By Mitchell Roemer
Before I started working at Taller de José I knew the Daley Center as that big black building with the weird statue in front of it. Recently Sr. Betty, a compañera at Taller de José, accompanied me on a trip there so that I could experience the building for myself that is home to Chicago’s civil courthouse and many other services. This is a destination that our compañera(o)s like Sr. Betty know very well because over a quarter of our clients need to go here to access the services and systems that operate out of this building.
I’ve always heard about the intimidating nature of this building and the experience of being there, but to be honest, I didn’t really think it would have the same effect on me. I thought that as a young, middle class, white man, the enormity, complexity, and general atmosphere of the building wouldn’t phase me. I thought that my privilege would have made me immune to the intimidation so many people feel when being here. I could not have been more wrong.
Sr. Betty wanted to show us around the entire place, and she did just that. Even before entering, the outside was crawling with law enforcement and people in suits. The first thing you see upon entering are the security checkpoints; a necessary reality, but even when one has nothing to hide, they still make you feel as if they are trying to keep you out. We started with the basement where the legal aid help center was located. The volunteers who staffed the desk were a compassionate presence among a sea of scared and uncaring faces.
We walked all over taking elevators up and down and back up again in order to see the entire building. Even Sr. Betty, a veteran to the building, had to search once or twice for the proper elevator of the dozens available to get us where we needed to go. Walking up and down the hallways where the court rooms were located I could feel the fear and anxiety emanating from the individuals waiting for their cases for child support, traffic court, adult guardianship, and countless others to be called. I was shocked at how palpable their discomfort and fear was and how anxious it was making me feel. While the whole experience was fascinating and very eye opening, it’s not one I would want to repeat soon.
Sr. Betty told us all about the dozens of clients she has accompanied to the Daly Center and how she constantly finds herself having to reassure them and calm their nerves. I could see the barriers that these people were facing: English was the main language spoken, It was difficult to get around and know where to go, and not even my privilege could guard against the feelings of worry and confusion that it seems everyone feels upon entering here. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to come here on my own, not speaking the language, and with much more at stake. All I had to lose was a morning of work. What must it feel like when people have their financial stability, houses, or even wellbeing of their children hanging in the balance?
Through my experience at the Daley Center it became obvious to me the importance of having a service like Taller de José and a companion like Sr. Betty. The navigation, translation, emotional support and wealth of knowledge that she and other Taller de José compañera(o)s are able to offer to those in need allows them to access services, like those offered at the Daley Center, that are otherwise inaccessible to them. Striving for a world that is more just and inclusive is our ultimate goal, and equal access is just one way we are helping us get there.