In the name of Democracy

Elections are instruments of democracy. Through voting, people can voice their opinions, express their hopes and aspirations, and ultimately influence the direction of their local, state, and national governments.

Voting in the United States can often be an inaccessible process preventing eligible voters, particularly in marginalized communities, from casting their ballot. This is especially true for Hispanic Latinos. Many of them are new to the electoral process, either because they just came of age or in the case of foreign-born members of the group – they just became naturalized citizens.

The New Hampshire state primary election (September 8) and midterm election (November 8) are coming up. New Hampshire Latino News (NHLN) is committed to providing Granite Staters with the information and coverage they need to perform their civic duty.

To that end, NHLN is partnering with AARP New Hampshire (AARP NH) in hosting: Community Conversation: Voting in the New Hampshire Midterms and General Election at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on August 30 at 7 p.m., which is open to the public.

This non-partisan event will feature a panel of industry experts who will explain the voting process in New Hampshire and share resources that can help residents engage and answer questions. Panelists include New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan and Executive Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Neil Levesque.

NHLN and its sister digital news and information outlets under the Latino News Network are taking a collaborative approach to prioritize communities through solutions-focused reporting rather than problem-focused.

That change in newsroom culture begins with you helping shape the programming of the upcoming Community Conversation. A survey asking the public what questions they have about the elections is being shared ahead of the August 30 event. Our newsroom sees our communities as more than just our audience; they are collaborators. Please take the time to answer the short questionnaire at the end of this article.

NHLN is also working with Friends Vote Together, a grassroots organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and civic action by rallying Americans to become more informed and educated citizens and voters. 

Friends will help the Latino News Network provide voters with resources and information to better understand which seats are up for election and the impact the outcome will have on reproduction rights and voter access.

Collaboration and inclusion are best practices our newsroom adopted from the Democracy SOS fellowship. NHLN is one of 20 U.S.-based newsrooms elected to participate in the Hearken and the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) fellowship, committed to building understanding, trust, and engagement.

New Hampshire Latino News’ mission in covering the election and democracy is dedicated to building trust with our audience through collaboration, inclusion, and transparency. We will achieve this by:

  • Before making assumptions about what communities need to know, we commit to genuinely listening to them through surveys and in-person and virtual events in order to provide information that they’re missing.
  • We will partner with trusted organizations, that help us increase accessibility to the public, broaden the reach of our coverage and prevent misinformation.
  • Our reporting will not just revolve around the candidates or one day (Election Day), but rather voters and year-round with a focus on the work of policymaking process.

Collaboration is integral to the health of news and the health of democracy. 


About New Hampshire Latino News 

NH Latino News is part of the Latino News Network (LNN). LNN oversees an independent group of local news and information, English language, digital outlets with a statewide, Hispanic-Latino community editorial focus in New Hampshire, Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

About Hugo Balta

Hugo Balta is the Owner/Publisher of the Latino News Network. A 30-year news veteran, Balta’s experience includes leadership positions with NBC, Telemundo, CBS, and ABC News networks.

The twice-elected President of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), Balta has dedicated his career to championing the fair and accurate treatment of Hispanic Latinos and other marginalized communities in newsrooms and news coverage.

CTLN Opinion+: Dawn La Valle

Welcome to another episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+, where we talk about major issues local Latinx and underrepresented communities face.

This week we spoke with Dawn La Valle, Director of the Division of Library Development for the Connecticut State Library. 

“We basically help and support our libraries to enhance their services that they provide to the community,� La Valle explained. The Division of Library Development offers all academic, public school, and special libraries a wide variety of funding, education, and leadership services. 

In this month’s episode, La Valle discussed the importance of digital equity across Connecticut’s diverse communities and shared about other inclusive efforts by the CT State Library, including the Connecticut State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH). 

“Digital Equity is about everyone having access, everyone being able to use a device to do their homework, to do their work,â€� she said. “The work that we’re doing with these libraries and educating communities is that the libraries are a wonderful place to go, many libraries offer devices, many libraries offer digital literacy classes.â€� 

Everyone is invited to Digital Inclusion Week, which will take place from October 3 – 7. The CT Libraries & Partners for Digital Equity have planned a full range of activities to showcase their efforts this past year and engage with residents. American Library Association Executive Director Tracie Hall, who has worked within digital equity for decades, will be featured as a keynote speaker. 

“We are going to highlight the work, the data, and the outcomes from the four libraries that received funding for digital navigator pilot projects,� La Valle said. “We’re going to hear from the digital navigators that have been working with these communities and allow them to tell their stories…telling the story of how this has impacted their lives [and] how this has impacted the communities.

For more information about equity and educational efforts by the CT State Library’s Division of Library Development, be sure to watch this full episode of Connecticut Latino News Opinion+.

“It’s so important for people in our communities to know that if they have a question, if they need accessibility if they need to learn to use a device—go to your library. We can help you,� La Valle said. 


Main CT State Library website:

Learn more about CT Libraries & Partners for Digital Equity (CTLPDE):

For more information on the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped:

View specific programs, services, and guides the Division of Library Development offers at:

NHLN Opinion+: Sarah Robinson

Welcome to another episode of New Hampshire Latino News Opinion+, where we talk about major issues the Latinx and other underrepresented communities face in the state of New Hampshire.

This week we spoke with Sarah Robinson, the Education Justice Coordinator of Granite State Progress. Granite State Progress works to engage citizens around issues that are of immediate state or local concern.

“What I’ve always valued about this organization is that it finds the things that matter to local progressive communities and helps to shine a light in the places where a little boost is needed,� said Robinson, who says that reproductive rights, abortion access, education justice, and gun violence are the group’s top issues at the moment.

