Meet Your Neighbor: Illinois Legal Aid Online

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(<Special thanks to Terri Ross and Marcin Gulik of Illinois Legal Aid Online for their time and insights)

One of the consequences of COVID-19 has been an increased reliance on legal assistance around issues like unemployment, immigration, and landlord/tenant issues. Engaging the legal system can be intimidating, and language barriers can make the process even more difficult. After creating a Spanish-language version of their site, Illinois Legal Aid Online recently launched Pomoc Prawna IL, a legal information site geared for Polish-speaking individuals in Chicago. We were fortunate enough to speak to Terri Ross, ILAO's Executive Director, and Marcin Gulik, their Digital Media Director, about the site.

Teri Ross, Executive Director, Illinois Legal Aid Online

Teri Ross, Executive Director, Illinois Legal Aid Online

Founded in 2001, Illinois Legal Aid Online provides a library of forms and resources to help people navigate the legal system and make the process less daunting. Many people rarely engage in the legal system directly for a variety of reasons. Some people may be unaware of their rights, and others may find the legal system intimidating with its own unique culture and language. ILAO handles a wide variety of legal issues, including family law, unemployment policy, divorce, landlord/tenant issues (ILAO is one of the agencies behind Rentervention), and immigration concerns. In 2012, ILAO developed a Spanish-language version of their site to better meet the needs of the Latinx community in Chicago. Polish Americans are the second largest population in the area, spread out across key Chicago neighborhoods (like Garfield Ridge and Durning) as well as major suburbs (like Naperville, Tinley Park, Oak Lawn, Schaumburg, and Desplaines). Like Spanish-speaking individuals, Polish-speaking individuals in Chicago have a unique set of specific legal issues that Pomoc Prawna works to address.

Launched in June 2019, Pomoc Prawna IL took an assertive approach in engaging the greater community to guide the site's development. Initially starting with community interviews and observation, ILAO determined what the community needed and what specific barriers/issues Polish-speaking Chicagoans faced on a regular basis. (One great example is that initially, Polish-Americans were concerned with immigration issues, but are facing more employment-based legal issues in the wake of COVID-19).

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As Pomoc Prawna IL was developed, volunteers provided testing and feedback which guided how the site was developed. Usability drives site development in terms of ease of finding information as well as the friendliness and intuitive nature of the site. Given ILAO's extensive library of information and resources, Pomoc Prawna IL wishes to be more than just a simple translation of materials but a more organic resource for an underserved community. As part of maintaining the site, ILAO continues to solicit feedback from Polish-speaking communities throughout Illinois around the site's usefulness and identifying service gaps.

As a third-generation Polish-American, I grew up with an awareness that there were some huge differences between me and my grandparents in terms of the larger culture. (It also helps that my father was an attorney). Although Chicago has a rich history involving its Polish community (including the Polish Military Medical Team working with the Illinois National Guard during the current COVID-19 crisis), many cultural issues around engaging legal services still exist. With Pomoc Prawna IL, Illinois Legal Aid Online has made a strong effort to address these issues, as well as provide a well-needed resource during these turbulent times.

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And as always, thanks for reading!

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