Alderwoman Nicole Lee: Government Reflecting The Community

An expected bump in violent crime this summer has Chicago officials and community leaders rolling out strategies focused on public safety.

Recently, Mayor Brandon Johnson announced a $2.5 million investment to support violence prevention and youth outreach across Chicago by funding the work of more than 250 grassroots organizations on the South and West sides.

Still, there’s skepticism that familiar initiatives of making police officers more visible and engaging with the community, work at keeping the peace. Alderwoman Nicole Lee, 11th ward, believes police must have the resources they need to do their jobs, but also insists on accountability in addressing public needs.

Alderwoman Lee was a guest on the podcast, “3 Questions With…�, hosted by Hugo Balta, publisher of IL Latino News.

Alderwoman Lee made history when she was appointed alderwoman in March 2022, as the first Asian American woman and first Chinese American to serve on City Council. In April, she was elected to a first full term representing the city’s first Asian majority ward. During her campaign, Lee highlighted that she attended every Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meeting to explore how her constituents could contribute to police efforts. “Attending these CAPS meetings…really allows for us to be connected to what’s happening and then be talking to residents about how we can address some of those things,” Lee said on the importance of residents being informed about public safety concerns.

In regard to civic engagement, Alderwoman Lee shared that often people do not participate in the electoral process because they don’t see themselves in government. “I’m really proud to be the representative for our community, not just for the 11th ward, but the Asian American community across the city of Chicago,” she said. “When it comes to where resources are spent or how they’re allocated – we need a voice that is representative of our community; to be looking out for our interest too.”

One of the lessons Lee says public service has taught her about people having a voice in government: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.

“3 Questions With…� is co-produced by the Latino News Network (LNN), an independent, multimedia digital news outlet with local newsrooms in the Northeast and Midwest, including IL Latino News  and CAN TV, Chicago’s hub for community centric news, hyperlocal stories and educational resources.

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A Tale Of Two Neighborhoods

Above are the views of East Garfield Park I get every time I step out of school. Trash and abandonment surround Westinghouse, entrapping its students in hopelessness. For three years, I have been surrounded by the same bleak background every time I look out of my classroom window, with it only getting progressively worse.

These photographs were taken on the same day, June 4th, 2023. The first set of seven pictures is from Logan Square, and the second is from East Garfield Park. Though the distance between these neighborhoods is at most ten minutes, a significant difference in investment is apparent. It is no coincidence that what separates these two communities are the demographics. According to the CMAP, Logan Square is around 52 percent white, while East Garfield Park is roughly 85 percent Black. 

The Logan Square Chamber of Commerce has the mission statement of helping the economic growth of Logan Square. One way they achieve this is through the farmer’s market. Meanwhile, first-hand accounts published on ProPublica of people living in East Garfield Park show the abandonment and disinvestment. “All our buildings have been torn down, and we have totally vacant lots,” said Siri Hibbler, head of the Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce, about the challenges of luring new businesses to Madison Street.

The dramatic difference between these two neighborhoods is a recurring problem shown throughout the segregated city of Chicago. According to the Urban Institute, white households receive 4.6 times more market investment than Black households and 2.6 times more than Hispanic, Latino households. 

Change must occur to help build up all Chicago communities and not just the primarily white ones. Too often are the needs of minority communities in Chicago sidelined or wholly ignored. As Annette Britton (an East Garfield resident) described to ProPublica, “This was a working-class community with businesses. All of that has been stripped away.â€�

Improvements must be made to return to that standard and improve on it. For change to happen, the government needs to invest more in these communities and provide aid for those struggling through incentives for small businesses and affordable housing creation. 

A house can only stay up if it is structurally sound. If Chicago is the house, then that makes all of its communities, regardless of demographics, a crucial part of its structure and strength.

Esteban Balta is an incoming Senior at George Westinghouse College Prep. He aspires to become a photojournalist.

Originally from the Northeast, Esteban has been a resident of Chicago for three years. He was born in Northern New Jersey and spent his childhood in Central Connecticut.

Esteban is the son of Hugo Balta, Publisher of IL Latino News.

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“Flamenco Passion” Returns To The North Shore Center

SKOKIE – “Bravo!” “Brava!” “Ole!” Enthusiastic cheers filled the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts Friday night. The energetic applause from the audience’s standing ovation reflected the hand clapping and percussive footwork on the stage by the Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater.

