Constable: Diversity quest drives family from suburb

With all the stunning ignorance, meek pussyfooting and audacious hate surrounding conversations about diversity, Lake in the Hills Trustee Denise Barreto brings a refreshing honesty. Barreto told Daily Herald reporter Madhu Krishnamurthy this week that she is stepping down after six years on the village board and moving because she wants her family to live in a suburb that is more diverse.

I get that. My wife and I wanted the same thing when we moved to the suburbs in 1990.

"McHenry County is a tough place to be if you are different," Barreto told Krishnamurthy. "As my kids have gotten older, they want to be in a place where they see people that look like them in leadership and in school."

Barreto is African-American, her husband is Mexican-American and their 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son have skin that is more brown than that of almost all their classmates.

The overwhelming majority (86.7 percent) of Lake in the Hills residents are white, and Barreto is the only nonwhite elected official. Her family is moving to Evanston, where about two out of 10 residents are black. Only two in 100 residents are black in Lake in the Hills, still making the village more racially diverse than the rest of McHenry County, which posts a 1.4 percent black population.

Barreto's story in the Daily Herald attracted online comments from like-minded people who understand her motivation, from some who argue that she should stay put, and from one who simply posted, "Good riddance, no room for racists."

Craving diversity doesn't make a person racist. Neither does pointing out a lack of diversity.

Some of Barreto's critics bristled at her observation that McHenry County is "still run by older white guys." I heard those same complaints in 1992, when I wrote a column suggesting our nation suffered from an infestation of WORMs (White Old Rich Men), who dominated politics, business and the media. Things have changed a bit since then for the nation - which has more minority business leaders, media voices and politicians - and for me, now just an R short of WORM status.

But I still think society works better if it includes more minority input from blacks, women, farmers, gays, factory workers, cabdrivers, shopkeepers and people with last names such as Gomez, Chan, Gupta, Yokoyama or Running Deer.

"It's not just about race. It's all about empathy," Barreto says. "I'm talking differences of thought. It's more about values than color."

She's still miffed that vandals tore down her campaign signs for President Obama and that bullies picked on an Asian schoolmate of her kids. But she's more ticked at those who let those things slide. "What I mind is the silence of the other people," she says.

Barreto says Lake in the Hills has plenty of wonderful and welcoming white people. Late Trustee Joe Murawski, who was white, male and ran things for a couple of decades, always was nice and treated her with respect, Barreto says.

"I got elected twice in McHenry County," she says, noting that she couldn't have done that by just winning the black vote. "I'm a collector of good people. There are lots of good people in McHenry County."

Barreto grew up in Chicago Heights with a childhood spent among African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Italian-Americans. "You have to learn to talk to people who are different," she says. Even from Lake in the Hills, her family sought out more diverse neighborhoods.

"We would not hesitate to wake up and go to Chinatown for dim sum, or Pilsen for tacos," she says, adding that she'd still make the move to a more-diverse community even if she "were a white guy."

Diversity is a big tent, and it's dangerous to make assumptions about anyone based on race, age, gender, sexual identity or any of the labels we put on others. Diversity of thought is worth pursuing.

Barreto serves on the Illinois Business Enterprise Program Council, which supports the Business Enterprise for Minorities, Females and Persons with Disabilities Act. A corporate strategist and entrepreneur, Barreto started a business marketing resource called Relationships Matter Now. She writes and gives speeches on the importance of making connections, and has won numerous honors, including being named one of the Daily Herald Business Ledger's Influential Women in Business for 2014.

Barreto could have avoided this controversy by claiming she was moving for business reasons. But she knows that such a little white lie wouldn't advance the idea of diversity.

"We're not going to solve this thing," Barreto says, "if we don't talk about it."

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  Denise Barreto, founder of Relationships Matter Now, accepts her award during the Daily Herald Business Ledger's 2014 Influential Women in Business awards at the Northern Illinois University Naperville Campus. Mark Black/
After her successful campaign for village trustee in 2009, Denise Barreto became the first African-American elected official in Lake in the Hills, which is overwhelmingly white. Barreto won re-election, but now is resigning and moving her family to Evanston, saying that her McHenry County village doesn't offer enough diversity. Courtesy of Denise Barreto
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