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Change in Community Starts with Seeing the Need

New America Media, News Report, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Sep 26, 2008

Editors Note: NAM reporter Ngoc Nguyen covered the Chicago leg of the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign. Simulcast from three participating cities, including Birmingham and Los Angeles, an estimated 16,000 family delegates convened to approve and launch the National Family Platform, a document that promotes issues of importance to low-income families. In her story, Nguyen focused on the motivations and challenges of local Chicagoans who participated. While their paths to activism were different, they all share an intense commitment to their families and the communities they love. Photographs are by Robert Sengstacke.

CHICAGO - A once-undocumented scholar becomes an immigration lawyer; an 87-year-old Chicagoan instills hope in a new generation of youth; a Muslim-American organizer tackles criminal justice policies, and two women take action to keep a roof over their families heads. Life experiences enable them to see the need in their neighborhoods and drive them to work toward change.

Chicago Equal Voice Conference Slideshow

These men, women and youth some community organizers, some volunteers, family members and neighbors were among 4,000 people who gathered in Chicago earlier in September for a forum to amplify the seldom heard voices of working families.

Simultaneous events took place in Los Angeles and Birmingham, as part of the Marguerite Casey Foundations Equal Voice for Americas Families campaign, drawing 16,000 family delegates. They endorsed the National Family Platform for working families, crafted through months of hard work in over 60 town halls across the country. Among the issues addressed were: education, housing, healthcare, employment, criminal justice, and immigration reform.

A mosaic of ages, races and nationalities and religions, participants came from states in the region and from Chicago neighborhoods like Albany Park and Lawndale. They came to support each other, celebrate, and identify the most pressing needs of their communities.

A young woman, who did not want to be identified because she feared it would affect her chances of landing a job, volunteers with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, while shes looking for a work. She just graduated from law school, but her future didnt always look so bright. In high school, she was an undocumented immigrant. Half my family had green cards and the other half didnt, she said.

She excelled in school and won a scholarship to attend an Ivy League college. She said the process of applying for college was nerve wracking. It was frightening and scary. Ive lived here most of my life. Ive done the best I can in school, have the exam scores, but lack the paperwork. After graduation, her student visa was approved and she continued her studies.

She wants to practice family immigration law in her community. She said policies should help youth succeed in school so they can contribute to society.

Mahaley Somerville, 87, a longtime community organizer, said education is a key concern for the community.

[The neighborhood] is better but it could stand for improvement, especially the schoolsmany schools have been closed by the mayor, she said.

On Sept. 4, 1000 public school students skipped the first day of school an action to call attention to under-funded schools. Students, parents, church leaders and activists boarded buses to register for school in a wealthier part of town where schools are better funded.

I supported [the boycott], said Somerville, noting that the mayor condemned the action. They dont want students to miss the first day, but they dont care about the rest of the year.

Wearing an Obama cap and a T-shirt with a photo of her and Barack Obama when he ran for the Senate, Somerville looked out on the sea of faces. My greatest hope for the day is for the convention to bring different people together.

Sultan Muhammad, an organizer with Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN), said the biggest issue in his community is reform of the criminal justice system. IMAN helped to enact state legislation that would keep young adults convicted of non-violent drug offenses out of prison. Instead, they would go to drug school and complete a four-week session of rehab and life-skills training.

Muhammad said the Substance Abuse Management Addressing Recidivism through Treatment (SMART) Act addresses the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans. Out of every five people arrested, four are African-American, he said, adding that diversion programs can dramatically lower prison re-entry rate.

In Illinois, over two-thirds of those released return to prison within three years. In Cook County, where a drug school program exists, those who complete rehab have a 15 percent recidivism rate.

The challenge, Muhammad said, is securing $1.9 million to expand Cook Countys program statewide, ideally reaping long-run savings because Illinois taxpayers spend $22,000 per inmate annually, while rehab costs $350 per participant.

Maria Cruz and Alma Aquino are neighbors in a seven-unit rental building in Albany Park. Over the years, their children have walked to school together and played in the yard. Soon, these families and the buildings other tenants may be evicted.

The buildings new owner wanted to convert rental units to condos, but defaulted on bank loans and fled the country, leaving the property to foreclosure.

The women said Bank of America has sent a sheriff to evict the tenants, but theyve resisted. A city housing court is to hear the case and they want the bank to suspend action until then.

Yes, everyday we are scared, Cruz said. Were afraid we will come home and find our children and everything on the street. Cruzs four children, ages 15-25, live at home. Shes a housewife, and her husband works in a greenhouse. Theyve lived in the building for 19 years.

Its really hard to find another place, Aquino said. The school is across the street. Theres transportation close to the house too. She has two kids, ages 14 and seven. A cashier at Cinnabon, shes lived in her apartment for 13 years and pays a monthly rent of $850.

Before going to the convention, the women, along with Albany Park Neighborhood Council volunteers, went to a Bank of America branch to speak with someone about their situation, but Cruz said the bank has not returned their calls to its corporate legal affairs department.

Cruz sees the citys housing planning headed in the wrong direction. Theres a need for more rental buildings. Now they are constructing condos that most residents cant afford.

Cruz and Aquino dont think of themselves as activists; they just want to improve the lives of families in their neighborhood. Its important to keep families together, Aquino said.

I came here to find support and give support to other families, Cruz said of the Equal Voice convention.

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