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Collaborative Perseverance: Letter from the President & CEO

  ·  Sylvia Puente

This letter is an excerpt from Sylvia Puente’s keynote comments from Latinos on the Move 2021: Together We Persevere.

Friends and neighbors,  

It has been a world of difference since this time last year, when the COVID-19 vaccine first became available to the public. I will never forget when our Illinois Unidos partner Dr. Marina Del Rios received the first vaccine in Chicago. Thankfully, the vaccine is now widely available, but I’m sure that many of you are feeling the same as I am today: tired, worn out, and having trouble focusing when thinking about all of these stresses and challenges arising from our recent crises and this never-ending pandemic. 

But there is one idea that has consistently gotten me up every morning, and it is the idea that we chose for our title of our “Latinos on the Move” fundraiser event: that “Together We Persevere.” I consider myself to be pretty community minded, but rarely have I felt stronger community bonds, and the commitment and dedication of so many working in collaboration and partnership. Collaboration enables the Latino Policy Forum to accomplish so much of what we do. I’m incredibly proud of all our staff in all our programs, and I’d like to share some of those accomplishments from 2021. 

I’m incredibly proud of the work that our Multicultural Leadership Academy continues to do. In 2021, leaders in this program created numerous sessions to create healing spaces that speak to the moment we’re in. They did meditation circles, a peace walk from Douglass Park to Humboldt Park, and they brought together Black and Brown youth from across the city who might not normally have the opportunity to meet and share their experiences. I’m so proud of our MLA manager NiCole Ward and all that she has done leading this program. 

In this moment of racial reckoning, we contemplated what else we could do. One step that we took that I was privileged to participate in was a series of virtual conversations between myself and Karen Freeman-Wilson of the Chicago Urban League. We know that we can’t foster bridge-building between our Black and Latino communities unless we can build trust and have conversations. 

As a community we are so privileged and I am personally so pleased with the groundbreaking work that the Forum is doing in education, led by our Director of Education, Dr. Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro. Our most important advocacy right now, as critical as anything we’ve ever done, revolves around the latest study out of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. 

It really speaks to what has been at the heart of the Forum’s agenda since the beginning—laying the groundwork for academic success. Given that close to one in four preschoolers in Illinois identify as English Learners, we now have concrete evidence that shows that full-day bilingual preschool is better. Starting at age 3 is better. But there are big academic gains even starting at 4. One of the ways we’re trying to share the narrative, is that if parents refuse bilingual services for their children, they are unlikely to see significant academic gains, and they’re actually hindered by the false notion that refusing services is better. The gains are larger for children enrolled in bilingual programs versus those who are placed in English immersion programs is monumental, as the study was done on 14,000 students, and has never been done anywhere else in the country.

Across the organization, the Forum is still committed to developing educational materials and training in our community. We’ve reached more than 2,000 parents and educators with research-based workshops in English and Spanish on topics like bilingual education, mental health, and tools for wellbeing and supporting their children’s early learning in these challenging times.

We’re also committed to issue education in housing and immigration. We want to ensure that our community understands their rights. Our civic-engagement department, led by José Marco-Paredes, conducted more than 20 Immigrant Tenant Rights and information sessions on the public charge. They empowered community members, immigrant-serving organization staff, and housing counselors, reaching nearly 1,000 individuals in person and over 4,000 through Facebook Live.

All of these sessions on housing, immigration, and education illuminate the current immigration climate that we’re in, and they allow and enable parents and community members to know their rights and understand their eligibility for resources.

We’re also developing the Illinois Immigrant Tenant Toolkit, the first of its kind, which really brings together various housing laws focusing on their application to the immigrant community. It aims to answer the most common questions we hear from immigrant tenants: What are my rights? What am I entitled to? What if I get locked out? What if my landlord doesn’t return my security deposit?We provide the facts and data on what’s really happening in the immigration environment, and we provide resources so that community members know where to go for assistance. They propose a counter-narrative to the challenges and fear of the federal immigration environment.

At our core, we are committed and focused on the data and analysis to foster policy change and promote equity. In the area of Redistricting, we worked hard with the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations and our advisory committee to develop not only a map that we thought would reflect equity through the number of districts created, but also a map with an increase in the number of Latino-majority districts.This is a tough issue, and we issued several statements on this.We worked to inform our legislative leaders, including our Latino caucus, and I’ll be direct: We’re very disappointed with the outcome. Despite a 15-percent increase in the state’s Latino population, this map creates fewer Latino majority districts, hence fewer opportunities for Latinos to elect the representatives of their choice.

Fortunately, we had several major legislative and budgetary wins this year, including working in collaboration with other groups to secure increased funding for housing services in 2021. This includes more than $500 million in emergency rental assistance funding for IDHS and IHDA programs, as well as more than $25 million in funding for additional housing and homelessness related programs through IDHS. Again, those resources are available regardless of one’s immigration status. In these areas, we’re so pleased with the access and openness that our Governor and general assembly have given us, and in how they’ve prioritized and invested in these critical resources for those who are in need due to the devastating consequences of the pandemic.

Our immigration team hosted several “focus group”-type community discussions, where they heard directly from community members on the biggest difficulties that they’re facing as a result of the pandemic. This led to them writing a five-part series for our local Spanish newspaper, La Raza, which reported their findings: What was most difficult? How were they having trouble accessing resources? All of the feedback we heard has helped us craft and design a request for a billion dollars’ worth of funds for the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

I got sticker shock too, when I heard the number one billion. This is 20 percent of the state’s allocated five billion dollars for ARPA.But when we look at how these dollars can combat the challenges of COVID, one billion is not that much, given that Latinos are the group that has been the hardest hit by COVID. Latinos in Illinois have the highest overall case and death rates, especially to those aged 20-59, and now increasing rates among our children as well.

The Forum is a truly unique organization. While we will always lead with data, we’re also undertaking heart-centered racial healing work, and we’re doing it all to bring our communities together. At the end of the day, we know that together, we persevere.

I want to thank you again for your continued support, and I wish you all peace and good health in 2022.