The performances (6/16-18) feature a diverse program showcasing Flamenco, Classical and Folkloric Spanish dance styles in both traditional and contemporary genres.

“The thrilling program features the full array of Spanish dance, including the ever-popular Flamenco in classic and contemporary styles plus stunning costumes and dazzling lighting design guaranteed to quicken the pulse, touch the heart and renew the soul,� said Jorge Perez, Executive & Associate Artistic, Ensemble Español.

A standout in a performance filled with standouts was by guest artist Irene “La Chiqui� Lozano. “Donde Todo Comienza�, choreographed and performed by Lozano in Act 2 punctuated an evening of intricate hand, arm, and body movements that was often accompanied by the beautifully profound music of Curro de Maria (guitarist), Paco Fonta (singer & guitarist), and Jose Moreno (percussionist).

Also joining the members of Ensemble Español was Isaac Tovar, whose coquettish performance of “Desde Cai� was met with applause and flirtatious smiles from elated theater goers.

 Isaac Tovar performing “Desde Caiâ€� – (Courtesy: Ensemble Español)

The “Flamenco Passion� performances are part of Ensemble Español’s 47th American Spanish Dance and Music Festival which also features Festival Spanish Dance Classes at Northeastern Illinois University Dance Studios: The festival (6/16-24) offers 44 dance classes in the Escuela Bolera, Folklore and Flamenco styles including Flamenco guitar, song and percussion. 

Classes are presented in multiple levels from beginners introductory with no previous Spanish dance experience required to intermediate and advanced. This year’s star line up of instructors include: Ensemble Español Artistic Director Irma Suarez Ruiz.

“The workshops offered as part of the American Spanish Music and Dance Festival offer a special opportunity to learn from the best and we’re proud to make these classes available and accessible for everyone regardless of age or their dance experience,� said Ruiz. “For 47 years, Ensemble Español has celebrated Spain in America through performances, arts education, and community programs that bring the dance, music, and song of Spain to U.S. audiences.�

Additional classes will be offered this summer through Aug. 4. In the fall there will be a new schedule of classes that will include the addition of a Chicago location.

“Flamenco Passion”, Ensemble Español – (Courtesy: Ensemble Español)

Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater, founded in 1976 by artistic director Dame Libby Komaiko (1949-2019), is the premiere Spanish dance company and center in the U.S. with a professional and unique residency at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago. Under the artistic direction of Ruiz and Perez, company successors, the Ensemble continues its mission of preservation, presentation and promotion of Spanish dance and culture.

For more class information and registration, visit or call 773-442-5916.

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Darion Crawford: Creating Safe Spaces

The South Side of Chicago in particular, saw an outburst of steel production during World War II that at one point, accounted for ​​20 percent of all steel made in the U.S. But steel production in the ’50s and ’60s declined and many factories were abandoned, leaving behind harm to the land and its residents.

Promises by the government to clean up contaminated and vacant properties have been slow to materialize, leaving the community to come up with its own solutions. Organizations like the Urban Growers Collective are spearheading such efforts to make green spaces more just and equitable in areas that have been historically divested.

Darion Crawford, an Urban Farmer and Compost Coordinator with UGC spoke with with Hugo Balta, publisher of Illinois Latino News on the podcast, â€œ3 Questions With…â€� about supporting communities in developing systems where food is grown, prepared, and distributed within the community itself.

Crawford is also a cohort in this year’s Latino Policy Forum’s Multicultural Leadership Academy. MLA’s goal is to provide a diverse group of civic leaders with the leadership skills needed to facilitate collaboration between Latinos and African Americans through intercultural collaboration and social action.

“Like the farm spaces, it’s a safe space,” said Crawford of MLA. Being allowed to be vulnerable and be heard says Crawford, gives him support for the work he does with the Urban Growers Collective.

“3 Questions With…â€� is co-produced by the Latino News Network (LNN), an independent, multimedia digital news outlet with local newsrooms in the Northeast and Midwest, including IL Latino News  and CAN TV, Chicago’s hub for community centric news, hyperlocal stories and educational resources.