Through Granite State Progress’ collaboration with other local groups, they found that some advocacy for public education was needed, especially given all of the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re also focusing on keeping classrooms healthy. We had a real push against mask mandates in school boards this year, so we wanted to make sure that folks and communities had all of the information they needed to understand why having all the tools in your toolbox, including masking, was important to keep healthy classrooms,� she explained.

Robinson shared her concerns with people in power attempting to redistribute funds from public education and transfer them towards private and homeschooling, which she says takes resources away from the majority of New Hampshire’s students who attend public schools.

She also explained that specific concerns she has for public education come from outside parties stating that she’s always trusted that people in her community and elected officials had her children’s best interest at heart but that the pandemic highlighted the intensity of right-wing extremism infiltrated in local school boards. According to Robinson, often times these people are not even parents or community members and only travel to these events with the intention of spreading misinformation.

Robinson remains hopeful that building community and collaboration is the key to continuing to advocate for a fair and healthy education system.

“We get across the finish line together. We succeed when we build community on a micro and a macro level,� she said.


Granite State Progress:

Granite State Progress on Facebook:

New Hampshire Latino News Opinion+: Josie Pinto, The Reproductive Freedom Fund of New Hampshire:

Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ):

Concord NH SURJ:

Sarah Robinson’s email address:

Community Conversation: Student Mental Health

WBEZ Chicago and Illinois Latino News (ILLN) will host a second virtual Community Conversation on Thursday, August 18 at 7 pm (CST) as part of their partnership in best serving the public.

Between the pandemic, remote learning, school work and social media, Chicago students have lots to be stressed about. Ahead of the 2022-2023 school year, WBEZ and Illinois Latino News are aiming to help parents prepare to keep their kids healthy while learning. This virtual event will be built based on survey responses from Chicago parents.

COVID19 revealed inequities in healthcare, and other determinants of health among Hispanics-Latinos. ILLN and WBEZ collaborated on their first Community Conversation: Lessons Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic in March.

Dr. Marina Del Rios, the first person in Chicago to receive the vaccine was among the guest speakers.

“There’s been an improvement, but we’re seeing a delay,� said Dr. Del Rios about getting Spanish dominant Hispanic Latinos information in their language of choice. �(It) speaks to the importance of having a diverse body of decision makers in public health in hospitals and clinics so that messaging is created we ensure it is multilingual and culturally competent.�

Hugo Balta, Publisher of ILLN, was the moderator of that event. “Now, more than ever, it is crucial for local news outlets to listen to the needs of the public they serve in helping shape the content we produce,� Balta said of the Community Conversation’s inclusive approach. �A survey ahead of the event is imperative in letting us know what issues matter most to the communities we serve.�

Community Conversation: Student Mental Health in Chicago Schools to be held on 8/18 will be built based on survey responses from Chicago parents.

Click here to fill out our back-to-school survey and let us know your questions about student mental health.

To register for the free event, click here: Community Conversation.

This virtual event will be available in both English and Spanish.

Our goal is to give you the information and resources you need to start the next school year off on the right foot!

About WBEZ Chicago

WBEZ is Chicago’s NPR news source and one of the largest and most respected public media stations in the country, serving the community with fact-based, objective news and information. WBEZ’s award-winning journalists ask tough questions, dig deep for answers and expose truths that spark change and foster understanding. In addition to its local and national news programming, WBEZ Chicago is home to a growing portfolio of popular podcasts, including the “Makingâ€� series of Making Beyoncé, Making Obama and Making Oprah; an investigative podcast series, Motive; 16 Shots: A podcast about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald; Nerdette; and Curious City. WBEZ Chicago has a legacy of innovation as the birthplace of nationally acclaimed programs such as This American Life, and Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and the ground-breaking podcast, Serial. 

About ILLN

The online news publication is one of five independent statewide coverage, Hispanic-Latino editorial focus English language news, and information websites under the ownership and leadership of nationally recognized journalist and media advocate, Hugo Balta. 

ILLN’s mission is to provide greater visibility and voice to Hispanics-Latinos in Illinois – an underrepresented community in mainstream newsrooms and news coverage.

The post Community Conversation: Student Mental Health  appeared first on ILLN.

AARP NH and NHLN Host Community Conversation On New Hampshire Elections 

AARP New Hampshire (AARP NH) and New Hampshire Latino News (NHLN) announce a new partnership to give Granite Staters the tools and information they need to vote in the 2022 NH primary on September 13 and the midterm election on November 8.

The collaboration features a free, in-person event called Community Conversation: Voting in the New Hampshire Midterms and General Election at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics on August 30  at 7 p.m. that is open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 pm for networking.

“We are excited to team up with New Hampshire Latino News for this unique event that will explain everything Granite Staters need to know about voting in the upcoming election,� said AARP NH Interim State Director Erin Mitchell. “The age 50+ voting bloc is the largest in New Hampshire, and we want to ensure everyone understands all they need to know to vote this year.�

This event will feature a panel of industry experts who will explain the voting process in New Hampshire and share resources that can help citizens engage and answer questions. Panelists include New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Neil Levesque, and AARP NH Associate State Director of Advocacy, Jennifer Delaney. This in-person event will also be live streamed on social media.

“The partnership is about helping people with the mechanics of voting,â€� said Hugo Balta, Publisher of NHLN. “Things like, do you know where to vote? How to vote? What you need to bring to the polling station, and much more.â€�

A survey asking the public what questions they have about the elections will be shared ahead of the community conversation and will be included in the programming. “It is a best practice our newsroom adopted from the Democracy SOS fellowship,â€� said Balta.

NHLN is one of 20 U.S.-based newsrooms elected to participate in the Hearken and the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) fellowship, committed to building understanding, trust, and engagement.

