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Fall Brings Changes: Letter from the Executive Director

  ·  Sylvia Puente

Dear Friends,

This Fall feels as if it’s a time of wonderful and frightening transitions. The days grow shorter, the skies get darker, the weather gets colder and the kids are back in school. The worlds challenges are difficult and testing our resolve.

Many of us have had family or people we know impacted by the hurricanes that have devastated Caribbean Islands, Texas and Florida, the California wildfires and the earthquakes causing widespread havoc in Mexico. As of this letter’s writing, we’re keeping our brothers and sisters in Caribbean in our hearts as Hurricane Maria bears down on Puerto Rico. We can resist change, sure because human nature wants a steady beat that provides predictability and solace. But eventually we as a society and as individuals must learn to evolve with these new challenges.

How suitable that we learn now, at this time of the year, that Chicago is undergoing its own transition, that a demographic shift is afoot as Latinos have become the second – largest racial ethnic group in Chicago. Census data released earlier this month show the Latino community –defined by the Census Bureau as people of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American descent or other Spanish culture – numerically rank behind whites among Chicagoans as the numbers of African Americans has declined.  According to a recent Chicago Sun-Times article citing Census figures, the city’s Latino population jumped from 786,000 in 2015 to more than 803,000 in 2016, almost 30 percent of the city’s 2.7 million residents. The black population decreased by over 42,000 residents to about 792,000 last year, making up 29.3 percent of Chicago’s population, the Sun-Times reported. Whites make up the city’s largest racial group at nearly 882,000, or 32.6 percent of city residents.

Some may see this as an unwelcome change, an upsetting of the historical power balance of Chicago’s racial and ethnic diversity.  I prefer to be optimistic about the future and remain steadfast about affecting social change to meet the rising demographic tide. Chicago’s leadership must advance public policy that is good for all of the city’s residents, but must do so now with Latinos firmly in mind. At the same time the Forum remains committed to strengthening relationships with all Chicagoans, including African Americans. The Sun-Times recently highlighted in a column the Forum’s work in bridging the divides between the black and Latino communities in Chicago by uniting the next generation of civic leaders with the Multicultural Leadership Academy. We’re eager to start the next academy cohort and have extended the application deadline for applying to Oct. 5, so please APPLY TODAY, or encourage your friends to do so.

The vision for Chicago must include advancements in political representation and job and educational opportunities. If a third of the city is Latino, we should expect that a third of the City Council should be Latino, which we are definitely far from seeing. From politics to business to philanthropy, the fact that Latinos have been entering high-profile political races is reason for hope, because political representation is a building block for Latinos to see advancements in other areas of business and educational growth.

The Forum has played a key role in guiding change. We are so pleased that years of work have paid off with three major victories for Latinos in Illinois when the governor signed into law bills the Forum worked diligently on:

  • SB1947, school reform – a landmark school funding bill that benefits all students equitably across the state and has specific benefits for one of the fastest growing segments of the student population: English learners. The Forum’s efforts promoted an increase to funding for English learners that will result in a total of $102 million in funding, an projected increase of $38 million for bilingual education. The formula includes a new evidence-based model that addresses the population proactively and guarantees the funding follows the students. About $10 million is the projected baseline increase with an additional $28 million for school districts with high percentages of low-income students and English learners to implement best practices.
  • The data bill, or HB3131, which the Forum initiated, will enable advocates to monitor Latino access and inclusion in state services provided by the Illinois Department of Human Services. The Forum and the members of the Forum’s Illinois Latino Agenda worked closely with the lead sponsors of the bill, State Representatives Theresa Mah and Elizabeth Hernandez and State Senators Omar Aquino and Patricia Van Pelt, to pass this legislation through the Legislature with unanimous bipartisan support.
  • The Illinois Trust Act prevents local police from holding people for immigration purposes without court-issued warrants; and forbids local police from stopping, searching or arresting anyone based on their immigration or citizenship status, upholding basic requirements under the US and Illinois Constitution. The Forum has worked alongside many advocacy organizations in Illinois to support the TRUST Act, which also garnered widespread support from the business community and the key law enforcement community in Illinois.  

Regardless of these victories, Latinos must remain grounded and gear up for ensuring that our collective and community voice is heard in the DACA debate, We must stand with the DREAMers and expect our elected federal representatives do the right thing and protect these intelligent, driven young people. The United States needs them just as much as they need us.

The Forum has undergone positive changes of its own over the summer. We are joined by new staffers Carmen Martinez, who will serve as development manager, Dolores Ponce de Leon, who takes over as Housing Manager, Erika Méndez, education policy analyst and Jose Marco-Paredes, education trainer and communications associate. We’re also excited to promote Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro to manager of education policy and research, and Natalie Vesga to associate manager of education policy.  Karen Garibay-Mulattieri, our previous education manager, will be serving the Forum in a consulting role as she pursues teaching opportunities in Spain.

It may feel overwhelming, dealing with all these changes. I do my best to remain grounded and search for silver linings. One of my mantras/affirmations is "living life in the flow of the dance." I spent my recent birthday dancing. Dancing is a great metaphor for moving with changing elements of life. I encourage you to dance around, over, under and through all the challenges life presents. Not to make light of things, but I encourage you to learn to bend, flow and, when needed, stand strong or dance on top of life when changes ahead seem insurmountable.