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Expungement Event Attracts Community Members Looking to Clear Their Record

IL Latino News covers the social determinants of health and democracy. Ensuring that the public has accurate information about and fair access to the judicial system is a staple for a healthy democratic society.

Sunlight poured into a Corliss High School classroom on a Saturday morning, beaming against the backs of black puffer jackets and fur-trimmed coats worn to brave the cold, windy March chills outside. This makeshift waiting room, located in the Pullman neighborhood, was not full of students waiting for the bell to ring, signifying dismissal. In these chairs sat over two dozen community members, adults, hoping to ignite the process of dismissing records that for some, date back decades.

This process of expungement completely removes a non-conviction criminal case from one’s public record and while it does not pardon the crime, an expunged sentence will no longer appear on background checks. Dismissals, acquittals, supervision, and TASC probation are some examples of cases that may be eligible.

While the state implements some protection for employees such as the Employee Background Fairness Act, criminal background checks can hinder access to employment, or housing. A study by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 79 percent of formerly incarcerated people reported being denied housing due to a criminal conviction. Because criminal information is documented indefinitely, the effects are long term.

“Sometimes I found myself talking to people that 20 or 30 years later, that [record] is still part of their impediment to getting good housing, getting a good education…� said the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County Iris Martinez. “It’s important that this office work with those individuals to make sure that their records are expunged because guess what, they already paid their dues to society.�

Normally expungement requests must be filed in person at the courthouse but this “Clerk in the Community� event aimed to make the process more accessible by collaborating with T.R.E.A.D, an organization that helps low-income families and individuals overcome poverty, and meeting constituents in their neighborhoods.

Martinez became the first Latina elected to this role in November 2020, taking office in December of that year. She said that stepping into this role, she prioritized building trust with the community and saw an opportunity to connect by tapping religious leaders like Reverend Elena Calloway and Father Michael Pfleger.

“Who are more trusting than the individuals like a Reverend Calloway and so many others?�

An assembly line of attorneys from Cabrini Green Legal Aid and the Legal Aid Office of Chicago lined the left side of the room, working pro bono, as they met with people who pre-registered to be seen. One by one, names were called and guests were directed from one side of the room to the next, manila folders in hand.  According to the Clerk’s Office, 30 individuals were registered for the process that day. 

Carmen Navarro Gercone, Executive Clerk for Court Operations for the Clerk of the Circuit Court for Cook County explained that while participants of the petition drive still had additional steps to finalize their expungement, the paperwork filed that day expedited the process. 

“We have several members of the clerk’s office here today who are collecting those petitions, we are stamping those petitions and we will be filing those petitions for them to present them to the State’s Attorney for the next steps,� she explained.

By 11:11 a.m. only two people remained. 

“It looks like we’re gonna end early which is very, very exciting,â€� said Gercone.

By 11:20 a.m. the last name was called. Officials went through their registration list and the classroom cleared out.

“It was important that we really put this together in a way that made sense, and that it was organized, without no chaos, and making sure that the transition would be a very smooth transition, which you could see today was exactly that,� said Clerk Martinez.

The Clerk’s office is hosting a community forum this Saturday, June 17 at St. Sabina Church, 1210 W 78th Pl., as part of an initiative to educate the public on the expungement process.

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3 Questions With…Cristina Pacione-Zayas

CHICAGO – Days after being elected mayor of Chicago in the April runoff election against Paul Vallas, Brandon Johnson named state Sen. Cristina Pacione-Zayas as his first deputy chief of staff.

Pacione-Zayas, widely recognized for her career-long efforts to promote educational equity, sat down with Hugo Balta, publisher of Illinois Latino News on the podcast, “3 Questions With…”. “I think one of the advantages that we have is that Mayor Johnson is a former education,” Pacione-Zayas said. “What that will translate into is having some significant advocacy efforts around funding for our schools; ensuring more equitable distribution of resources.”

The incoming Deputy also shared her accomplishments in Springfield, as a state senator. Among them, her advocacy created the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity, which provides financial and wrap-around support for members of the incumbent early childhood workforce while earning degrees and credentials to improve the quality of early childhood services and programs. She led the Too Young to Test Act, which dismantles harmful testing procedures for young students in the state. Sen. Pacione-Zayas established the floor for economic eligibility for the Child Care Assistance Program to ensure that budgets are not balanced on the backs of families with limited economic resources.

