This month, Inauguration Day will end a presidential election that kept politics on the country’s collective mind for months. But for the community lawyers at the nonprofit Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC) in Elmhurst, Ill., government—and its impact on peoples’ lives—isn’t just an election-year concern.
Founded in 1994 by attorney Theresa Amato, the CAC provides pro bono legal services to individuals trying to learn more about government processes, exercise their legal rights to civic participation or effect policy change.
“You know the adage, ‘You can’t fight City Hall?’ Well, the center helps people not only understand how to fight City Hall, but how to win,” says Terry Pastika, the CAC’s executive director and one of its community lawyers.
It accomplishes this in four ways: by training and educating the public, students and journalists about laws and tools that facilitate civic participation; providing resources to those groups; monitoring government agencies for abuses of power; and pushing for policies that promote government transparency, accessibility and accountability.
On the first of these fronts—education—the CAC has assembled a library of free civic lesson plans on its website, and it also works with high school and middle school teachers to integrate more holistic civic education into their curricula. “The idea is that rote memorization of the three branches of government and what they do really is not very meaningful if you don’t know where City Hall is or what happens inside,” Pastika says.
When it comes to enacting local and statewide policy change, the CAC staff takes on projects that involve systemic issues in which a favorable outcome could lower barriers to democratic participation. For instance, the center was a member of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s task force charged with rewriting Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act. In that case, Pastika says, the CAC’s local expertise helped it to make a broader, statewide impact.
“We were able to substantively contribute to that task force because we could say, ‘In XYZ community, we’ve seen these kinds of abuses of power,’ and we could put a name to the face in a specific community,” she says.
The CAC accomplishes its work with the help of three staff members and donations from private foundations and individuals. It also benefits from a vibrant internship and volunteer program that includes high schoolers, law students, attorneys and others.
According to Pastika, one of the CAC’s greatest strengths is that it allows individuals who seek the center’s help on a specific issue to gain a greater appreciation of the overall democratic process, such as one client who was initially interested in an issue on the municipal level.
“Now she’s more involved than ever before,” Pastika says. “When she reads the paper, she’s more critical in how she consumes news. When there’s talk about campaign finance reform, redistricting, she understands how those issues affect her dinner table issues. And that’s a success for the center. Because we help that person address her issue, but in doing so, we’ve broadened and deepened the scope of her civic engagement.”