Former Oak Park District 97 school board president Ade Onayemi said his eight-year tenure on the board was an interesting experience?”but he doesn’t miss it.
Not that the Nigerian native didn’t enjoy being involved with the schools and students.
Onayemi has instead decided to channel his passions into neighboring Austin, working to develop new development in the West Side community through his Urban Resource Inc. architecture firm.
He hasn’t left education altogether either. Onayemi is a member of the design team for one of three proposed schools at Austin High School, 231 N. Pine, under Chicago’s Renaissance 2010 initiative. Two additional schools by other designers have yet to gain approval. The Chicago Public Schools approved the Austin Business and Entrepreneurial Academy in November. Onayemi is among a group of business and education leaders involved with the school, which is expected to start accepting students by fall 2006.
Onayemi still lives in Oak Park, but he moved his architectural firm?”which has done work for Chicago’s Field Museum and his alma mater, the University of Illinois at Chicago?”to Austin near the end of his tenure on the Dist. 97 board, where he was board president from 2001 to 2004.
The outspoken Onayemi has always kept an eye on Austin. He said he wanted to play a role in helping revitalize a community that didn’t have the same benefits as Oak Park.
“If you’re going to be blunt and speak to the issue, then you need to be a part of the fabric of the community,” he said. “I see an opportunity to bring a positive message to the community and to be a mentor for children. I think I can do that here.”
Onayemi, a husband and father of two, has also plunged headlong into a plan to bring development to Austin, including a multifaceted youth community center for Austin.
The bottom is full, so rise to the top
Onayemi’s previous location for his firm was a first-floor storefront in Oak Park. His new digs are located atop Austin’s African Accents store at 5847 W. Chicago Ave. He and four other employees work in what was a second-floor apartment. Gutted and remodeled in the summer of 2004, the firm overlooks a stretch of land along Chicago Avenue reminiscent of other locations on the West Side: an abandoned building here, a few empty lots there.
His office, originally a bedroom in the old layout, is a hidden nook on the far side of the second floor space. By no means is the new location a step down, according to Onayemi, whose background doesn’t afford him any feelings of complacency. Onayemi grew up in Lagos, Nigeria. He said he always wanted to be an architect.
The importance of education was stressed as early as he could remember. His mother and father, born in 1914 and 1909 respectively, were the first of their generation to receive a formal education.
“There’s something my father always told me that I never forget: The bottom is full; you have to rise to the top,” Onayemi recalled.
The educated were revered in his village, Onayemi said. Parents who weren’t educated would often ask those who were to mentor their children. Even those uneducated parents understood its importance?”for them and particularly their children.
“Education in Nigeria was so vital,” said Onayemi. “In Nigeria, the most active parents are those who are illiterate. They want more for their children.”
Onayemi’s parents encouraged him to attend college in the Untied States. It was something most parents encouraged their children to do, he said. And those who went would eventually return to Nigeria to help the country. When he prepared to leave in the early 1980s, the country was under dictatorship. He received his architectural degree from the U of I in 1981, and made plans to return home. But Onayemi’s parents persuaded him to stay. He reluctantly did.
For the first couple of years, he said his eyes were still looking toward home. After five years in the United States, Onayemi still felt like he was “living in a suitcase.” He finally decided that it was time to plant his roots in this country.
“I figured out that home is where you pay your taxes,” he said.
A new homeland
Onayemi worked at a downtown architectural firm during the early ’80s. He and his wife, Kathy, had two children in the meantime?”a son, Justin, and daughter, Christine. The family moved to Oak Park in 1984. Twelve years later, he joined Urban Resource Inc., and soon bought the company. A year later, he ran for the Dist. 97 school board.
He hadn’t seriously considered running for the board prior to 1997, but was increasingly involved with kids and education.
“Most of what I learned about the school was on the playground,” he said. “I was involved in soccer practices. I coached my kids in their sports. I was able to talk to other parents who had children in the system. So there was a lot of networking before I was ever a member of the board.”
After four years on the board as a member and brief stint as vice president, he ran for board president in 2001. He won, serving two terms.
But all was not rosy during his tenure. Onayemi was criticized for his blunt stances on the discipline and achievement gap of black students in the district. The board also faced financial challenges that sparked criticism from angry taxpayers.
As much as he has enjoyed living in Oak Park, Onayemi said a number of solutions in Oak Park required some blunt discussions that not enough people were willing to have.
“When the race issue comes up, people don’t want to really have that dialogue,” he said in terms of the achievement gap. “When people talk about how ‘It takes a village,’ I get very annoyed because they don’t know the concept. It has become a clich.
“That comes from my home [Nigeria]. It meant that every person in the village looked at every child in the community. In the village, everybody is in everybody else’s business when it comes to the education of the children.”
Onayemi, though still fairly new to the West Side, has established ties to Austin in his year there.
He’s chair of the Austin African-American Business Network Association (AAABNA) and is involved in the Madison Revitalization Task Force, a group that consists of Austin politicians and businesspersons. He’s worked with the AAABNA in designing the concept for the new school at Austin High for a year.
“We asked him before about becoming involved in what we were doing,” said Malcolm Crawford, director of the business group. “He was still involved with the school board, so he declined. When his tenure was up, we asked him to become more involved with what we were doing.
“We thought that this would be a natural progression for him. We knew that he would bring his expertise and experiences here in the community, so we could learn from it.”