The Citizen Advocacy Center, based in Elmhurst, recently announced leadership changes, with longtime director Terry Pastika shifting to a consulting role and community lawyer Maryam Judar, 42, taking over as executive director.
Judar talked about the center's mission and her role. Some responses, obtained in phone conversations and email this week, have been edited.
Q: The center will mark its 20th year next year. What is the basic mission and has that changed over the nearly 20 years?
A: The CAC is a community law office with a mission that is to build democracy in the 21st century by strengthening the citizenry's capacities, resources and institutions for self-governance. We work toward our mission by providing education and training; legal and civic resources; monitoring government entities for abuse of power; advocacy, and only as a last resort, litigation to sustain access to justice.
Q: How does the training work?
A: It's not formal or structured — it's more one-on-one. We have a self-help model. We don't do the work but we show citizens how to use resources including Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, public comment and the Open Meetings Act to get involved with government.
Q: Are there some specific projects you're working on?
A: We are working on strengthening civic education in Illinois. We worked with former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, who was concerned about the lack of knowledge among students about how government works. House Bill 2428, on Gov. Quinn's desk, asks for a 13-member task force to look at civic education in Illinois — present status and best practices in public schools at all levels.
Q: You've been with the center for about four years. How did you get involved?
A: I've always been interested in public interest law. I'm a graduate of UCLA Law School and have worked doing issue-oriented health-care advocacy. I was attracted to the center because when I moved back to the Midwest I was looking for an agency doing public interest law. And it was in my backyard. I grew up in DuPage County.
Q: Anything else you want people to know/understand about the center and your work?
A: The center is truly a community-based organization, and our work is a collaborative effort between staff, the board of directors, the advisory board, student interns, volunteers and more. The issues the center addresses are derived from the people we serve. Our work is made possible through foundation grants and tax deductible individual contributions. CAC does not accept government or corporate foundation contributions to maintain independence in identifying projects and issues. We have been fortunate to have varied financial support from many Chicago-area foundations and individual contributions from an expansive spectrum of individuals. For example, we were fortunate to have had Meatheads, a local restaurant, offer to share with the center a portion of proceeds from two days of recent sales in Elmhurst.
Q: As interested observers of local government, how would you grade Elmhurst?
A: The city has had its share of conflicts in working with the public, but overall I think they've addressed those conflicts in a positive way. I wouldn't give them a grade, but I would say they're on the right track.
More information about the Citizen Advocacy Center is available at its website, citizenadvocacycenter.org/index.html. The center is located at 182 N. York St. in Elmhurst.