For more than 20 years, attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund have fought in courtrooms to establish legal precedent to provide Latinos with access to the political process and quality education.
And while the courtroom battles continue, the national Latino civil rights organization is trying to translate that access into empowerment by preparing Latinos to sit on policy-making boards and to take an active role in their children's education.
"A court victory is important, but it is just the beginning of the process," said Antonia Hernandez, president and general counsel of MALDEF. "It must translate into empowerment. It is the people that have the power to give life to those court victories."
MALDEF is expected to go into the courtroom later this year to pursue a significant voting rights case. In a lawsuit filed jointly with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, MALDEF accuses the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors of discriminating against Latinos by drawing district lines in such a way as to preclude the election of a Latino representative.
The pending lawsuit and move toward more community involvement come at a time when the group has recovered from damage to its credibility in 1986 when some board directors tried to fire Hernandez.
Alicia Maldonado, a spokeswoman for the group, said that board members consider the incident over and that the group is now focused on its fight for Latino civil rights.
The community-involvement effort began in 1980 when MALDEF started a national leadership development program to train mid-career Latinos to serve on policy-making boards, both elected and appointed.
"Here we were, winning all these court cases and we were not getting our people placed on decision-making boards," said Lydia Camarillo, national director of the program.
More than 1,100 participants have gone through programs in eight cities, with nearly 60% of the graduates being placed on boards ranging from local water districts and planning commissions to elected office, Camarillo said. The 20-week-long program involves three-hour sessions one night a week.
The Los Angeles program ended this year, with nearly 250 Latinos having participated. The program has placed 70% of its graduates on boards and commissions.
Evelyn Fierro, a news producer and writer for KNBC-TV, was in the first leadership class in 1984. Last year, she was elected to the South Pasadena City Council.
"The program inspired me, more than anything else, to get involved in the Hispanic community," Fierro said. "It gave me the courage and practical know-how of politics. It also has established a network. People who ran my campaign were all friends from the program." Earlier this month, MALDEF held a symposium for graduates of its Los Angeles leadership program. The group is hoping to have similar success with a new program designed to get more Latino parents involved in the classroom.
The Parent Leadership Program began this month and initially focuses on two schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The schools are Stanford Avenue School in South Gate and Fishburn Elementary School in Maywood. Both schools operate year-round, and each has Latino student enrollments of more than 97%.
About 50 parents divided between two classes are participating in the 15-week program. They will learn how the school board works, how to help their children be better students and how to support their children throughout their schooling. The classes will be bilingual and will be held evenings and Saturdays.
"Latino parents can and want to make time to spend with their children," said Hernandez, who has led the group since August, 1985. "But quite often, because of language and lack of education, many parents say, 'Pero yo qu e s e ? ' (But what do I know?) But clearly, parents care about their children's education."
Maria Elena Fernandez, director of the parent leadership program, said the goal of the program is to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to be more effective participants in their children's education and to be advocates for quality education at the school and district level.
Fernandez said the Los Angeles program will be a model for similar programs nationally.
The program will focus on how parents can:
- Monitor their child's academic progress. Fernandez said parents will learn how to work with teachers to ensure that the child is performing at grade level and also to become familiar with the instructional program at the school.
- Participate at the school site. Parents will learn about school advisory councils and the PTA, the structure and the limitations of these bodies. Parents will learn such practical skills as setting goals, information gathering, setting an agenda, running a meeting and public speaking.