Know Your Neighbors: Anthony Clark of Suburban Unity Alliance

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I had the privilege of spending some time talking with Oak Park community member and activist, Anthony Clark.  Clark is an Air Force veteran, a special education teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, and the founder of the non-profit Suburban Unity Alliance. He has been a leader in the community and is often the first person people turn to when they are in need of assistance or support. When it comes to neighbors you should know, Anthony Clark is at the top of the list.

Kelly Darin for Around Oak Park:
What inspired you to start the Suburban Unity Alliance (SUA)?

Anthony Clark:
The desire to do more. Particularly in a community like Oak Park, the majority of citizens recognize the issues that exist and the inequities that we live amongst. I don’t want to over-generalize, but for me, I felt like for far too long I simply saw the issues and complained about the issues. I would consider myself an ally, but I wasn’t an ally in verb form. One day there was a post in regards to a form of discrimination that people experienced locally and I saw so many people sharing their experiences relating to what occurred. They experienced something similar and had been discriminated against in Oak Park and neighboring communities and I said, “enough.” I could sit on my couch and share an experience or my outrage, or I could get off my rump and actually do something. You don’t get to just call yourself an ally, you have to earn it. We all have to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves what we are willing to risk and sacrifice to create change.

AOP:
Do you have a dream or a vision for what SUA looks like in the next few years?

Clark:
I don’t want to be a non-profit that just exists to pat ourselves on the back because we are doing temporary relief.  I want to get to the point where we are actually attacking systems and understanding that in order to change systems, we have to be comfortable with recognizing that we can’t always work within the system to change it.  Systems don’t want to change.

AOP:
What led you to teach at OPRF?

Clark:
I graduated from OPRF in 2001.  From there, I went to active duty in the Air Force. I’m a disabled veteran. When I got out due to disability, I went into teaching.  This will be my 9th year teaching as a special education teacher. I started teaching in the city at first.  What brought me back to Oak Park was actually an article that was printed in the Wednesday Journal in regards to OPRF being finally ready to form a committee to address the achievement gap. I saw the article and immediately called my father saying, “We have to get involved. This is our home.”

AOP:
What do you think is the biggest challenge for students in this upcoming year?

Clark:
I think all issues are interconnected. If I think of an overarching challenge, it’d be a sense of belonging. I think when someone feels comfortable when someone feels loved, when they feel like they belong and have ownership over their space so much is possible. They are then comfortable enough to try, to make mistakes, to fail and pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and keep going. On various levels from race to gender identity, we have students who do not feel comfortable enough to actually reach their full potential. I truly believe that potential is equally distributed, but opportunity isn’t. Every student I’ve ever encountered has the potential to succeed, but due to systemic issues that exist and other various reasons, they don’t feel like they have ownership. Opportunity doesn’t necessarily exist.

AOP:
What is your hope for students in the coming year?

Clark:
There are multiple narratives to success. In Oak Park, the narrative that gets pushed is that you have to be accepted into a 4-year top-tier university and that’s how we define success and that’s furthest from the truth.  Vocational schools, trade schools, working with your hands, the military – there are multiple ways to be successful. Not everyone is meant for the same narrative. It’s a marathon not a sprint at this point, but I’d like to see every student have ownership over themselves and their community and feel driven to pursue whatever their success is while being supported by the community.

AOP:
What drives you to stay connected in the Oak Park community?

Clark:
When I leave this earth, I want at least one person to say, “he really gave a damn.” It might be weird to some, but I can’t just enough the normal everyday life without thinking about someone who is not enjoying it, someone who is struggling. I’m not special, this is just how I’m wired. If I’m eating a meal, I’m thinking about who isn’t eating right.  When I’m going to work, I’m thinking about who doesn’t have the opportunity to make the salary that I make, or just lost their job. I have to do it, there’s just no other option. This is how my family raised me – on the ideal that you give back. A favorite quote from Muhammed Ali says, “Service to others is the rent you pay for living on this earth.”

AOP:
If you could ask everyone in Oak Park to do one thing tomorrow to make it a better place, what would that be?

Clark:
I would ask them to also look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves what they are willing to sacrifice for change. Recognize their strengths and abilities – not everyone is going to start a non-profit or run for office, not everyone is wired to be extremely vocal. Identify what your strengths are and then tomorrow, do something that moves us forward. Don’t allow the status quo to be maintained.  Don’t allow someone in your family or friends circle to be comfortable with an ignorant or bigoted viewpoint. It can be something as small as having a conversation with someone and saying, “look, that’s not acceptable in my circle.” You have to ask yourself how you can use your privilege and your voice to empower those that are oppressed.

AOP:
If you could sum up your personal mission in a few words, what would it be?

Clark:
To create a society where we truly have liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all people. That’s my life’s work.

If you are interested in being featured in a Know Your Neighbors article, email aroundoakpark@gmail.com and include your name & a brief summary of your story.

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