John Williams' legacy

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Make a list of the most influential people in Oak Park and River Forest over the past 40 years and you'll find the name of John FS Williams. Actually, the Journal has made such a list. We call it Villager of the Year. And John's name makes that list for the year 1995.

Last week he announced his retirement from the township with plans to focus on a training and consulting business. He will not lack clients.

The mid-1990s was the time when John arrived at Oak Park Township to head its historically important Youth Services program. It was a precipitous moment in Oak Park as worries were growing that youth gang issues were spreading from the West Side into the village. Just the year before, the Journal's Villagers of the Year were a group of Harrison Street neighbors who had banded together to battle perceived gang incursions into that neighborhood.

The issue in Oak Park, John Williams observed, was not so much city gang members coming into our village as it was a more focused recruitment of wannabe gang members in Oak Park, and also in River Forest. 

There was, of course, handwringing. Lots of handwringing. Oak Park had so many social service agencies, so many school-based staff, a large police force. All, theoretically, had programs they could offer as help. The problem was they had no means whatsoever to actually connect with these on-the-edge youngsters, to know their parents and the family challenges that made these young people vulnerable to being recruited.

That was where Williams' inspiration came from. Through the township, he created the Youth Interventionists. John, along with a small handful of young, trained social workers, went out into the streets and the parks to begin conversations with young people at risk. These were quiet, personal conversations between individuals looking to make a connection. Wouldn't have worked with cops in the park. Wouldn't have worked with deans from OPRF more focused on course work and grades.

The connections made in a park often led to knocking on apartment doors and then wider conversations with parents, making plain that their kids were potentially on the verge of trouble. That's when the connections with Oak Park and River Forest's myriad social services happened, when after-school jobs were found, when schools reached out and connected these youngsters to an extracurricular.

Altogether remarkable. In retrospect altogether obvious.

Also essential this past quarter century has been the shared funding for this program among every local taxing body — that's 11 governments in sync. It wasn't ever about the money. It was about the shared commitment from libraries and parks and village governments that we all had the responsibility and the opportunity to reach out and grab up our kids facing bad choices. 

That was powerful but in the past couple of years it has begun to fray as village governments in both villages dropped their funding of Youth Interventionists. These are short-sighted decisions but, according to the township, unrelated to Williams' decision to depart.

As he departs Youth Services, we offer our thanks to John Williams for his dedication to our young people.

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