Still, despite the large body of work during her tenure as state senator, Pacione-Zayas admits there is still more (work) left to be done because of institutions not “designed to have folks with my lived experiences, and other lived experiences, particularly people of color, people who grew up with limited economic resources to be at those decision making tables to really make government more humane, more of a system of care, and more people centered.”

The only child of two community organizers, Pacione-Zayas grew up in public housing on Chicago’s northwest side. Experience that helped shape her life’s work. “Community is family; we show up for each other,” she said when sharing how her parents work, including ensuring that families had their basic needs met, instilled in her a sense of social responsibility.

“3 Questions With…” is co-produced by the Latino News Network (LNN), an independent, multimedia digital news outlet with local newsrooms in the Northeast and Midwest, including IL Latino News  and CAN TV, Chicago’s hub for community centric news, hyperlocal stories and educational resources.

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Latino News Network & CAN-TV Present: 3 Questions With…

CHICAGO – The Latino News Network (LNN), an independent, multimedia digital news outlet with local newsrooms in the Northeast and Midwest, including IL Latino News proudly announced its new partnership with CAN TV, Chicago’s hub for community centric news, hyperlocal stories and educational resources.

In the collaboration, CAN TV is supporting the production of “3 Questions With…” (3QW), a public affairs program that focuses on the social determinants of health and democracy. 

Dr. Geraldine Luna, medical director of the Chicago Department of Public Health, and board member of Illinois Unidos was the first guest of the joint venture.

Hosted by Hugo Balta, publisher of LNN, the weekly show will feature thoughtful conversations with community leaders working to solve the most pressing social issues in their spaces. Balta, a veteran journalist whose past experiences include being the executive editor of The Chicago Reporter, news director of WTTW News and editor at WBBM News Radio, is also the twice president and a Hall of Fame member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“When we began speaking with CAN TV about 3QW, we knew we wanted to go beyond a look into social issues, ” said Balta. The program is built on a foundation of solutions, said Balta, which he believes is essential to overcoming societal pressures and divides and instead creating a more equitable and sustainable world. “Today, we need community voices and leaders elevated and amplified, and this partnership will perfectly align with that mission.”

“This partnership is a key step in redefining the importance of thoughtful, community-centric journalism,” said Darrious Hilmon, executive director of CAN TV. “We’re thrilled to provide Chicagoans with another way to access LNN’s incredible reporting, and look forward to expanding the partnership in the months to come, shining a spotlight on the stories that matter most.”

3QW will air weekly on Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. CST, and will also be available on streaming services, including Roku, Fire TV Stick and iOS and Android devices. The program will also be available in podcast form. The first show will air on May 10 and feature Dr. Geraldine Luna, medical director for Chicago’s Department of Public Health.

This announcement is the latest in CAN TV’s continued push to amplify the voices of local reporting and community leaders. As it enters its 40th year, the community television network is launching a new spring lineup of signature programming that will continue to connect Chicagoans to hyperlocal stories and the people who make Chicago such a great place to live, work and play. To stay up to date with new releases and announcements, and for more information on CAN TV, visit     


For four decades, CAN TV has unlocked the voices of Chicagoans with community access news, hyperlocal stories and journalistic education and resources. Through signature and public programming, alongside educational opportunities that build media literacy, skill and independence, CAN TV takes community access to the next level, supporting local Chicagoans to hear and tell the stories that matter most. CAN TV’s programming can be viewed on its five local cable channels (CAN TV 19, 21, 27, 36 and 42) or on streaming platforms including Roku, Fire TV Stick and iOS and Android devices. For more information on the organization and upcoming initiatives, events and programming specials, visit


The Latino News Network (LNN) was founded in 2012, responding to the gap in news coverage of the Hispanic-Latino community. The LNN launched with, the first English language news and information outlet dedicated to the community in Connecticut.

In 2019, under Hugo Balta’s leadership, the network expanded its statewide coverage, Hispanic-Latino editorial focus to include independent news outlets in MassachusettsRhode IslandNew HampshireIllinois, and Wisconsin.