Another resource available to help voters is AARP New Hampshire’s Voters Guide. It includes information about what’s new in this year’s elections, important deadlines, and when to apply for an absentee ballot.

This event is FREE but you must register here:

About New Hampshire Latino News NH Latino News is part of the Latino News Network (LNN). LNN oversees an independent group of local news and information, English language, digital outlets with a statewide, Hispanic-Latino community editorial focus in New Hampshire, Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

About AARP New Hampshire AARP is thriving in New Hampshire with nearly 215,000 members. AARP serves as a one-stop resource for the age 50+ population in the Granite State. We provide information about the breadth of local offerings, community engagement, volunteer opportunities, advocacy, and community events. We are focused on advancing age-friendly communities, celebrating family caregivers, protecting financial security, and making your voice heard. To learn more, visit or follow @AARPNH on social media.

NHLN’s mission is to provide greater visibility and voice to the Hispanic-Latino community, amplify the work of others doing the same, develop competencies of journalists, and produce investigative reporting based on the principles of solutions journalism.

Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos: Opening Doors

On Monday, June 27th, Governor Dan McKee signed the $13.6 billion budget for the 2023 fiscal year, promising many benefits for Rhode Island residents. 

Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos appears as a guest on the Latino News Network podcast, â€œ3 Questions With…” to share details of the new budget and the benefits to the Latino community.

“I’m excited about this budget and the investment we’re making in the future of the state of Rhode Island,â€� said Matos as she shared the different elements and the impact the budget will have on the Latino community. 

“One of the areas in which I advocated for… and I’m very pleased to see that was included in the budget was the Cover All Kids campaign,� she said. This campaign will ensure that all children in the state of Rhode Island have access to health coverage regardless of their immigration status.

The Lt Governor shared other elements she advocated for that were included in the budget, like additional coverage for new mothers, investment specifically allocated for minority-owned small businesses, and a historical investment to improve homeownership in the state, taking an important step to eliminate critical disparities experienced by the Hispanic community.

 â€œI have seen first hand through my involvement with the housing advocate organizations… how building affordable housing transforms a community and transforms the quality of life of those individuals that live in that community. That’s why I make this such a priorityâ€�.

SUGGESTION: Sabina Matos: Leading The “Messy� Work Of Democracy

Lt Governor Sabina Matos was appointed as the 17th Lieutenant Governor of the state of Rhode Island on April 14, 2021, being the first Dominican American to hold this position in the United States.

“This appointment means so much to our community,â€� said Matos, deeply honored and humbled. “It means so much for our young people because they finally see someone that looks like them, that sounds like them, in a position of leadership in the state of Rhode Island…They can see that ‘this could be me, I can be this person one day.â€�

Do you have a suggestion for a guest to be featured on “3 Questions With…�? Send us your ideas to

Ilhiana Rojas Saldana is the Founder, and CEO of BeLIVE Coaching & Consulting.

She is the author of the collaborative book, Extraordinary Latinas: Powerful Voices of Resilience, Courage & Empowerment.

Rojas Saldana is also a member of the New England chapter of the Network of Executive Women (NEW).

Ilhiana is no stranger to the Latino News Network, she was a guest on the podcast “3 Questions With…”: Pulling Herself Up.

CTLN Celebrates 10 Years Serving Connecticut Latinos

CTLN founders Diane Alverio and Donna Elkinson-Miller first envisioned an inclusive media outlet dedicated to English-speaking Latino residents across Connecticut in July of 2012. 

10 years later, the flagship site has grown into a trusted and reliable network of five local media outlets that serve diverse Latino communities across New England and the Midwest.  

“There was no significant coverage of Latinos and Latino issues in CT,â€� Alverio said. “When there was any coverage by the mainstream press, it was extremely limited and at times stereotypical.â€� 

Alverio has been locally recognized by the Hartford Club, the City of Hartford, Progresso Latino Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, the Connecticut Hispanic Bar Association, and more for her work through civic organizations—including CTLN. She is also been the principal and owner of D.Alverio & Co.

Elkinson-Miller had started Elkinson-Miller Marketing LLC in 2012, after building a successful career within marketing and advertising with over a decade of experience, when Alverio approached her with the idea of CTLN. 

“I immediately realized the importance of her vision,� Elkinson-Miller said. “My mother is first-generation in the U.S. from Croatia, and I recall her stories about her arrival [about] learning English, going to a new school in a new country, etc. She lived with relatives, so she had guidance. Today, navigating the available support systems is much more complicated!� 

Connecticut Latino News original logo, July 2012

There were a few initial challenges occasionally, including funding and finding interns, but mostly convincing advertisers that Latino residents could be reached in English through culturally competent media. 

However, Elkinson-Miller said there was a quick learning curve, and with the support of professional contacts and their own families, the publication soon became successful and well-received among a variety of local communities. 

Diane Alverio, CTLN/LNN Founder,
January 2022

“Within a year, we were nationally recognized and received a McCormick Foundation award to expand to Massachusetts and Rhode Island,â€� Alverio said. “I am thrilled Hugo Balta has continued to expand Latino News Network.â€� 

In 2013, CTLN was awarded McCormick Foundation’s New Media Women Entrepreneurs Initiative (NMWE)—a highly competitive national grant administered by J-Lab—to expand its coverage of Latinos across New England. 

Alverio and Elkinson-Miller always planned to expand CTLN’s statewide coverage and Hispanic-Latino editorial focus to other parts of New England with significant Latino populations. 

Current CTLN Owners Adriana and Hugo Balta acquired the publication in 2019, with immediate plans to rebrand and expand the outlet’s work. 

