La Colectiva began as a student organization that began in the early 1980’s. The group was organized and based out of La Casa here at UIUC. The group was working on issues related to minority recruitment and retention. La Colectiva was incredibly active around the Project 500 initiative (Project 500 was a program fought by students and faculty to get the University of Illinois to recruit and retain more African American and Latino students. The students and faculty said that the university should hire at least 500 Latinos and 500 African Americans with every incoming freshman class) and was one of the first direct action organizing student groups on campus. After Project 500 was recognized La Colectiva disbanded.
In 2003 a group of Latina/o students involved with La Casa wanted to work on Immigration Reform. Specifically they were concerned with issues surrounding undocumented students. In this group of students, two had been ICIRR (Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights) fellows. They had spent the summer organizing around immigration reform in Chicago. Diana Mora and Damien Kogan were both incoming freshman at UIUC. During the spring semester Illinois HB 60 was trying to garner support. HB 60 was a bill that would allow undocumented students in Illinois pay in-state tuition instead of having to pay out of state tuition. This was incredibly relevant for UIUC students as well as students across Illinois. At the time there were a number of undocumented students at UIUC who wanted and needed this bill to pass so they could pay the same amount of money as fellow Illinois students. By organizing support of community members, students and participating in a large coalition of groups across Illinois, HB 60 was passed allowing undocumented students the right to pay in-state tuition.
Since 2003, La Colectiva students continue organizing around immigration reform and recognition of undocumented students on campus, around the state, and on a national level. In coordination with student groups across the country, La Colectiva has pressed for the passage of the DREAM Act, which promises a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who have grown up in the US. And at UIUC, we continue to demand support for undocumented students, both in terms of financial aid as well as safe spaces for open and respectful conversations about undocumented students’ issues. Although undocumented students can now pay in-state tuition, they are not eligible for federal aid or student loans, placing a heavy burden on us students and our families who are often low income. This is an ongoing struggle, yet we maker progress. In our most recent victory, La Colectiva successfully pressured UI President Hogan to officially support the DREAM ACT in his letter to the public on November 23, 2010. But while the President now supports legislative initialtives on a national level, we continue to pressure the University to develop financial and institutional incentives for undocumented students.
Looking back over the past three decades, we recognized that students who organize and participate in direct actions are able to get officials to agree to some, if not all of our demands. We also recognize that there is much work to do, and that we lack the same campus success in other areas of our organizing. This is particularly true of our desire to work more closely with immigrant communities outside of the University. The campus-community gap disempowers community members and disallows us from building a broad-based coalition for humane immigration reform. Although we share ground with many of the desires and challenges of undocumented immigrants in Champaign County, a number of structural problems impede or shortchange productive campus-community solidarity work, particularly around immigration. Through conversations with community activists and by reflecting on our own efforts, we surmise that the structural challenges are:
- The Latino/a population in Champaign County, although growing exponentially, is relatively recent. This means that (in comparison to other places, like Chicago) a large majority of the Latino/a population is undocumented.
- It also means that the community organizations or programs that serve the Latino/a population are new (in comparison to well-established African-American organizations), having been implemented within the past ten years. There is no organization in Champaign County that publically organizes around undocumented resident rights, although there are informal organizers who meet. This problem is in part due to funding sources, in particular government grants to small NGOs.
- UI students are for the most part not from Champaign County, and this is especially true of Latino/a students. In a recent interview with an Urbana public school official who works directly with Latino/a families, the official stated that, to the best of their knowledge, there have been no Latino/a students from Urbana who have beet admitted to the University of Illinois. We know of only one Latino/a UIUC student from Champaign.
- The continual turnover of student leaders leaves much to be desired by way of institutional growth and makes community members weary of temporary bursts of student activist enthusiasm. This problem is compounded by several incidents of campus involvement in the community that have resulted in deportations.
- Immigrants who fear they will leave town at any given moment, and who feel alienated by the political process, are often less invested in institutional change at a local level. However, local interviews and experience tells us that, unlike many of their parents, immigrant youth who grow up here tend to take greater interest in local change and are more predisposed to networking with other groups.
At the beginning of 2010, La Colectiva moved its base of operations to the university YMCA from its previous affiliation with UI’s La Casa because of what we felt to be the Y’s commitment to social justice and support for direct action organizing. At the same time, we became aware of an increasingly inhospitable environment for political activism on campus and a repressive silence around undocumented student issues, even at La Casa. Although the Y strives to foster dialogue amongst UI students, faculty, and staff, it is not officially affiliated with the University. This allows for a more open environment for exercising freedoms of expression and action. Contrary to the assumptions of outsiders, the University Y has no pool and no gym, and instead works to engage student activists in critical reflection and action. Specifically, the Y provides hands-on consulting, technical assistance, and activist training to student groups.
In the spring semester of 2010, La Colectiva student leaders began conversations the University YMCA staff, expressing a desire to move out of the “campus bubble”. The Y’s new executive director, Mike Doyle, who previously worked at Champaign County Health Care Consumers and whose has a background in community organizing, provided a direct action training for student activists, and worked with two La Colectiva students over the summer to begin conversations with community leaders who are in some way invested in immigration issues locally. The focus of these exchanges was to begin .a community dialogue about immigration and immigrant rights, and to inquire as to what issues most directly affect the immigrant community. La Colectiva would develop projects from these insights, instead of deciding in advance what the issues were, imposing uninformed opinions on the community.
Over the summer and into the fall semester, the students, Jesse Hoyt and Celeste Larkin, conducted about 30 interviews with local activists, religious leaders, engaged academics, community representatives, public officials, and business leaders in Champaign County. At the same time, La Colectiva worked with the Y and the Independent Media Center in Urbana to apply for an AmeriCorps position to continue this work into the academic year, to mentor student activists, and to help build student-community relationships. The AmeriCorps member, Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, began working in September of this year as the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Y. Through his work at the Y since September of this year, he continued the interviews with community members and looked into several possibilities for responsible and sustainable student engagement projects.