Her first orders of business? Bringing intentional and systematic equity and inclusivity to the Village of River Forest. One way of doing that was by establishing the Village’s first diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee.
“I believe this is something every municipality should address because it helps us understand how we can break down barriers in our communities. How we can make it easier for folks to enjoy life and thrive,” said Bachner.
After announcing the creation of the Advisory Group, Bachner was astonished to learn more than 40 community members applied to be part of it. Today, the River Forest Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Group meets twice a month and consists of 46 members, including two River Forest village trustees and the village administrator serving as co-chairs.
“We want all voices to be included. We didn’t want to gatekeep who would be a part of the process. Whoever applied within the initial time frame — whether they had expertise in diversity, inclusion, and equity or different lived experiences — we wanted them to be a part of this group,” said Bachner, who co-chairs the Committee, trains members around DE&I practices, and sets its agendas and priorities.
Simultaneously, River Forest worked with neighboring town, Maywood, which is comprised of predominantly BIPOC residents, to create the “Twin Village Covenant,” which commits to their shared well-being. Through the covenant, they build relationships between their residents and collaborate on important economic and social policies.
“Part of our Advisory Group’s responsibility is to deliver on the goals of our covenant. It’s a statement that says we are going to work together, and it recognizes that what happens to each of us, happens to all of us,” said Bachner.
The Advisory Group is also charged with exploring and providing recommendations to the Village on developing DEI policies and processes in areas including a DEI review framework, employment relations, purchasing, housing, community outreach and intergovernmental relationships.
As an advocate for social justice, the River Forest Advisory Group Bachner worked to create was a way for her to bring her learnings to a broader group of people. She credits Adler University’s work to drive inclusivity and equity at all levels of the institution for inspiring her as a co-chair and leader.
“I’ve learned a lot from being at Adler. Everything we do as a university starts with an equity lens. Even though there is always more work to be done to fully ensure equity, we still commit to starting with a mindset for every decision of how can we do this in the best way possible for everyone? Taking that thought process into account as a municipality has been pretty important to me. Adler’s framework reinforced my resolve that any institution can be equitable when the structure is in place. If it can be done at Adler, it can absolutely be accomplished in other parts of society, like a village.”
Bachner says DEI work is never over; she’s continually encouraged to see residents who take it upon themselves to do equity work in the community. And even though the Advisory Group is less than two years old, they’ve already been recognized by River Forest as Villager of the Year. Typically given to individuals, the award was given to the entire Advisory Group for their efforts.
“For us to receive the award collectively is a testament to the work we’re doing to strengthen our community,” said Bachner. “It was an honor for all of us to receive the award, and we’re excited about what the future holds for our Advisory Group and River Forest.”