“I drew from what she (Diane Alverio) had learned and built on it in Connecticut, and New England, and now the Midwest,� Balta said. There are alarming news deserts, no matter the size of the market, when it comes to serving the U.S. born, English language first, Hispanics-Latinos.�

CTLN Publisher Hugo Balta first heard about the publication in 2012 when Alverio shared her vision for the outlet with him. Balta found her response to the lack of inclusion of Latino communities in English language legacy media innovative. 

“As a veteran journalist, I was frustrated at the excuses given by the homogeneous news managers for the systemic problems resulting in the one-dimensional negative, biased narratives of Latinos across all platforms,â€� Balta said. “CTLN afforded me the opportunity to stop asking for a seat at the table figuratively, and by collaborating with others—not just build our own seats, but our own tables.â€� 

Advocating for the fair and accurate treatment of Latinos in newsrooms and news coverage is familiar work for Balta and Alverio. They are both past presidents of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ).

Diane Alverio and Hugo Balta, 2012

CTLN General Sales Manager Adriana said it has been exciting to be a part of an initiative that is focused on best serving local Latino communities. Her work seeks to build bridges between people and businesses looking to understand the Latino population better and leverage their power. 

Adriana and Hugo Balta, Chicago, 2021

“Latinos are driving the population, cultural, political, and economic growth of the U.S.,� she said. “We, at Connecticut Latino News (CTLN), and the other affiliates under the Latino News Network (LNN) work in exploring opportunities to inform, educate, and empower the community.�

Latino News Network expanded to New Hampshire (NHLN), Massachusetts (MALN) in 2020, and Rhode Island (RHLN) and Illinois (ILLN) in 2021, with plans of extending to Wisconsin this year.

The network has built on the success of its founders. In 2021, the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) chose LNN as one of 10 U.S. newsrooms to work on the Advancing Democracy project. CTLN evaluated barriers Latinos in the state have to the democratic process, as well as ways those problems are being addressed.

This year the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) and Hearken chose LNN to participate in Democracy SOS, a nine-month fellowship supporting reporters and editors in significantly strengthening journalism’s role in advancing our democracy through innovative approaches that build civic engagement, equity, and healthy discourse.

This month, the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism announced it had selected 26 journalists to participate in its 2022 National Fellowship to investigate and explore challenges impacting child, youth, and family health and well-being in the United States. Annabel Rocha, Editor for Latino News Network – Midwest and Writer for Illinois Latino News (ILLN), is among them. For her project, Rocha will be exploring Period Poverty. Period Poverty or Menstrual Poverty is defined as the lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, and/or waste management. 

“Ten years later, and I deeply believe, CTLN and the other media sites through Latino News Network are needed more than ever,� Alverio said. “You just have to look at the polarization in this country and the attempted coverage by the media of what are clearly two realities. Latinos and our stories can not be lost in the chaos.�

About Connecticut Latino News (CTLN)

Founded in July of 2012, CTLN is the flagship news and information, multi-platform, digital outlet of the Latino News Network. CTLN is the first English language news publication in Connecticut solely dedicated to serving Hispanics-Latinos.

The online news source of Connecticut Latinos provides multimedia coverage and storytelling via its website, YouTube channel, podcast, and social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linkedin.

About the Latino News Network (LNN)

The Latino News Network (LNN) oversees an independent group of local news and information, English language, and digital outlets with a statewide, Hispanic-Latino community editorial focus in Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

LNN’s mission is to provide greater visibility and voice to the Hispanic-Latino community, amplify the work of others doing the same, develop competencies of journalists, and produce investigative reporting based on the principles of solutions journalism.

LNN is owned by Balta Enterprises, LLC.

Please support the work of Connecticut Latino News and the Latino News Network by becoming a member or making a donation: I SUPPORT CTLN!

Chicago’s Water Bill Burden

Publisher’s Note: Please participate in a short survey at the end of the story. Knowing how this story may have influenced you will help guide our future reporting...Thank you!

When Anthena Gore was a teenager, she noticed that water in her home tasted different than water at school or at her friends’ houses in the suburbs. She also noticed that other Black Chicagoans near her North Lawndale residence had a similar experience. 

Gore, an adolescent at that time, felt drawn to the natural world, especially water – “the only digestible utility we have,â€� she said that is so simple yet essential. Years later, she turned her fascination into a profession and became a programs strategist at Elevate, a nonprofit organization designing programs to bring clean and affordable heat, power, and water to vulnerable communities. 

Working with water, Gore still believes it is simple. “It’s really the system that we have built, the infrastructure we have used, and the way we have structured our communities that makes something so simple very difficult,� she says. And she knows about it first-hand too:

Gore is a co-author of City of Chicago Water Affordability Analysis, a joint report from Elevate and the Metropolitan Planning Council. According to the report, in Chicago, the water burden is not evenly distributed across households of different races or income levels. 

Photo by Chanhee Lee on Unsplash

The water bill burden is the percentage of a household’s income that goes toward paying water bills

“We saw that for Chicago’s lowest-income households, the burden is about 10%, “Gore explained. “Which is way over the 4.5% threshold that the Environmental Protection Agency set nationally.” 

Translated into more straightforward language, low-income households in Chicago have to pay a disproportionally big chunk of their income for water. Big bills result in water debt or shutoffs, leaving families without water.

Which households are the most affected? Since the household-level income data is not available, Elevate looked at the census tract and the income quintiles  – groups within the population that are compiled based on how much of their income they have left to spend freely after taxes and other deductions – to isolate small geographic regions and determine average household income in it. 

The report found that the most affected households in Chicago are on the city’s West and Soth sides – Such as Austin and Humboldt Park on the West side and Riverdale and South Deering on the far Southside – where the majority of the population is non-White. For example, the water bill burden for Black households in places like Riverdale reaches an alarming 19 percent of the household’s total annual income. In contrast, the water bill burden for majorly White families, for example, on the North Side, sits at 4 percent. Oliver Ciciora, an environmental justice organizer with the Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation (SOUL), attributes the disproportion to environmental racism and historical redlining of the city. 

