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Elmhurst nonprofit educates students during Constitution Week

ELMHURST – The Citizen Advocacy Center in Elmhurst has a broad mission, but that’s part of what attracted Maryam Judar to it.

“People come to us with the issues that they care about,” said Judar, a community lawyer who also is the center’s executive director.

Community lawyers, support staff, interns and volunteers at the nonprofit work with the public to review responses they receive under the Freedom of Information Act from government bodies and answer questions about policy every day.

They also work with public officials to resolve community issues and journalists to keep government bodies accountable.

“As a public interest-minded lawyer I utilize more that just traditional lawyer skills,” Judar said.

Even with community lawyers like Judar on staff, legal action always is a last resort for the Citizen Advocacy Center because litigation is expensive and not always the best strategy.

In recognition of Constitution Day on Tuesday, the center in Elmhurst brought a First Amendment advocate to local schools this week. The center has focused on a different freedom for each of the past four years. This year, youth organizer Kelly Hayes spoke to students about her experiences to illustrate the constitutional right to peaceful assembly.

“It’s an experience that the students haven’t had before,” Judar said.

While the center did not endorse the issues Hayes has advocated for, Judar explained that illustrating First Amendment rights with a firsthand account brings the Constitution to life for young people.

Hayes spoke about organizing protests like the one at the Chicago NATO Summit last year. She also is a non-violent direct action trainer, and is working on a city-wide training series for student activists in Chicago.

“[Students] haven’t been exposed to a community organizer before,” Judar said.

She pointed out that while most students know that President Obama worked as a community organizer before his life as a politician, most don’t really know what that means. Hayes’ story gives students an example of someone employing their First Amendment rights to defend an important issue.

While Judar admits student reactions varied from those excitedly taking notes to others who slouched back without interest, she said even the latter perked up a bit when Hayes began to give them the vivid details of her experiences.

“They can all think of things that are important to them in their lives,” Judar said about the students.

That is what Judar wants everyone to get from the center, the tools and resources to fight for the issues important to them. She embraces the broadness of the center’s mission to build democracy because it allows her to work on multiple projects.

“It’s a lot of work that all relates to each other,” Judar said.

While the center works with anyone in the area who may need assistance navigating a government body, Judar thinks involving and educating students is especially important. The center has interns from high school, college and even law schools.

“These are our future leaders,” Judar said.

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