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Civic Education Is Critical for Latino Families

By on November 1, 2012

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Understanding the role of the governmental agencies, particularly municipal ones, that provide important programs and services in communities throughout Indiana is an important first-step in helping new immigrant families better capitalize upon the wealth of resources available to them and their children. Simple topics – such as knowing how utilities payments are made and processed, how city transit systems run, and how neighborhood associations work with public safety officers to preserve clean and safe streets – are sometimes the ones that can be most difficult to grasp, and the most essential. These programs also introduce families to police and other emergency personnel and break down barriers between government and the most vulnerable clients it serves.

I’ve had the good fortune of witnessing, and even participating in, one such program that has demonstrated important positive impacts for local Latinos. The City of Bloomington’s Latino Citizen’s Academy, a one-day crash course in all things municipal government, is conducted in Spanish and helps to foster a trust and understanding in this growing community. City officials and even the Mayor have for several years taken time on one Saturday a year to greet Latino families and offer insights into the intricacies of local governance. The planning, of course, spans months, and committed staffers in Bloomington’s Community and Family Resources Department spend a great deal of time developing local partnerships, gathering materials from other departments, and preparing for the day.

A couple strategies make this activity a success in Bloomington. First, food is provided for participants. An obvious draw for many families, providing food can not only help boost attendance but can be an important way to spark new community partnerships. I have spoken to countless restaurateurs who would gladly in-kind catering of this nature to showcase their food for the community and participate in an impactful collaborative with city government. The key is to make the ask. There are always local entities who understand the importance of an endeavor of this kind.

Second, childcare is available, so parents who have no alternative can bring their children to the event. One of the creative ways in which the City of Bloomington made this element work was by reaching out to the area’s greatest community resource of all: Indiana University. Nearly every city or town in Indiana has a college or university, and many have schools of education or social work that can be tapped for partnership. Moreover, activities can be planned by students so that child care is not merely babysitting, but rather an opportunity for young Latinos to engage in educational games that can foster growth. By structuring it in this way, there might be opportunities for students to receive extra credit or needed service hours.

Finally, transportation options are often offered. Even as mass transit ridership has decreased in other parts of the state, Director Lew May’s Bloomington Transit continues to be a model of efficiency and effectiveness. A collaboration with a local transit authority might be struck through which a bus or two might be made available to pick up participating families at designated spots around town. Understandably, many transit authorities may not be in the financial position to offer such help, so help from local churches – many of which have buses or vans that are commonly underutilized – can be solicited.

These are just details, obviously. Any combination of these, or even better fresh local ideas, can help make for a successful event at little or no cost to taxpayers. By far the most important element, however, is the desire of Latino families to participate and municipal governments to cooperate. As Latinos, we must do a far better job of taking advantage of opportunities for betterment that already exist locally and through State agencies, a frequent complaint of those coordinating such activities. City staffers must be willing to give of their free time and think outside the box, something with which many governmental agencies admittedly struggle.

But, as my mom used to say, where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it is critical that we find budget-neutral ways to educate our new immigrant families – be they Latino, Burmese, Iraqi, or anything else – on how their government functions. Almost no concept is more American.

About Danny Lopez

Mr. Lopez is Executive Director of the State of Indiana Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs and Director of Education and Legislation of the State of Indiana Civil Rights Commission.