Ciciora says investments in Black and Brown low-income communities are scarce – to the point where lack of such an essential service as transportation prevents Southsiders from accessing Downtown Chicago and its higher-paying job market. Gore agrees: “In certain places [across Illinois], the incomes have kept pace or outpaced the water expenses for households,� he says. “In many of Chicago’s southern suburbs, the incomes have not kept pace.� 

How is water billed in Chicago?

To answer why water expenses are increasing in Chicago, it is vital to understand how billing works: Each water bill includes charges for the sewer and garbage lines, fees, and additional payments. The average bill increases drastically – by $500 annually – if a household is not metered. In this case, a home gets billed once every six months, while its metered counterpart receives bills every two or three months. With significant gaps, bills are more costly, resulting in higher taxes and more frequent penalties for late payment. 

How is the City of Chicago responding?

The election campaign of now-Chicago’s-mayor Lori Lightfoot relied heavily on water-related promises. The promises came to life with varying success:

In 2019, when Lightfoot took office, around 150,000 households in the city had received shutoff orders. The same year, the mayor introduced a moratorium on water shutoffs, banning shutoffs due to non-payment. However, the pandemic prolonged the moratorium, which expired on April 1, 2022. By the end of April, the mayor re-introduced it, aiming to ban water shutoffs again, but it was voted down in May 2022. Water commissioner Andrea Cheng said at the time that the Chicago City Council generally agreed with the intent of improving water affordability. Still, it would also not be possible to implement what the ordinance required. 

Anthena Gore supports the ordinance and says water advocates are pushing to make it permanent. 

In 2019 Chicago terminated the MeterSave Program –which had installed 130,000 meters citywide since its launch in 2009 – citing concerns with lead levels in the water. In May 2022, however, Major Lightfoot pledged to resume the voluntary installation of water meters to 180,000 households without them.

Oliver Ciciora is skeptical about the initiative: “The current ordinance about metering is not concrete,� he says. “It states that the City may change the meters within 90 days, but it doesn’t say that they will install a meter into your home.�

As the metering process might prove lengthy still, Gore suggests formulating a new calculation for nonmetered households. The current formula is based on factors like the square footage of the building, the number of outputs, and others, so “bills do not reflect the actual usage of water in the household,â€� Gore adds. 

In 2020, Chicago also switched to a permanent utility billing relief program. Through the program, qualified residents of Chicago will be paying their water and sewer charges – with garbage charges not included – at a 50 percent reduced rate. In addition, after paying on time for 12 months, they will be forgiven their past water debt. 

“[Residents] can stay on the program indefinitely as long as they are income-eligible,” Gore explains. “So that helped a little bit with the non-meter issue, but it doesn’t exactly address the entire affordability challenge across the city.” Indeed, the program is limited to homeowners of single-family or 2-unit properties whose income qualification is generally 200 percent of the federal poverty level. 

Is there a better approach to water affordability?

Ciciora and his colleagues at SOUL have been working closely with their colleagues in Baltimore, Maryland, in an attempt to advocate for an equivalent of the city’s successful Water ForAll program. 

In 2015 the city of Baltimore was facing a wave of water shutoffs, where 20 thousand households were left without access to water. Advocacy groups, such as Food and Water Watch, got involved and have since been trying to change the city’s approach to water. As a result, Baltimore passed the Water Accountability and Equity Act this year – the model SOUL hopes to implement in Chicago. 

“The idea of this model is income-based water affordability,” explains Mary Grant, the Public Water for all campaign director at Food and Water Watch. The program uses a formula to calculate the maximum amount of bills a resident should pay for annual water and sewer services based on the household income percentage. The percentage can not exceed 3 percent of a household’s income and so would not burden it to the point where residents are forced to remain without water. 

Where grassroots organizations first popularized the income-based approach two decades ago, Philadelphia was the first and only city before Baltimore to pass the law in 2017. Since then, “they gave about $10 million in discounts a year, but the net cost after you account for improved bill payment patterns is $2 million,” Grant says. “So they’re actually only collecting $2 million less, even despite providing $10 million in discounts.” 

For Grant, this is evidence of improved bill payment patterns, where the city is collecting more money after assisting than it used to without it. “It’s a win-win situation for the city and the customers,” Grant adds.

Despite seemingly positive data from Philadelphia, cities have been reluctant to follow suit: In Detroit, advocates have fought for years, collecting data and generating research, but the city has not passed the law yet. Mary Grant sees this as a problem that easily translates to Chicago’s situation:

“The utility itself can be hesitant to change without good leadership, right?” She says. “You need proactive leadership and legislation to make that change.” 

“It’s really the system that we have built, the infrastructure we have used, and the way we have structured our communities that makes something so simple very difficult”

Athena Gore, Strategist, Water Programs, Elevate

Gore sees cultural factors in Chicago’s unwillingness to change: 

“The [utilities] industry has been predominantly homogeneous for half a century, with infrastructure that has not been upgraded for almost two centuries. America, in general, is at a turning point right now where once we bring everybody in, we can start from a place of justice.” She adds that affordability concerns should start with respect for every individual affected. 

Mary Grant echoes her sentiment by concluding in a clear, digestible manner – isn’t water the only digestible utility after all? – “Just providing assistance isn’t enough. You really need to meet people where they’re at, making sure they have bills that are affordable for them based on their income.”

Cover Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

Irina Matchavariani is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

She is working with Illinois Latino News (ILLN) as part of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute’s (RJI) Student Innovation Fellowships program, gaining hands-on experience helping the outlets connect with their audiences.

