Since 1994, the CommUNITY Diversity Group of LaGrange’s mission has been to educate area residents on how the area’s diversity in racial, ethnic and religious affiliation of neighbors enriches the community.
Over the past three decades, the nonprofit has worked both to advocate for people of colors in the greater La Grange area and remind the majority white population of issues often facing them, whether due to racism, poverty or other isolating factors.
By hosting educational workshops with schools, elected officials and civic groups, annual Diversity Days featuring movie screenings and discussion on race, the annual “Race Unity Rally” each September at LaGrange Village Hall and sponsoring small educational scholarships for children who complete community service hours for area agencies in need, the organization involves LaGrange residents, representatives from local churches and friends from neighboring Brookfield and LaGrange Park.
In an effort to create a permanent visual reminder of the beauty of that diversity, CommUNITY Diversity Group of La Grange, or CDG, is in the midst of creating a large mosaic mural at The Community Center, 200 S. Washington Ave., operated by the Park District of LaGrange.
The Community Center — a beloved historic facility that offers park district programming and hosts everything from baby and wedding showers to family reunions, church services and after-school programs — lies smack-dab in the middle of what the organization calls “the culturally rich east side of LaGrange.”
Nancy Bramson, a Brookfield resident who has been a member of CDG for the past five years, says the location encapsulates the past, present and future of the neighborhood, and is exactly what the group was looking for in order to create a unique, community-driven permanent art installation telling the story of the historic neighborhood.
“The Community Center neighborhood in the mid-20th century was a majority African American neighborhood, due in large part to redlining,” she said. “It is a historic neighborhood that has been home to many local activists and leaders, and has always been a proud, self-sufficient and vital contributor to the distinctiveness of this extraordinary community — despite its long history of disinvestment, discrimination and segregation.”
In 2021, through research and interviews of residents, CDG created the African Americans in Early La Grange Walking Tour, and in 2022, the CDG’s CommUNITY Arts Committee launched the mural project as just another new way of bringing more awareness both to the Community Center and the neighborhood.
“The Arts Committee uses a consensus decision-making process to ensure the content presented to the public is representative of residents and the mosaic project’s mission and vision of bringing unity to the LaGrange area through the power of art by building relationships through collaborative art projects and engaging activities,” Bramson said.
This past spring, with guidance from the Green Star Movement — a Chicago-based public art initiative with the purpose of revitalizing urban neighborhoods through teamwork — CDG held two design workshops, bringing together more than 30 participants and yielding an eight-panel design sharing the story of the community as told by the community.
With a theme titled “The Community Center: Past-Present-Future,” the project will focus on collective images which are currently being turned into panels to be tiled by volunteers.
From discussions at the design workshops, imagery of a tree was a common theme, and decided upon as being the thread that connects the mural. The overall design will begin with roots, continue with community connections, or outstretched hands, and end with a fruit tree. Other elements will be unveiled when the mural is completed this fall.
According to Bramson, feedback from the design workshops proved that the project has been a positive community experience.
“Some expressed that they were inspired, uplifted and enlightened,” she said. “Community perspectives were valued, and we all learned a little something about each other.”
For lifelong LaGrange resident Bernadine Sims, getting involved in the mural project was a no-brainer. Not only does she descend from the first Black family who moved into LaGrange, but she lives in a home on one of the family’s original properties on the village’s east side.
“I wanted to get involved because it’s a beautifying point,” she said. “A lot of the community takes part in activity at the center, and to have something pretty there that reminds them of the unity that we’re trying to incorporate in the area is a good thing.”
Though the workshops included mostly LaGrange and Brookfield participants, for its upcoming tile-laying workshops in August and September, CDG is recruiting widely and welcomes residents from all neighboring communities with the goal of making new friends all while becoming a part of a community art story.
Workshops will be held Aug. 22 through Aug. 30 and Sept. 9 at the Community Center. All are one-hour sessions open to participants over the age of 9. Interested participants must register for time slots at tinyurl.com/bdk85x6u
For more information about CDG, visit communitydiversity.org.