When it comes to civic engagement, it's critical to know the system.

That's why Candace Gibson, a program coordinator for Comunidades Unidas, is in Chicago this week to participate in a national training. It's aimed at enabling advocates to educate immigrants on the electoral process and encourage naturalized citizens to vote.

"If they are immigrants who have just come here, they are still acculturating, integrating into society," Gibson said. "Many individuals feel they just don't have the right tools to become leaders within their own communities. Some also don't know how the system works."

The training is part of a national campaign, "New Americans Vote 2008 — Our Vote is Power," which kicked off in Chicago today with an event that helped eligible permanent residents apply for citizenship.

Catherine Salgado, spokeswoman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said this is the first year that organizers from other states have participated in the election-year training. The idea is to give advocates the tools they need to raise awareness in their own communities.

"Immigrants need to have their voices heard," Salgado said. "The way to be heard is to vote."

In Utah, Gibson says she hopes to use what she learns in Chicago for two new Comunidades Unidas projects, a Utah Immigrant Integration Network and a Democracy School.

The network will focus on how to make several sectors that impact immigrants and ethnic minorities — from health care to education — more effective at serving those communities.

The democracy program will be geared toward educating ethnic minorities and immigrants on civic engagement, from how to become a citizen to why its important to vote.

The goal is to help newcomers become engaged in their communities.

"Everyone who is an immigrant, from a different cultural background, is learning everything for the first time," she said. That includes "how the United States (government), and especially Utah, functions."


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