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North Carolina Civics Class Gives Latinos Political Voice - 2003-03-19

Civics is a regular part of the school curriculum in American classrooms but most students don't remember much beyond the basic three branches of government. But civics lessons don't have to end with graduation.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, residents who want to learn more about how government works can take a class taught by the League of Women Voters.

It's called Civics 101. This year, for the first time, the League is offering the class in Spanish in response to the city's growing Latino population. Latinos are hoping the class will give them more of a political voice.

It's the second hour of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board meeting. By this time in the evening, it's not unusual to find observers yawning. But one group finds the proceedings fascinating. They're Latinos who, in many cases, are attending a public hearing for the first time.

It's all part of Civics 101, a course designed by the League of Women Voters to teach the basics of government to residents. Just before the Board meeting began, students gathered in a nearby classroom to review, in English and Spanish, how the school system works.

But many of the Latino students seem less interested in how the school system operates, and more amazed that they can have a say in how it operates. "By taking the class, the Civics 101, we've been empowered really to know that we have a voice and that if we have concerns and issues, that we can address those issues, and it's very interesting to know that the government of Charlotte allows us to participate and that you can even speak," said Maria Summers, originally from the Dominican Republic.

Many Americans would take this information for granted. But Ms. Summers doesn't, even though she's lived in the United States for 23 years. She says many Latin Americans distrust their governments, so it's not surprising some know little about the U.S. system.

"Americans should be very proud and glad the way this country's run because in Latin American countries, it's not like that, you don't have the right to just go in and sit in the city council and listen to the issues," she explained.

In an earlier class, students watched the City Council change a vote because of protests from citizens. Charlotte resident and native Nicaraguan Maudia Melendez, the driving force behind Civics 101 in Spanish, says many of the students had never seen anything like it.

"For the Hispanic group that came to see this, they had never been in that chamber," she said. "They didn't even know how to get there. It was something big, they were amazed, 'oh my goodness I didn't know that you could do this in America.' And I say, 'yes, you do this in America.'"

In the last 10 years, Mecklenburg County has seen its Hispanic population jump 500 percent, to about 45,000. But so far the community hasn't been able to translate those numbers into much of a political voice. Ms. Melendez says she hopes the course will help increase the Hispanic community's political involvement.

"I wanted them to learn exactly how the government operates, how they can be more involved, more active in order to be good citizens and in order to educate the community," she said. "I believe that education is power."

Local officials support the League's latest education effort. Mary Hopper, who chairs Charlotte's Planning Commission, even taught one of the classes. She says peeling away that suspicion and mistrust benefits the entire community in the long run.

"Clearly Latinos are coming to Charlotte, clearly they're coming to the U.S., so clearly there is a role for them to play here," she said. "So the more we can interpret how the system works then the less of a mystery it will be, and the more they will know how it works so it can work for them as well."

Forty Latinos registered for the first Spanish Civics 101. Maudia Melendez says she's hoping through word of mouth next year's course will be bigger, and will help foster a community of Latino leaders.