In November, the Oak Park-River Forest Chamber of Commerce elected Darien Marion-Burton to serve as the organization's first Black LGBTQ president.
Marion-Burton will begin his role in January 2022 and said he's excited to bring a fresh perspective to the chamber. Often, chambers of commerce are stereotyped to be stuffy, conservative groups, Marion-Burton explained. He wants to change that perception.
"It's just a group of business owners who got together that want to advocate for their businesses, that want to build community, and that really want to make a change here locally," he said. "I think we're going to be able to connect better with our community and we're going to be able to be more inclusive."
As a Oak Park community member through and through, it means everything to Marion-Burton to take on this role, he said. Today, he lives just four blocks away from where he grew up as a child. He still regularly passes by the well-loved restaurant Buzz Cafe, where he worked when he was a teenager, and he said he values all the time he's spent in the town.
"I always kind of felt this sense of community, and that this was my space and these were my people, even if they didn't necessarily look like me or have (the) same socioeconomic backgrounds as me," he said. "It's really affirming now to be leading such an important organization in our community."
Growing up, Marion-Burton always envisioned himself becoming a leader in Oak Park. But to achieve this feat at age 28 is something he couldn't have imagined, he said.
He also hopes that his young age will help him create a "cool and collaborative" chamber of commerce, especially as Oak Park increasingly draws in a younger demographic of people.
"I have the ability to see things very differently than somebody who's maybe 40 or 50, in terms of what the broader issues are," he said. "Especially for our business owners who are just starting out and maybe don't have that brick-and-mortar location yet, [I can know] what they're experiencing."
His own history as a business owner will also aid him in the role, he added. As the founder and owner of the marketing agency D.M. Burton, he helps businesses grow and thrive every day. He began the company in 2018, about a year after he started to become active in the chamber.
Since then, he's served on the chamber's Golf Outing Planning Committee, hosted the Inside the Chamber Podcast and chaired the Business Spotlight Soiree, which celebrated local businesses for their adaptability through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marion-Burton said he owes much of his own success to the chamber, and he wants to pass that on to others. As part of that effort, one of his first goals as president is to create a Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) affinity group for business owners.
"I started my business with $3,000 in my bank account and a handful of connections and we've grown to almost a quarter of a million dollar firm in three years," he said. "It's because of the chamber, from the people I've met to the connections I've made, to the coffees I've gone to. I wouldn't be sitting here today if it weren't for this organization."
He also said he's ready to dive into some of the challenges facing businesses, including the lasting effects of COVID-19 on small businesses and the retention problems that much of the workforce is facing.
People have stayed incredibly resilient through these issues, but he said he wants the chamber to provide further support for the community. So he also plans to create an employee-sharing program and workplace development program.
"So many times that we've looked at employee and employer relations, it's kind of this 'us versus them' mentality," he said. "We need to create something that's balanced for everybody."
As he plans out his goals and prepares for the role, Marion-Burton said he's been surprised by the number of people telling him how much he's inspired them. But he also realizes the significance of being elected.
Even something as simple as being himself can break boundaries. Marion-Burton recalled one time where someone made a comment about his painted nails, which he said he was able to shut down pretty quickly. These small interactions can sometimes create a big impactand he hopes to continue to have these conversations and create progress as president.
"Being the youngest, the blackest and the gayest president has really opened my eyes to the change that I'm making by simply existing and bringing all my identities to the table," he said. "I think that being able to have that experience, being young and living in a business I just started three years ago, is going to allow me to take a unique lens."