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Midtown Athletic Club fires over 30 employees after workers speak out about poor working conditions, employees fight for their jobs back

Since September, housekeepers at Bucktown’s Midtown Athletic Club have been advocating for better working conditions. They claim they were understaffed, overworked, and operating in dangerous conditions, resulting in injuries for some. However, their pleas went unanswered after the luxury fitness center and hotel abruptly fired them on April 13. 

Vanessa Vasquez (right) stands with ex-staffer during a press conference on April 20, 2023. (Photo by Brenda Ordoñez)

Ex-staffer Vanessa Vasquez, 30, says she feels humiliated and useless. Vasquez worked at Midtown Athletic Club for two years and says that she was shocked when she learned she was fired through an email.

According to the email, Midtown decided to “expedite the previously-communicated transition to a third party housekeeping team� meaning workers’ positions were terminated effective immediately.

This email followed another sent on March 23 in which the club first notified housekeeping that their positions would be eliminated on May 1, as the club outsourced the positions to Advanced Cleaning Technologies (ACT).

In both emails, the club stated workers had the option to reapply for their jobs with ACT directly, but that their positions were not guaranteed by the company. 

“We want to be clear that once this transition takes place, the new service provider will be your employer. They will supervise you and be responsible for your terms and conditions of employment including wages and benefits,� Midtown Athletic Club said in the March 23 email.

Workers are now feeling devastated and blindsided as they believed they had until May 1 to try to negotiate with the gym to improve working conditions and retain their jobs. 

The dismissal has fueled ex-staffers to speculate that the club’s decision to fire them just weeks before the May 1 deadline was in retaliation for them speaking out about poor working conditions.

Workers spent the past six months organizing for better working conditions, allegedly filing several complaints.

“There were many complaints, even by email. We said it through texts, we wrote to them, there were many and with the help of Arise Chicago they began to help us,â€� Vasquez says. 

Arise Chicago, an organization that helps non-unionized workers organize, educated the workers on their rights and supported them in filing complaints with the Illinois Department of Labor, Chicago Office of Labor Standards, National Labor Relations Board and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. 

“First talking to these workers, they were raising the concept of a union. They liked the idea of being able to come together and bargain collectively with their employer. But their big focus was around democratizing the work,â€� Jose Uribe, a campaign organizer with Arise Chicago. 

In those complaints, the workers alleged that the club refused to provide them with adequate sick leave and endangered workers by exposing them to unsafe cleaning chemicals without proper protective equipment.

“They would cancel our sick days and said we needed a note from the doctor. It was impossible knowing we had a right to our sick days,â€� Vasquez says. 

Midtown Athletic Club located on 2444 N Elston Avenue. (Photo by Brenda Ordoñez)

In an interview with Block Club Chicago, Midtown’s President Jon Brady said the cleaning staff had the same amount of sick time as every other club employee. 

Photo by Vanessa Vasquez

Vasquez says that she was one of the workers who suffered injuries while at work, claiming that she suffered an eye infection after chemicals splashed in her eye. The injury left her on a month-long disability leave. She also noted that she began experiencing skin irritations when working inside of the gym.

“We had no protection,� she says.� We were exposed to many illnesses that caused our skin to become irritated.�

Vasquez says coworkers found needles and blood-stained towels but had no place to safely dispose of the materials. According to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), human blood contains infectious bloodborne pathogens that can cause disease in humans. In order to reduce the hazards of occupational exposure to pathogens, OSHA requires employers to implement an exposure control plan that must include providing personal protective clothing and equipment, employee training, and other provisions required by OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard

In response to speculations of retaliatory behavior on the gym’s part, Brady told Block Club Chicago that the long-planned layoffs had nothing to do with retaliation and that staffers were all paid through May 1. 

Workers have filed additional complaints in response to the layoffs in hope their pleas will be heard and that they can return to work.

“I was one who loved it and we liked it because it was already our second home. You start to make friends with the members,â€� Vasquez says. “We love our work and we want to return to our work.â€� 

Katherine Bissell Córdova stands with ex-staffers during press conference. (Photo by Brenda Ordoñez)

Ex-staffers aren’t the only ones concerned about the club’s response and treatment of these workers. Katherine Bissell Córdova, who’s been a member of the gym for over a year, says she and other members were “shocked� and “upset� when they heard how housekeeping was being treated, adding that they were the “backbone of the club.�

Bissell Córdova says she wants the company to hire the workers back or she and other members will find another gym to work out at.

