La Colectiva, the University YMCA, and Growing Immigrant Population in Champaign County

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Colectiva are developing new outreach programs that aim to
build bridges with the Latino immigrant communities in
Champaign County. The two new programs are a mentorship
program with Latino high school students, and an
immigrant helpline that offers Spanish-English translation
and general information about services available locally.
Both programs are still in their initial phases of development
and will be more fully implemented next semester. But
already, the helpline is available on a limited basis, and in
December, La Colectiva will lead a workshop with Latino
high school students in Urbana about higher education.
Next semester, UI students will further the mentorship program
and help high school students with college applications
and personal statements. Other students (not necessarily
affiliated with La Colectiva) will be trained at the
beginning of next semester to volunteer for the helpline,
making this service fully operational. For more information
about the helpline, or to volunteer next semester, email This article intends to provide a
brief background to our new programs.
Over the past two years, La Colectiva has responded to
waves of anti-immigrant legislation across the country,
especially in Arizona, as well as several racist incidents
on campus. The students organized a series of protests
on the University Quad, a trip to a national rally in
Washington, phone-a-thons and other events.
On the national level, students advocate for the passage
of the DREAM Act, which promises a path to citizenship
for undocumented youth who have grown up in the US. At
UIUC, the students demand support for undocumented
students, both in terms of financial aid as well as safe
spaces for open and respectful conversations about undocumented
student issues. The University’s admissions policy
does not require applicants to provide social security numbers,
which allows undocumented students to apply. However,
they are not eligible for federal aid or student loans,
placing a heavy burden on students and their families who
are often low-income. Although University representatives
have at times been sympathetic to undocumented student
concerns, no official policy changes have been made.
La Colectiva also moved its base of operations to the
University YMCA from its previous affiliation with UI’s
La Casa because of what it felt to be the Y’s commitment
to social justice as well as a growingly inhospitable environment
for political activism on campus. Although the
Y strives to foster dialogue amongst UI students, faculty,
and staff, it is not officially affiliated with the University.
This allows for a more open environment for exercising
freedoms of expression and action.
In the midst of all the activism about change on a
national level and at the University, students began to recognize
a gap between their organizing on campus and the
struggles of community members in Champaign County
who face similar challenges. The campus-community
divide is exacerbated by the fact that most UI Latino students
grew up outside of the county, especially in Chicago.
In addition, community members tend to be skeptical
about student initiatives, as the perennial turnover of student
leaders creates an ebb and flow of public engagement
and a lack of institutional memory or growth.
Last semester, La Colectiva student leaders began conversations
with University YMCA staff, expressing a
desire to move out of the “campus bubble“. The Y’s new
executive director, Mike Doyle, who previously worked
at Champaign County Health Care Consumers and who
has a background in community organizing, worked
with two La Colectiva students to begin conversations
with community leaders who are in some way invested
in immigration issues locally. The focus of these
exchanges was to begin a community dialogue about
immigration and immigrant rights, and to inquire as to
what issues most directly affect the immigrant community.
Y programs would be developed from these
insights, instead of deciding in advance what the issues
are and imposing those on the community.
Over the past summer, the students, Jesse Hoyt and
Celeste Larkin, conducted about 30 interviews with
local activists, religious leaders, engaged academics,
community representatives, public officials, and business
leaders in Champaign County. At the same time, the
Y worked with the Independent Media Center to apply
for an AmeriCorps position to continue this work into
the academic year and then help build student-community
relationships. This is where I came in.
I applied to the AmeriCorps position with a background
in immigrant rights organizing in the (other) twin
cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, MN, and community
work with Zapatista agricultural and artisan collectives in
Chiapas, Mexico. Through my work at the Y since September
of this year, I continued the interviews with community
members, and looked into several possibilities for
responsible and sustainable student engagement. Our two
new programs, the high school mentorship program and
the helpline, emerged from this process and will continue
to adapt to community feedback.
There are already a number of community organizations
that work with Latinos and/or immigrants, either exclusively
or as one part of their general mission. Most
notably are the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance
Center, the Latino Partnership of Champaign County,
the Multicultural Community Center in Rantoul, Cultivadores
(also in Rantoul), Champaign County Health
Care Consumers, the University of Illinois Extension, the
after-school program S.O.A.R. at B. T. Washington, Bilingual
and ESL programs in the public schools, Spanishlanguage
news on Radio Free Urbana 104.5 FM, and a
number of churches that offer Spanish-language services
like St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Most of these programs,
like the immigrants they serve, are either relatively new
(established within the past ten to fifteen years), or have
been newly created to address immigration issues. It is the
intention of the University Y and La Colectiva to play a
collaborative and mutually supportive role with these
organizations, as well as strengthen ties between university
and community members.
One of the key insights gained from our interviews is
the significant growth rate of the Latino population in
Champaign County in recent years. While the 2000
Census found that about 8,000 (or 4.1%) Latinos lived
in the county, everyone seemed to agree that the 2010
results will show a marked increase. Perhaps the most
pressing need at this historical moment is to come to
terms with our changing demographic landscape, and to
create open – but also safe and empowering – spaces for
community dialogue amongst the increasingly heterogeneous
communities of Champaign County.

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