ILS makes impact in Chicago and beyond

Author: Arts and Letters


The Latino population is the fastest growing group of people in the Chicago area and the lead driver for jobs and housing with $20 billion in household revenue and 38 percent of total growth among homeowners. In the past 35 years, more than 1.3 million Latinos have moved to the region, accounting for 96 percent of the total population growth.

These findings, published in “The State of Latino Chicago: This is Home Now,” were recently released at a first-of-its-kind regional policy forum sponsored by the Metropolitan Chicago Initiative (MCI) of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies (ILS). The MCI’s mission is to enhance communities by developing policy relevant research, cultivating partnerships and expanding the knowledge of Chicago’s Latinos.

Held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, the forum attracted more than 300 people, including policy makers, civic leaders, regional planning organizations and the Suburban Mayors’ Caucus, an indication that decision makers not only have noticed, but are respecting, the area’s new authoritative Latino voice.

“I think we have brought visibility and credibility to the Latino community with the `State of Latino Chicago’ event,” said MCI director Sylvia Puente, who recently was named among Hispanic Business magazine’s “100 Most Influential Hispanics” in the U.S. ( “Chicago has been hungry for a Latino voice that can speak from a research perspective on what we know about the Latino community, and the MCI really has been that voice in Chicago for a number of years now.”

Almost five, to be exact, and Puente was the first and only staffer when the MCI was launched in 2001, about a year and a half after the ILS was established at Notre Dame. Now, located on the second floor of a suburban bank building in Berwyn, Ill., the MCI boasts a full-time staff of four and two part-timers.

“When we first discussed starting theILS, we talked about the necessity of working in Chicago,” said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the ILS, “since it is, ineffect, the capital of the Latino Midwest in terms of numbers andinfluence. The first year we only made limited contacts, but then the fine folks in the Office of Development introduced us to the people behind the new MacNeal Health Foundation, and theygave us an incredibly generous grant to study and work with the Latino community, mostlyin Cicero and Berwyn, but also beyond.”

After the initial needs assessment study of those two suburbs, the MCI now collaborates with the ILS research department on several research projects each year on issues related to families, children and education.

“The community transitioned very rapidly,” Puente said, “and a lot of people weren’t comfortable accepting the fact that it was becoming predominately Latino. The needs assessment allowed us to view the data in black and white, and we could then gauge people’s perspectives on the community’s new challenges.”

Puente and the MCI staff also work directly with the local community, an aspect they consider a University/community partnership. They helped establish both the Cicero Education Task Force and the Cicero Youth Task Force, which blend community leaders, teachers and parents in search of improvement.

“The University provided technical assistance to help identify and prioritize challenges and assets, then we documented it,” Puente said. “So, we were able to hand the two groups publications that highlight the needs and priorities for children and education. Those two documents have been the blueprints for how the task forces are working to try to positively impact the community.”

In addition, the MCI has participated in a comprehensive local education planning process, bringing together representatives of the five area school districts, so they could talk about how children go through the system. An MCI sponsored college fair in 2004 helped parents and their kids begin to plan for higher education.

“Much of our research is done in collaboration with ILS the research department on campus,” Puente said. “But some cases we’ve taken the lead on. For example, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, we surveyed organizations that serve immigrants in the entire metropolitan Chicago area. Also, recently we did an evaluation of organizations that provide leadership development in the Latino community.”

Founded in 1999, the Institute for Latino Studies ( ) plays a pivotal role in providing an academic environment at Notre Dame that advances knowledge and understanding of the Latino experience in the U.S. It seeks to enhance interdisciplinary study and research in Latino studies as a vital component of the University’s academic mission and is committed to maintaining a balance among research, education and outreach.

The balance, according to Puente, was maintained through the “State of Latino Chicago,” which received extensive media coverage from more than 30 different outlets, including a front page story in the Chicago Tribune.

“One of the major themes of the report,” Puente said, “is that although the Latino community is most often perceived as an immigrant community, the people are here to stay. The children are citizens. The parents are parents of Americans. So, as Chicago becomes more diverse, the region is really not going to do well unless the Latino community does well. That’s where we hope to help, by not simply conducting research for the sake of research, but research for the sake of impacting and improving people’s lives and developing partnerships in order to be able to do that.”

Originally published by Shannon Chapla at on January 09, 2006.