Responding to the passage of anti-immigrant legislation in several states, the nonpartisan Candidate School was developed by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the New American Leaders Project as a way to increase immigrant representation in politics.

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CHICAGO — The spark that led Fanny Diego Alvarez to political activism ignited in Mexico as her father and uncle campaigned in a local election.

During the 1989 race, both men were ambushed by rivals and assassinated. Fearing for their lives, Alvarez and her mother fled and settled in Chicago’s Little Village. Here, she became a teenage activist, haunted and inspired by her father’s death.

“It changed my life forever and how I interact with politics,” she said. “It has always motivated me to do more, to stand up for what I believe in.”

Though Alvarez has political aspirations, she lacks the experience, fundraising skills and powerful connections to launch a viable candidacy.

Alvarez joined 40 Latino, Polish, African, Arab and Asian community leaders this month in a training program that prepares immigrants for political office.

First in the nation

Responding to the passage of anti-immigrant legislation in several states, the nonpartisan Candidate School was developed by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the New York-based New American Leaders Project as a way to increase immigrant representation.

Organizers say the project is the first in the nation focused on preparing first- and second-generation immigrants for civic leadership. Sayu Bhojwani, founding director of the New American Leaders Project, said the group’s mission is to diversify the face of American leadership.

“This is contributing to a new phase of American democracy that can be both more representative of, and responsive to, the nation’s demographics,” she said.

Upcoming Candidate Schools are being planned in Michigan, Arizona and California.

At the school in Chicago, at the DePaul University Conference Center, political hopefuls gathered for a two-day session that included workshops on writing and delivering a stump speech, campaigning and combating racism.

Befekadu Retta, an Ethiopian refugee who escaped civil war and works at the Cook County Clerk’s Office, was one of the few participants who has run for office. This year, Retta was one of 11 candidates in the 46th Ward aldermanic race won by James Cappleman.

Reflecting on his campaign’s lack of resources, Retta said the training might have made a difference.

“We learned about how to focus your message, political strategies, how to tap resources,” Retta said. “Maybe if I had this training and learned some of these things about campaigning, I could have won.”

Unique perspectives

Many who attended the session said they plan to seek political office because as newcomers they are affected by issues such as education, unemployment, lack of housing and crime. In addition, Retta said, he feels he owes something to his new country.

“This community gave me the chance to survive,” he said. “This time I want to give back.”

According to the U.S. Census, nearly 37 million people, 12 percent of the nation’s population, are foreign-born. An additional 33 million people are native-born, with at least one foreign-born parent, making one in five Americans an immigrant or a child of immigrant parents.

“Political training for immigrant leaders is important because it broadens the pool of quality candidates that communities can choose from,” said Rudy Lopez, lead trainer for the Candidate School. “These candidates bring a unique mix of perspectives and talents that benefit the entire community and not only immigrants.”

Bhojwani said the primary goal of the project is to increase foreign-born representation at local, state and federal levels. In addition, she hopes the effort boosts voter participation.

“Just as President Obama’s campaign mobilized many African Americans, we hope that seeing more immigrants running for political office will mobilize their communities to vote in greater numbers,” she said. “Expanding the number of Americans, immigrants and others, who are involved in the political process strengthens the democracy of our country overall.”

During training, participants viewed and analyzed speeches from politicians who told immigrant stories.

“The training teaches people how to connect their personal stories with issues like education, transportation, jobs,” Bhojwani said.

A panel discussion featured Illinois immigrant leaders who are running for office, including Soviet refugee Ilya Sheyman and Mexican-American Rudy Lozano Jr.

Attacking fear

With anti-immigrant fervor rising, the training also focused on how racism creeps into campaigns. One trainer, Pakou Hang, told of how a reporter repeatedly identified her as “the Hmong-American candidate” when she ran for City Council in St. Paul, Minn.

Candidates “may not necessarily lead with their immigrant stories, but they shouldn’t run away from them, either,” Hang said. “In many ways, they can’t, because there will always be someone in the audience who … will bring it up as an indirect way to assert that the candidate is not a ‘real’ American.”

Hang said it was important to be prepared with diplomatic responses to race-based comments and avoid becoming angry or emotional.

Ahlam Jbara, associate director of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said her interest in seeking political office was to focus more attention on needs of Muslim Americans.

“It seems like fear of Muslims has overshadowed all the issues,” she said. “We need to get our elected officials to listen to us.”

Foreign-born candidates entering the political arena face many challenges, Bhojwani said. The biggest are fundraising and being new to the political process and thus lacking traditional networks, such as party relationships. Immigrants must also sometimes overcome a feeling of being outsiders who don’t belong.

Alvarez said immigrant candidates could re-energize the political scene.

“Some politicians are disconnected from their communities and I find that frustrating,” Alvarez said.

“We have a very good chance to be able to change things and have some people that are really there to serve communities, and not just be career politicians,” she said. “Maybe, it’s my turn.”