A native of the Republic of Georgia, Irina’s experience includes working with Vox Magazine and the Columbia Missourian.

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One Way or Another, COVID Will Get You: Uninfected Yet Greatly Affected

On a bustling Friday morning, the aroma of rice and beans wafts through a cloud of hairspray in Romy’s Beauty Salon in Meriden. Merengue music soothes the senses. Customers exchange pleasantries in Spanish as Romy Norwood offers each a small bowl of “arroz y habichuela,� the Dominican staple of rice and beans. Later in the day, Norwood repeats the courtesy with small mugs of strong coffee, “cafecito,� prepared by her mother, Yolanda Sosa, in the kitchenette in the rear of the shop. Unlike Norwood and her mother, most clients aren’t wearing a mask.

Neither Norwood nor anyone in her immediate family has been infected with COVID-19. Norwood, 46, and her husband, Jeffrey Norwood, 65, live in Cheshire with their children Jennifer, 14, and Ramon, 12, and their dog, Zeus. Since the start of the pandemic, Norwood says, they have been vigilant about wearing masks, social distancing and getting tested and vaccinated. Two beloved aunts succumbed to COVID in the Dominican Republic, where Norwood grew up, but everyone else in her family has remained healthy, including 73-year-old Sosa, who splits time between Norwood’s Cheshire home and her own home in the Dominican Republic.

By all accounts, Norwood and her loved ones appear to have dodged the most severe health outcomes of COVID. This is especially good news for the Norwoods since Black and Hispanic families have been disproportionately impacted by the virus in health outcomes and as small-business owners. According to a report by the U.S. Small Business Association, the total number of people who were self-employed and working declined by 20.2% between April 2019 and April 2020. Hispanic people experienced a more significant decline, at 26%. The biggest declines were experienced among Asian and Black people, with 37.1% for Asians and 37.6% for Blacks.

Norwood’s beauty salon was shuttered for almost six months during the pandemic. “I didn’t have an emergency plan,� Norwood says in Spanish. Some clients died of COVID, and others simply have not returned to her salon. She decided to forgo a federal PPP loan and incurred credit card debt. She estimates her business has returned to 75% of its pre-pandemic performance.

“One way or another, COVID will get you,� Norwood says about the mental fatigue her family has experienced. She says hypervigilance, anxiety and fear have crept in, replacing many of the happy feelings they had when they settled in Connecticut. The disease has taken an emotional toll on the family. They have been uninfected yet greatly affected by COVID.

Seeking Refuge From COVID

While taking a leisurely Sunday drive through Meriden in 2006, Norwood was attracted to the city’s quiet beauty and spirit. There were Black and brown people like her and Jeffrey. Spanish was spoken in bodegas. At the time, the couple was living and working in West Haven after having met in The Bronx. Norwood also liked that Meriden was far enough away from West Haven that she would not work in direct competition with her former beauty salon employer. So, she and Jeffrey, a physician at the West Haven VA Medical Center, moved to Meriden, and she opened Romy’s Beauty Salon on West Main Street. They lived in the upstairs apartment. In 2007, they were married in Jamao al Norte, Norwood’s hometown in the fertile Cibao region of the Dominican Republic.

Yolanda Sosa, 73, prepares a Dominican-style lunch at Romy’s Beauty Salon in Meriden.
Sosa splits time between Connecticut and her home in the Dominican Republic.

In Meriden, Norwood established a loyal clientele, and the couple started their family. Business was good. They became parishioners at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church, where today Norwood serves as a eucharistic minister and a leader on the parish council. As Jennifer and Ramon grew up, the family began to vacation two or three times a year—the Bahamas, Mexico, Italy, Punta Cana. They went on cruises.

On March 21, 2020, the Norwoods flew to the Turks and Caicos Islands to seek refuge from the global pandemic. Looking over their shoulders on the flight from Bradley International Airport, they realized they were the only passengers on the plane, Norwood says. When they arrived at Providenciales, Norwood recalls, tourists were scrambling to leave the island. The last flight to the United States departed shortly after their arrival. They initially embraced the lockdown in their hotel room, thinking they would weather the hype and fly home to normalcy.

Then all flights were grounded in Turks and Caicos. A curfew was imposed. They were permitted outdoors for one hour a day. Groceries at the local supermarket were rationed. Food quickly became a scarce resource. Leftovers, Norwood says, became the dreaded meal of the day. They were stuck, marooned on a tropical island, and weren’t even allowed to swim.

Then the hotel manager demanded $10,000 a week from Jeffrey Norwood to remain in their room beyond their original reservation. So, they found an online rental, bought linens and rid the house of cockroaches. It was a mess, Norwood says. They hunkered down.

Their only outside contact was Zeus, a scroungy, flea-infested watchdog.

At first, the family didn’t have much to do with the spotted pit bull-dalmatian mix. They kept their distance. “Could he transmit the virus?� Norwood recalls thinking at the time, given the widespread uncertainty about COVID. Zeus was always hungry and thirsty. He scratched at their front door at night. Later they would learn he had been whipped with sticks and left outdoors during hurricanes.

Then one day, Zeus joined the family on a walk during their one hour outdoors. When he was grazed and injured by a passing vehicle and began yelping, recalls Norwood, they decided to allow him into the house to clean him up and help him heal. Thus began the process of adopting Zeus.

During a lull on a hot summer day, Yolanda Sosa washes her daughter Romy Norwood’s hair in Romy’s Beauty Salon in Meriden.

The Norwoods spent a month on the island before Jeffrey chartered a private jet from Miami to fly his family home to Connecticut on April 17, 2020. They submitted the paperwork for Zeus. A month later, Jeffrey drove to Miami, picked up Zeus and returned to Cheshire.

