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‘Black and brown’ leaders: ‘We can do more together than we can do apart’

State Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside, speaks to lawmakers while on the House floor in 2016. File Photo. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

On its face, a presentation this week by lawmakers and community groups seeking funding for community-based legal services for the poor seemed straightforward enough.

The Illinois Access to Justice Program would create a $10 million fund to be split among groups that deal with the legal problems of undocumented immigrants and others that specialize in helping ex-offenders.

Yet in many ways the most significant aspect of their effort remained largely unspoken — an attempt at finding common ground and forging cooperation between African-American and Latino lawmakers and the communities they represent.

So often in politics, “black and brown communities”— to borrow the phrase currently in vogue — are pitted against each other to compete for scarce resources and opportunities.

That’s about to play out again in Illinois with the upcoming 2020 census—and the redistricting that will follow.

Population shifts portend a potential loss of representation and power, which already is causing behind-the-scenes battles to control whatever money is available to organizations working to maximize the census count in their own communities.

On the subject of money for legal services, though, some minority lawmakers have found common ground in the proposal to help individuals navigate their way through legal issues that may be more alike than appears to be the case.

“[The issues] are identical except black people are in Cook County Jail, and Latinos are in detention centers,” state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, D-Hillside, told me following Monday’s presentation at Westside Justice Center.

Acknowledging that “the black and brown communities have not worked well together” in many cases in the past, Welch said this legislation is a recognition that both groups are facing “exactly” the same need for access to justice, even when the nature of the legal problem is different.

Tanya Woods, executive director of Westside Justice Center, said both communities “face barriers not only to land a job but to keep a job.”

“This is an opportunity to build real relationships and real coalitions, and we can do more together than we can do apart,” she told me.

Tanya D. Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center in Lawndale, speaks at a press conference Monday to urge lawmakers to approve the Access to Justice Act, which would set aside $10 million to train staff to help poor residents across the s
Tanya D. Woods, executive director of the Westside Justice Center in Lawndale, speaks at a press conference Monday to urge lawmakers to approve the Access to Justice Act, which would set aside $10 million to train staff to help poor residents across the state navigate the legal system. At the lectern is state Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, a co-sponsor of the bill. | Andy Grimm/Sun-Times

“Immigration issues are not just about Latino communities. There are Nigerian immigrants and Haitian immigrants,” Woods said.

“And non-immigration issues are not just about expungement and sealing [court records],” she added.

As an example of the type of legal problems she foresees this program handling, Woods pointed out how people who have been incarcerated often leave their cars parked on the street, where they pile up parking tickets until they are in danger of losing their driver’s license.

Some of these same individuals come out of jail and learn to drive a truck and obtain a commercial driver’s license, only to have those efforts thwarted by their parking tickets. This program could help those individuals deal with their ticket problems and remove that potential barrier to employment.

“These are the kinds of things that sometimes they need a lawyer but sometimes they just need a navigator to help them figure out where to go first, second and third,” Woods said.

A community navigator can help individuals get ID cards or obtain their rap sheets, a first step in seeking to expunge a criminal record, Woods told me after calling over Monica Cosby, who spent 20 years in prison and now works at the center as a community organizer.

“These are the consequences that are often not seen. They don’t rise to the surface,” Woods said.

“It is seen,” disagreed Cosby. “But it gets dismissed as drama or messiness.”

State Rep. Fred Crespo, a Hoffman Estates Democrat of Puerto Rican descent, said he sometimes feels like the guy on the outside looking in at the messy political battles of the city’s minority politicians.

State Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, in 2018. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times
State Rep. Fred Crespo, D-Hoffman Estates, in 2018. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Crespo, chief sponsor of the Access to Justice Program, said he’s backing the proposal because, “First, it’s something we need. Second, it’s important for me to have black and brown communities — and leaders — show we can work together.”

Now, if they can just take it to the next level and realize just how much common ground they share.