My statement at my swearing-in, at the Oak Park Village Board meeting, on May 6, 2019
(Spoken in Hindi) My dear brothers and sisters. I welcome you to tonight’s events. My name is Arti Walker-Peddakotla, and I am your new Oak Park Village Trustee.
I ask you tonight to indulge me. My being at this dias is something that was not supposed to happen. And I want to take this time and this space to explain the profoundness of this moment.
To breathe, your body requires transparency. There's a transparent layer surrounding your lungs called the pleura. The pleura is a double-membrane layer that protects your lungs as they move up and down inside of your ribs, as you breathe. Transparency in breath.
Over the past month, since election day, I have giving a lot of thought to those two words - transparency and breath. I have thought about the act of holding my breath for nearly five months as I ran my campaign, worked my full-time job, cared for my three children, maintained my relationship with my husband, maintained my house, cleaned it, cooked, chauffeured my children to their various activities, and tried at the end of the day to find some peace. I thought often of how my breath changed when I was in spaces where I knew I wasn't welcome - when I went to forums for example that I had never been invited to, but found out about through other candidates Facebook pages and invited myself anyway. I’ve thought about, how I held my breath on stage before candidate forums, and closed my eyes for that momentary second as I worked up the nerve to convince myself to speak truth to the power that was on that stage, to the money that was on that stage, and the forces that were working against me that were on that stage as well. Some of those forces are sitting with me at this very moment and at this seat of power.
I have thought about the word transparency for the past 6 months as well. From the moment I that knew I was running for this office, I knew that I would be as transparent as I possibly could without sacrificing the boundary and the need for personal privacy. I have thought about how the transparency of my campaign and of me as a person, not only helped me but hurt me as I ran my race.
As of today I am the third woman of color ever to be elected to this village board. This is a statistic that should bring deep shame to our community. This is a statistic that should have roused someone, anyone elected to this office to act and fight to get a woman of color at this seat of power. But instead of being motivated to really be “inclusive” and “diverse” in our representation, there are people sitting at this very table with me that tried to shut me - the only woman of color running - down from the very beginning. Before I even filed my petitions for this race I received a message loud and clear from one of my now fellow trustees, telling me very clearly that I needed to watch what I say on that campaign trail. I however, don't believe they were trying to shut me down solely because I am a woman of color. I believe they tried to shut me down to avoid moments like this. To protect their comfortability, and the status quo.
When I think of breathing I think often of a moment in my life that has stayed with me and will never leave me. It is a moment of abuse that has scarred my soul forever. I was knocked down to the floor by my father so hard that the wind was knocked out of me for the very first time. I think I was 15 and I thought I was going to die. You see, when the wind is knocked out of you, your brain is only thinking about one thing. And that is breathing. Every cell in your body is only focused on one act. Breathing. Respiring. And until the neural connections in your brain catch up to the fact that your lungs don’t have air, every single fiber in your being is focused on only one act - breathing.
That feeling of only thinking about one thing and that one thing being the key to your entire survival? That feeling is a feeling that every single oppressed person in our community feels every single day. And that feeling? That feeling is why I ran.
When we are so oppressed that the only thing that we can think of is breathing, surviving, living to just get past this moment; when we are so oppressed that that’s all we think of, it means that we have leadership that has failed to act. We have leadership that has failed to do the brave and courageous thing in fighting for what is right. There's a notion in local politics that we need govern by consensus. That we need to work collaboratively. That we need to meet in the middle. That notion is there to silence the voices of the many that are not in power. I was elected by people who are never served by keeping the status quo, governing to the middle, or waiting until everyone is comfortable to vote. I was told last week that we couldn't vote on the new diversity, equity, and inclusion statement tonight because “we don't want this meeting [tonight] to be confrontational”. The question that I then asked was “who’s making it confrontational?” The people I represent, and I will not be gaslit by calls for consensus, compromise, and civility. For those are words meant to silence the very movement and moment we are trying to build.
Frantz Fanon, an eminent 20th century thinker on the psychopathology of colonization wrote that “When [people] are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief."
The fight for racial equity in our village cannot be denied any longer. The Community Relations Commission (CRC), has been fighting for over a year and a half to try and get the village board to simply vote on a set of recommendations that would put the CRC in a place where they could actually start working in a collaborative way with the community on a racial equity policy. At every single step the CRC has been met with silence, resistance, and complete obfuscation around procedures and process.
During the last swearing-in that happened on May 2017, then outgoing Village Clerk Teresa Powell made a clear, defined, and forceful statement about the work that the village board needed to do to restore the transparency of our village government. Former Clerk Powell gave us clear instructions on the duties of the Village Clerk’s office that needed to be reinstated so that we, the citizens, have the power to get something on the agenda so that it can be brought up for a vote. Right now, this power to get an item on the agenda lies solely with the village manager and that is wrong.
The Community Relations Commission has been asking for a year-and-a-half, along with Trustee Boutet, to just get something on the agenda, so the board can at least consider their work. This is not how government should be run. As a community organizer I look to the words of my fellow sister Arundhati Roy who states that, “Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen.” If this sounds radical, to have an Oak Park Village trustee, say this, that's because it is. The breakdown of the systems of white supremacy that have governed our country from the very creation of our founding documents - the breakdown of that system requires radical act, a deprivation of oxygen, a knocking of the wind out of the system of laws that bind and oppress us, and a rewiring of internal structures so that the next time our government breathes, it breathes life into all of its people and the Earth, equitably, transparently, and honestly.
Not bringing a new “Diversity Equity and Inclusion” statement up for a vote for this new village board because some of us sitting at this table, were not “comfortable” with the new statement is shameful. Your discomfort is exactly what you need to feel. Because your comfort comes at my - at our expense. Your comfort comes at the expense of my anxiety, my sleepless nights worrying about how I'm going to protect my children in a town where I have been called a terrorist. Your comfort comes the expense of Black parents who worry if they can even send their child to our playgrounds without having White women call the police on them. Your comfort comes at the expense of our freedom. And I refuse. I refuse. I refuse to continue to allow comfortability politics and civility politics be the way that we govern Oak Park. Because those are cowardly ways to govern.
As I sit here, in this seat of power, I think about my grandmother, my Dadiji. She was illiterate. She didn’t know how to read or write, but oh my God, her heart. She had this heart of a child - she was a child even when she was my grandmother. She was married young. She married in a Colonial India when the British were still ruling, and she had no choice in the matter. My Dadiji and I used to communicate with each other by pointing at things, with her saying the word in Hindi, and me saying the word in English. She then would try and repeat the English word and I would try and repeat the Hindi word. She was one of the few people in my life that I believe really loved me.
For the next four years and for as long as I'm a public servant, I want to govern with love. I want to govern with love because that is a radical act. I want to govern for my grandmother who would have never dreamed that her granddaughter would be here one day. And I want to govern for our collective liberation so that we may all be free to breathe, without worry, about where our next breath might come from, how much we might have to give up to just, simply, breathe.
And I’ll end by saying this from Arundhati Roy…..
“Another world is not only possible she is on her way. And on a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”