“I believe Zeus is an angel,� says Norwood, her eyes sparkling, as she recounts how the Turks and Caicos misadventure represents both the best and worst of their pandemic experiences. “God sent him to care for and protect us,� she says. Today, she says, “Zeus is king of the house. He has three beds, all the food he wants,� adding that he adores her mom.

‘Up To Here With COVID’

COVID has affected the Norwood family in myriad ways.

“We’re without life,� Norwood says in Spanish while taking a break between clients at her salon. No more family movie nights with popcorn, she says. No vacations. No romantic getaways. No games. No fun.

There have been a few weekend trips to New Hampshire, where they rent a house, but they take their food and sequester, Norwood says. The kids don’t want to go back to New Hampshire, she says, because they aren’t allowed to leave the house. “I’m up to here with COVID,� says Norwood. “I don’t want to hear anything else about COVID.�

She says her mom’s help at home and in the salon has been unconditional. After the debacle on Turks and Caicos, Norwood described how she would come home from the salon, strip down in a separate area and shower. Her mom’s Dominican cooking was always waiting for her. “My mother is everything to me,� she says.

Her husband is fearful of getting COVID. Norwood says her husband doesn’t talk about what he has experienced as a physician on the front lines. He still wears two masks and goggles or a shield, whether he’s getting gas or going to a Mets game, Norwood says. In 2018, the couple relocated to Cheshire for its schools. When they returned to school, Jennifer and Ramon had fallen behind. Norwood says Jennifer has become less sociable and more of a homebody. She avoids crowds lest she be exposed to the virus. She has been bullied at school, where classmates have ridiculed her hair and body type. Her children have become anxious, Norwood says.

During the spike in infections last December, Norwood decided to keep Ramon home from school until the end of February, when he turned 12 and was eligible for the adult vaccine. She felt the higher dosage would be more protective and worth the wait. However, school officials hounded Norwood about Ramon’s absence. She suspects online instruction is purposely inferior to persuade parents to return their children to school.

“Tengo temor porque el COVID es impredecible,� Norwood says in Spanish. “I’m fearful because COVID is unpredictable.� It may not affect you at all or it may send you to the hospital, she says. She fears for her children and her elderly mother. With all of her precautions, clients still sneeze while touching their hair, face and shoulders, she says. Many have later called to inform her that they’ve tested positive. Jeffrey prefers that she close the salon and not work, she says.

Romy Norwood puts her feet up at the end of a 10-hour day at her beauty salon. A Dominican hair stylist, she was forced to close her business during the initial 6 months of the pandemic in 2020 and says she has recovered about 75% of what her business was earning before COVID-19.

“I got the works,� says longtime customer Jeannette Solano, 53, of Meriden, about getting her hair washed, colored and beautified by Norwood on a recent Saturday afternoon. For Solano, the salon experience is a reprieve from the daily grind of the pandemic. “Estaba muy triste,� she says in Spanish, “I was very sad� about Norwood salon’s hiatus in 2020. Describing Norwood as friendly, humble and fun to be around, she says she stops in once a month. “Romy does it right,� she says, explaining how a hairdresser recently damaged her hair during a visit home to the Dominican Republic. Solano has received two doses of the Moderna vaccine, she says.

During an afternoon lull at the salon, the air conditioner quits. Norwood sits down and asks Sosa to wash her hair. A few minutes later, Norwood’s back on her feet. At the end of her 10-hour shift, the salon is quiet. Norwood sits beneath a hair dryer, elevates her bare feet and closes her eyes for 20 minutes. “I need this,� she says.

In July, Norwood, her children and her mother plan to vacation for three weeks in her “pueblo Dominicano,� Jamao al Norte. Jeffrey is not going, she says. “I miss my life before COVID. I miss the freedom. The river, the food, the people, the beach,� says Norwood during a break between clients. “I can’t wait.�

Cover Photo: Jennifer Rodriguez, 27, of Meriden, gets a “keratinaâ€� – which in Spanish means a straightening – by Romy Norwood. From left under hairdryer is Melissa Hernandez, of Middletown; Romy’s mother Yolanda Sosa; Rodriguez; and Norwood.

All photos by Patrick Raycraft.

Publisher’s Note: ‘One Way or Another, COVID Will Get You:’ Uninfected Yet Greatly Affected was first published on Connecticut Health I-Team.

CTLN and collaborate to best serve the Connecticut Hispanic, Latino community.

Gen U employees ask: “Is there a better way to work and live?”

Unions are having a comeback after years of declining influence. Employees from companies across the country are increasingly organizing to ask for more benefits, pay, and safety from their employers.

Experts say employee organizing at high-profile companies like Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s, and Starbucks is due to the pandemic inspiring workers to question, ‘is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship dynamic between employers and workers.

Starbucks leads the surge of unionizations as baristas in over 200 stores across the country have filed for union elections. So far, 165 stores have won their elections, while only 26 stores have lost.

According to Fernando Vargas-Soto, a former Starbucks employee in Logan Square, the employees started thinking about unionizing back in December, when the company started rolling back some of their COVID policies despite the country’s surge of the Omicron variant at the time. He said the plastic barriers at the store’s counters were removed, and their COVID isolation pay (Two weeks (up to 80 hours) of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay) was reduced.

Former Starbucks employee Fernando Vargas-Soto was fired in May in what he says was a retaliatory move by Starbucks in response to his efforts to unionize the store.

“At one point, we actually had to physically get a positive test result from a clinic, at home test would not suffice,� he said. “When I got sick, I was only given five days of isolation. So I was still testing positive when I had to go back. So I was working while still testing positive.�

Workers at the Starbucks’ Loop location also struggled with the company’s COVID policies. According to Zero Muñoz, who works there, many employees had difficulty securing their sick pay from the company. Additionally, they often faced harassment from customers whenever they tried to enforce the city’s mask mandate at the time.

