Ill. training program aids immigrants in suburbs

Agency's project targets teaching on fair housing in 6-county Chicago area

January 05, 2003|By Colleen Mastony | Colleen Mastony,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CHICAGO - In an ambitious program said to be the first of its kind in the nation, a local agency is training suburban immigrants to become fair-housing advocates, able to identify discrimination and negotiate with local governments throughout the six-county Chicago area.

The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities hopes immigrants will be capable of working independently of fair-housing organizations, which are overwhelmed by the large number of cases in far-flung suburban areas.

"We are understaffed and underfunded," said Brian White, a spokesman for the Leadership Council. "We cannot do this work on our own."

The six-week training programs, which began in the fall, teach immigrants how to lobby local governments, work with reporters, appeal to zoning boards and file complaints. The council plans to train 200 people in the next two years. The council has offered the program in Aurora, Carpentersville, Rolling Meadows and Chicago's Little Village neighborhood.

In the past, council classes focused on a single topic, such as how to buy or rent a home. More in-depth seminars were reserved for employees of fair-housing groups. But last spring when the council decided to expand its training, it looked to a model used by the World Health Organization in Third World countries. One villager completes training in nutrition or hygiene, then passes what he's learned on to friends and neighbors.

The model spread to Chicago, where health organizations talked to residents about the importance of prenatal care, told them about free services and asked them to share the information with others.

Such training programs can be powerful, advocates say, because they teach the basics of activism and can be applied to many issues.

The immigrant group trained in Carpentersville has set up a community center. The group in Rolling Meadows is trying to get the Mexican Consulate to come to Rolling Meadows to issue identification cards, or "matricula consulars," that are accepted by U.S. institutions. The group in Aurora is fighting cancellation of several suburban bus routes and lobbying for a fair-housing program.

"Once people organize, they take action on other issues," said Francisco Ramos, a community housing advocate who helps run the council program.

Colleen Mastony is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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