“We really want them to rehire these workers or a lot of people I know are considering no longer being part of the club,� Bissell Córdova says.

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Funding Helps Latino Businesses Hardest Hit By The Pandemic

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has created extensive and profound negative impacts on populations across the US. COVID-19 has not only devastated the health landscape in many ways, but at the same time, the pandemic has created a socioeconomic crisis that will likely negatively impact many Latinos for decades to come. In a recent report, the Latino Policy Forum and Brookings find that this toxic constellation of complex COVID-related conditions requires significant attention and resource allocations.

To ensure the Illinois is reaching the businesses hit hardest by the pandemic in
underserved communities, the NCRC Community Development Fund (NCRC CDF) is partnering with Governor J.B. Pritzker’s office to distribute $175 million to small businesses through the Back to Business (B2B) grant program. The program will provide recovery grants to small businesses still grappling with the lingering impacts of the pandemic in the restaurant, hotel, and creative arts industries.

“Since the start of the pandemic, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and DCEO have consistently focused on addressing the impacts small businesses across Illinois are facing. We know the pandemic has been particularly devastating for communities of color and Latinx businesses — and for many industries across the board, including restaurants, retail stores, beauty salons, museums, cultural attractions and event venues,� said, Sylvia I. Garcia, Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).

NCRC CDF will work directly with the DCEO to help businesses apply, and manage application intake and review. NCRC CDF also coordinates with Community Navigator organizations across the state to provide technical assistance to businesses, focusing on businesses owned by minority, rural, veteran, and women business entrepreneurs. “NCRC CDF is best positioned to support the State of Illinois in distributing these grants. For over two decades, we have worked closely with small businesses nationwide, so we know firsthand the challenges they faced during the pandemic and continue to face in this difficult economy. We lost too many small and micro businesses during the pandemic – especially those owned by women and people of color, while many of the ones that survived still struggle to recover. With these grants, we will shore up these businesses, preserve what they have worked
so hard to build, and save jobs in our communities by ensuring they have access to the capital they need,� said Marisa Calderon, the Executive Director of NCRC CDF.

Latino workers are often the first to suffer the consequences of a crisis, and the
first to step up to fill essential positions, often with low-wages, job security, and protections. A report co-authored by the Metropolitan Planning Council outlined some of the ongoing challenges facing Latino workers. COVID has stymied many of the socio-economic gains Latinos in Illinois were making, the study finds. Without
concrete plans and investments to enable the economic health and growth of the Latino community, we (populous) are at risk of a downward spiral of economic consequences not just for the Latino community but for the metro region, the state of Illinois, and the nation.

“The community continues to not benefit from the prosperity it creates,” said Sylvia Puente, President and CEO of the Latino Policy Forum. “The importance of population growth for economic strength cannot be overstated. And it is Latinos whose numbers are among the most significant for ensuring that growth,” Puente said. She argued that in Illinois, for example, between 2010 and 2018, the Latino population grew annually by about 29,000, while there was an average annual decrease of about 20,000 non-Latinos.

The B2B grant program builds on the success of last year’s Business Interruption Grant (BIG) program, which directed $290 million to 9,000 businesses in 98 communities across Illinois with a focus on businesses owned by people of color in areas disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

B2B is a key component of the Governor’s $1.5 billion economic recovery plan,
aimed toward a swift and equitable deployment of the COVID-19 funding Illinois received from the American Recovery Plan.

The deadline to apply for the grant is May 10. Applicants can visit the NCRC CDF website to learn more about the B2B grant program and apply online. All applicants will be notified of their award status after reviewing all applications. Multilingual FAQs and application assistance are available from outreach partners in the following languages: Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Korean, Arabic, Hindi, Tagalog, and Vietnamese.

Cover Photo: Liliana Drew

IL Latino News is a proud partner in promoting the the NCRC Community Development Fund (NCRC CDF).

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Chicago’s dirty secret: lead in municipal drinking water remains the greatest threat in communities of color

IL Latino News covers the social determinants of health and democracy. Neighborhood and Built Environment have health impacts for the people who live there. Aspects of neighborhood environments include walkability, land use mix and urbanity, retail, recreational areas, restaurants, fast food outlets, cultural and education institutions, and pollution, such as from traffic or waste sites.