Another main concern baristas at Muñoz’s store had was security; staff had been asking for improvements from the company for months.

“We do not feel safe for a huge portion of the day,� Muñoz said. She added that a big trigger was how an angry customer had threatened to shoot the employees present at the store last year. According to her, management did not do anything to address their concerns about safety until after they had filed for a union election. At that point, the company assigned a security guard to her store. However, employees pointed out that the guard isn’t present all the time.

“We just wanted to feel more secure, we wanted to feel safer, and we wanted to feel better about our work environment,� Munoz said concerning why they decided to unionize.

Starbucks Accused of Anti-union Tactics 

Of those that voted to reject the union in the Chicago area, the Loop and Logan Square were among the locations.

“It’s pretty unfortunate; I definitely feel pretty frustrated and sad,� said Vargas-Soto. Their store had filed for union certification in early January, but voting didn’t happen until May. He said that he feels the long wait contributed to why their store ultimately voted against the union.

“The amount of time that we had to wait really allowed the team to feel tired,� he said. He added that during the months-long wait, anti-union workers and managers spent spreading misinformation and launching attacks on pro-union employees. The other store in Chicago that lost its elections also had a similar several-month-long wait in between their filing and their elections.

One employee was transferred to a different store without prior approval, while another had their hours cut so severely that they ultimately had to look for another job. Things came to a head when Vargas-Soto himself was fired in early May, which he says was retaliation from management for his union activities.

“I was fired because I was supposed to come in for work at 9 am, but because of the construction near my store, I had to park really far away,” he said. “I was told that the policy is if I know that I’m going to be late before my shift starts, I’m supposed to call the store to let them know that I would be late. So that’s what I did. And despite that, I was fired for being six minutes late.”

Vargas-Soto added that on previous occasions that he was late, management would single him out and reprimand or punish him despite other employees occasionally showing up to work late.

According to Workers United, Starbucks has aggressively pursued anti-union tactics against its employees and punished those who have led efforts to unionize. As a result, the union has filed more than 180 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB’s Buffalo office has found “serious and substantial� misconduct on Starbucks’ end and has charged the company with more than 200 labor law violations.

The Barista Uprising

Before the Starbucks movement, other coffee shop employees in the city turned to unionization to address similar problems. Simon Rafet has worked for the past four months at Colectivo, a Wisconsin-based roaster and cafe chain with five Chicago-area locations. All Colectivo branches are unionized and represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBW). However, since they only unionized last year, they are still negotiating a contract.

IBW is also working to represent employees at Intelligentsia Coffee, which joined a still-growing wave of labor organizing among employees at coffee companies locally and across the U.S.

Pro-union staff at Intelligentsia’s six-city cafes and its Chicago Roasting Works warehouse in the West Loop submitted the petition in late May.

Like Starbucks employees, Rafet and his coworkers are fighting for better pay and company support.

A month ago, Rafet caught COVID from a coworker while on the job and had difficulty securing paid time off.

“I had to go beg for my PTO, and I only got 16 hours,� Rafet said.

Robert Bruno, the Director of the Labor Studies Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), believes that unionization is the best path forward for workers to secure more rights for themselves.

“They have to take it upon themselves to speak for themselves and to collectively decide the conditions upon which they work,� Bruno said, adding that he believes that as more Starbucks stores win their respective elections, other industries will be inspired to organize as well.

68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest rate since 71 percent in 1965, according to Gallup poll

Bruno said that now, the political climate is very friendly to labor movements, with President Joe Biden expressing his support for unions in recent months. Biden promised to be the “most pro-union president ever� and has been very vocal about his support for the PRO Act, which aims to make the unionization process more accessible and less bureaucratic.

Many Americans share Biden’s support for unions. A Gallup poll conducted last September showed that 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest rate since 71 percent in 1965, reported CNBC.

Richard Bensinger, a union organizer with Starbucks Workers United and a former organizing director of the AFL-CIO, tells the cable business news channel that he believes most of the pro-union workers are in their early 20s, prompting him they are part of a “Gen U� for unions.

Gallup data from 2021 also finds that young adults ages 18 to 34 approve of unions at 77 percent.

With that being said, Bruno acknowledged that Starbucks would probably continue to crack down on its employees in the coming months.

“I think they’ll continue to fire workers; I think they’ll continue to try to intimidate workers,” he said. “That’s an unfortunate tool that employers use.

Despite all these challenges, Vargas-Soto still believes he made the right choice in pushing for a union at his Starbucks store. He now works at Colectivo and says his experience there is more positive.

Vargas-Soto has reason to be optimistic. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2019, union members earned an average of 19% more than their nonunion counterparts.

“It’s night and day,” he said. “Employees are just a little bit happier,” Vargas-Soto noted that when employees are about to enter a conversation with management that feels punitive, they can discontinue the conversation and resume it later in the presence of a union representative.

“Just because we lost the election out of my (Starbucks) store doesn’t mean the fight’s over,” he said. “We’re not doing it simply because it’s a part of the moment. It’s what’s right. And when you’re doing what’s right, it doesn’t matter how long it takes.”

Raphael Hipos is a graduate student at Northwestern University with more than 2 years of experience in the media industry.

Hipos has worked with various organizations including ABS-CBN and CNN Philippines. He is skilled in the various aspects of television news production, which he studied extensively during his undergraduate education at the University of the Philippines.

You can follow him Twitter and on LinkedIn.

Publisher’s Note: Illinois Latino News (ILLN) collaborates with Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications in providing students with mentoring and real work experiences. As such, ILLN is part of the professional partnerships within the Social Justice Specialization and part of Medill’s Metro Media Lab.

Cover Photo by Mason McCall:

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