A group made up of residents of Deerfield, Illinois, aims to rename a park that honors a man that actively worked against plans of integrating the community. This group of residents of Deerfield started a Facebook page where they have been calling for the renaming of Mitchell Park, and recently it has attracted more attention. Mitchell Park is currently in the location where a housing development with 20% of homes set aside for African Americans was supposed to be built.
Today Mitchell Parks still have the name of the individual who led the effort to use the Park Board authority to thwart the effort to integrate Deerfield. Deerfield today still has little to no African American representation.
On their Facebook page they write, “In a 1959 referendum Deerfield residents voted overwhelmingly to prevent an integrated housing development in Deerfield from being completed”.
They continue to say, “by condemning the property and using it instead for the park and pool we know today as Mitchell Pool and Mitchell Park.”
We spoke with Ryan Falouji, an Open Mike student and volunteer, as well as one of the representatives of the Rename Mitchell Park committee.
SW: First and foremost, What is your background? Where are you from and what do you do?
RAYAN: My name is Rayan Falouji. My parents immigrated here from Iraq. I am a photographer, activist, writer, and just a whole bunch of different things. I grew up in Deerfield, Illinois and I’m going to be a senior in high school.
SW: For those who don’t know, what is the story behind this park?
RAYAN: So a very quick summary of the park is that in 1959, a builder wanted to build integrated housing in Deerfield, like he did similarly in New Jersey, but Deerfield was too racist and didn’t want to. So instead, there was a referendum to build parks in the place where integrated was being built. This was spearheaded by the park board president. Which the park is named after him. – James C. Mitchell Park
SW: Even though you’re not black, you felt some type of way towards the issue
RAYAN: Yeah of course, because I am one of the few people of color in Deerfield. So, I felt it was important to not honor the racism that existed in 1959. The park’s name should honor those who have fought and have continued to fight to integrate Deerfield.
SW: How long have you had this idea for? What led you to want to make this change?
RAYAN: In middle school I learned about the history, briefly, and a year ago there was an event at the library that talked about the history [of the park] and they said something about renaming the park. Like there was talks of it, but nobody was doing anything. So I thought that I should spearhead the movement to rename the park.
SW: Was this all you? Did you have anyone help you?
RAYAN: No, there’s this lady Gale Gand , long time resident of Deerfield. She helped me and there’s a pair of siblings Alex Lopata and Amy Lopata. Alex tried renaming the park in 2015. He went to the park board by himself and spoke on the issue, but that did not change anything. I recruited him to join back last year and his sister Amy helped us too.
SW: How long has the process taken?
RAYAN: I started in March of 2019 and in June of 2020, the board approved to have a renaming committee.
SW: What was the first step you took to make this happen?
RAYAN: First, we had an email campaign and we basically just emailed the park board to rename the park
SW: Is there anything you’d want others to know that maybe you haven’t talked about? Regarding process and steps that were taken
RAYAN: To be honest, I think it’s just necessary to talk about and let know about having the will and the drive to actually go out and do the things we talk about doing to make our community more anti-racist. Like, I think that it’s important to know its one thing to say “oh we should do this” but it’s another to actually go out and do it and actively try. I think that’s just the most important thing- whether or not you succeed. You actually tried, you know? To be on the right side of history.
SW: Were there any times where you felt like giving up? Got hit by a low blow or just thought to yourself “I don’t want to do this anymore”. “This is harder than I thought” , or anything like that?
RAYAN: Yeah, so this has taken a really long time and after a couple months, when we first started, we kind of almost gave up. It was because nobody really cared- as much as we did. However, recently there was a renewed passion for it.
SW: What was that? What made you and/or helped you keep going?
RAYAN: Actually, it was the community around us. They felt, after the recent protests, that “hey, we should do something as a community”. Part of that was renaming the park. So we started getting a lot of support from them and that helped a lot.
SW: When and what was the moment when it hit you? That you were about to change the name of this park? Gonna make a change in the history of the park and your town.
RAYAN: Well it kind of happened at the park board meeting. When they voted 4-1 to make a renaming committee, but also, I feel like it still hasn’t completely hit me because I feel like this is just one necessary step to take to acknowledge our town’s history- and not honor it. But also to continue to learn from it. So, like part of me is excited that this happened! But another part of me is that we got to do more things to just keep making our community more anti-racist.
SW: What advice do you have for those who want to accomplish something similar but don’t know how to where to start?
RAYAN: Yeah! I think my most important advice on like where to start is just making some noise in your community. Getting , not just a core group of people, but also getting kind of a movement around it- of community members who want the same change you do.
SW: Was all of this online? Did you go door to door? Were you telling people in person? Or how did you get the word out? I know that with COVID-19 going on it makes it a bit harder and limits you from those in-person interactions.
RAYAN: Yeah, so originally we held some events and had some booths at events. We also have a Facebook page. That’s kind of been our main source- having grown to around 500 likes. That has been just the main way we’ve been getting information out to our community. Especially with COVID, it was just all the Facebook page. It’s called “Rename Mitchell Park”
SW :What’s next? Any other plans to be on the right side of history? Not necessarily after all of this is “done” , but while everything is going on. Knowing we still got a long way to go because even though we say we’re fighting for equality or we have equality, equality is not always there. So is there anything else you plan on doing?
RAYAN : Well, our fight with the board is still not over. There’s a pool adjacent to the park, and they don’t want to rename the pool but we’re also pushing to get the pool renamed as well. The pool’s name is “Mitchell Pool”. But you know, also I’m always looking for the next thing to do. The next thing to help out on.