IL Latino News applies the principles of Solutions Journalism in its invesitgative reporting.

Activists across the South Side of Chicago demand transparency from the Department of Water Management as the city attempts to combat lead contamination in drinking water.

While the City has not publicly reported new results since the end of 2021, existing data from the City of Chicago website shows that a significant portion of water tests with elevated lead levels were recorded in Black and Hispanic communities.

Linda Gonzalez, a member of the People’s Council of Southeast Chicago, is advocating for change following her experience with the city-sponsored Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program.

Listen to the podcast…

Linda Gonzalez, People’s Council of Southeast Chicago shares her battle to combat lead contamination in drinking water

Gonzalez resides in the South Deering neighborhood of Slag Valley. In addition to ongoing concerns over air quality, the far South Side community is characterized by old buildings and a high concentration of lead service lines, which, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health, can be a significant contributor to lead contamination of drinking water.

Gonzalez was found eligible for a free service line replacement by the city and began the process to replace service lines on her property in fall 2021. She worked with two contractors, one assigned by the city and another representing the construction company.

The process took between six and eight months, according to Gonzalez. While the replacement itself came as a relief, Gonzalez identified potential problems for other homeowners looking to take advantage of the program.

“Getting the required documents always makes the process more difficult. But if you have the documents, then do you have access to the Internet? Are you getting notifications? Do you know how to upload documents? There are a lot of limitations,� Gonzalez said.

The activist suggested methods to counter the lack of transparency and provide further assistance to concerned homeowners.

“[Water filters] should be offered standard to anybody having this problem. People should be notified on an annual basis that lead pipes need to be replaced and that the City’s trying to do something about it,â€� Gonzalez said, emphasizing the importance of communication.

Gonzalez also recommended increased accessibility, including printing bills in Spanish as well as English. 

Gina Ramirez, a prominent activist and Southeast Chicago resident, strives to raise awareness about lead contamination in her own community.

“Growing up on the Southeast Side with my father working downtown, I really learned, from a young age, the tale of two cities, how different and much cleaner the air was in downtown Chicago,� said Ramirez, who currently serves as the senior advisor of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a member of Chicago Environmental Justice Network, and Midwest Outreach Manager at the National Resource Defense Council.

While Ramirez fights to direct attention to a variety of climate issues including air pollution, water quality has been an area of increasing focus.

The issue hits close to home for Ramirez.

 â€œMy mom is disabled and low-income, and my sister and my nephew live with her, and she’s very concerned about her lead service lines. It’s an over-100-year-old home,â€� Ramirez said.

“She has been struggling to fill out the Equity Line Replacement Program paperwork. It’s been almost two years of red tape and them coming down, saying that she’s still missing a piece of documentation.�

Requested documents included the deed to the house, utility bills and Ramirez’s nephew’s report card.

“She was like ‘Gina, they basically want to see my underwear.’ I have to keep pressuring her to follow through, but she has really given up hope for this program,� Ramirez said.

One home in Ramirez’s neighborhood reported lead levels of 1,100 parts per billion, according to City of Chicago water test data. This measurement is near 65 times the Environmental Protection Agency action level of 15 parts per billion.

Under the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, a city must take steps to control corrosion and possibly replace service lines if lead concentrations exceed 15 ppb in more than 10% of customer taps sampled. The city must also inform the public of ways to protect their health.

In communities like Ramirez’s, residents have adopted measures to safeguard their own health.

“I grew up drinking bottled water. You’ll see, in shopping carts in my neighborhood, cases of water. It’s just something that’s not talked about enough, that a lot of community members don’t trust the tap,� Ramirez said.

Ramirez took steps to monitor water quality in her own home, but was quickly confronted by limitations faced by the community at large.

“I ordered a water testing kit. It took a month for me to get it, so I’m in the process of getting my water tested,� Ramirez said. “But it’s like an extra chore, and when you live in an environmental justice community, you’re struggling to put food on the table, trying to get to work, you have children to raise, you might not even have the Internet to go on the website to order the test…the onus is on the person.�

Ramirez slammed the City of Chicago for deflecting attention from water quality issues through efforts like Chicagwa, a free giveaway of canned Lake Michigan water in summer 2022.

“The City came out with this campaign about how the great the water is, and that it goes through this 10-step purification process. No matter how purified this water is, it goes through a lead straw, which defeats the point of the purification process,� Ramirez said.

“I think they’re trying to put a Band-aid over this issue. I thought it was a huge slap in the face when the mayor spent over $100,000 on this public relations campaign, and that’s a few lead service lines that could’ve been replaced in an [environmental justice] community.�

Spokespeople from the City of Chicago Department of Water Management say that municipal drinking water is safe for consumption.

According to an email from spokeswoman Megan Vidis, Chicago’s drinking water follows all standards including the EPA’s Copper and Lead Rule. A recent test of a small subset of homes yielded results of 5.6 parts per billion, well below the 15 ppb standard set by the EPA.

While the homes tested were a small subset of homes in Chicago, Vidis said, results from the entire testing kit program, in which homeowners tested their own drinking water, showed similar numbers.

These results directly contradict the September 2022 analysis by The Guardian journalists and water engineer Eileen Betanzo. Across four zip codes on Chicago’s South Side alone, eight to 10% of tests fell above the action level of 15 ppb.

Vidis said that the analysis was not conducted by an independent, third-party laboratory.  

Regardless of the action level, the EPA has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero parts per billion. According to a guide on the EPA website, lead is a toxic metal that can have damaging health effects even at low exposure levels.

Ramirez expressed frustration with Vidis’ response.

“Those action levels don’t mean anything to me, as the mom of a son who has autism. We know that there’s no safe level of lead. I’m sure her children are drinking out of a non-lead service line with a filter, unlike my child,� Ramirez said. “It’s crazy, these excuses that these officials make, and it’s just same old, same old.�

The matter of lead contamination of drinking water is not limited to Chicago. Other cities across the United States face the same problems and have addressed them with varying degrees of success.

One notable example is Newark, New Jersey. In under three years, the City’s Lead Service Line Replacement Program completed nearly 24,000 free service line replacements. The effort initially began in March 2019 and was projected to last up to 10 years. By September of the same year, however, a $120 million bond from Essex County eliminated the cost for residents and reduced the program’s timeline to only three years.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot set a goal to replace 650 service lines in 2021 following expansion of the Equity Lead Service Line Replacement Program. However, only 280 homeowners had lines replaced under city programs over the past two years, according to a December 2022 report.

Other states including Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are collaborating with the EPA through its Lead Service Line Replacement Accelerator initiative. The program will support these states in directing funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law towards the replacement of service lines.

Illinois is not listed as a collaborator on this initiative.

To combat inaction by the City of Chicago, Gonzalez and Ramirez work with local activist groups to campaign for transparency.

Through her work with the Southeast Environmental Council, a group that has since expanded from its humble beginnings on Facebook, Gonzalez fights for policy changes through cooperation with local government.

“I’m glad to be in conversation with all the candidates who are excited about this community,â€� Gonzalez said. “The idea is that [the Southeast Environmental Council] is going to be around no matter who the candidate is, but things need to change in terms of how decisions are made. That can be uncomfortable work, but I’m excited to get this message out.â€�

Ramirez spoke further to the impact of community-based advocacy groups.

“I think people want to believe that the city has their best interest in mind. People I talk to day in and out say, ‘That’s why we have the EPA, right? They’re the ones who are supposed to be protecting us.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s why organizations like NRDC exist, because they’re not always doing the best job, and are underfunded and under-resourced,� Ramirez said.

“I think [environmental justice] groups are really great at having peer-to-peer interaction about what is needed in our communities. I distrust the government because I’m in it. But if I’m thinking about it from an outside perspective, I don’t think they realize.�

According to Ramirez, progress in environmental justice communities has a long way to go.

“You want to believe that your city is protecting your health, but then you see issues like General Iron,â€� Ramirez said, referencing former administrations’ cooperation with the planned move of a metal-shredding facility to the Southeast Side.

“I think the distrust of the city government is really on the rise, especially after you see the perpetual disinvestment on the South and West Sides of Chicago.�

Cover Photo by Steve Johnson

Mackenzie Tatananni is a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her reporting focuses on public health and environmental justice.

IL Latino News partners with Medill School of Journalism in providing students mentoring and real work experiences.

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