Dozens of public records enthusiasts gathered Saturday to kick-off an annual Chicago tradition: FOIA Fest, a public records conference created to celebrate Sunshine Week, which ends today.
FOIA — short for Freedom of Information Act — is a federal law that requires the full or partial disclosure of unreleased documents and information controlled by the U.S. government. States have similar laws. This tool is used by journalists and citizens to request and obtain documents and data.
FOIA Fest 2023 was a hybrid conference featuring dozens of panels and a mentorship program for early career journalists of color. The conference’s popularity has grown over the years. Before the pandemic, tickets typically sold out and there was a waiting list. During the pandemic, the virtual conference became even more popular, with hundreds of people attending the three-day conference.
I helped organize the conference since I joined the Headline Club, Chicago’s Society of Professional Journalists chapter, in 2018. And while I stepped down from the board, I’m still involved with FOIA fest. The experience made me appreciate how special it is to have a communal space to teach and learn about public records and share commitment to government transparency.
“It was a huge undertaking,” said Olivia Obineme, this year’s FOIA fest organizer, especially during a mayoral election because the organizers are working journalists. “It shows how important this conference is to folks.”
Obineme said the conference offers accessible training for anyone wanting to learn more about public records so that they are “able to make more informed choices about reporting practices.” The conference has grown and evolved every year. The goal, however, has remained the same: help journalists and citizens obtain records.
Organizers have seen a change since the first FOIA Fest in 2013.
“There was less attention on FOIA at that time and there were fewer resources available for journalists to get help on FOIA requests. Your only recourse was to sue,” said Angela Caputo, who helped organize that first event with Fernando Diaz and Kristen Schorsch.
“We wanted to set up an event that would give journalists an opportunity to learn about FOIA … and connect with the people who can help them write better FOIAs and be more successful at getting information,” she said.
Caputo invited me to my first FOIA Fest. Back then, I was learning how to become an investigative journalist and deeply appreciated the tips Chicago journalists shared during the conference. In 2021, Alejandra Cancino, now with Injustice Watch, and I made an important addition to FOIA Fest by creating a mentorship program for early career journalists of color who lack access to traditional mentorship inside newsrooms. This year, two FOIA Bootcamp alums led the program, continuing the self-sustaining model we envisioned.
As Obineme reflects about the future of this community that values transparency, she said the conference could expand further outside the Chicago journalism community. In recent years, more community activists have attended the conference, too.
FOIA is for everyone
In Chicago, activists know well that FOIA is a powerful tool that is not exclusive to journalists.
In 2017, an undocumented immigrant was shot and was later dragged out of his house by immigration agents and placed in deportation proceedings. The agents didn’t have a warrant. The case worried activist Antonio Gutierrez with Organized Communities Against Deportation because Chicago is a sanctuary city.
The activist used FOIAs to sort out what happened. Through records requests and later through litigation, OCAD discovered the existence of a gang database maintained by the Chicago Police Department. Immigration officials had access to the database, and that’s how agents found Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez. Most of the people listed in the database were Black or Latino, and an audit found that police documented over 134,000 people on it, putting them at risk of losing a job, deportation or a more severe sentence after they were classified as gang members during arrest.
Former Inspector General Joseph Ferguson later determined that the city’s gang database was “a deeply flawed collection of gang data with poor quality controls and inadequate protections for procedural rights.”
Gutierrez, who oversees strategic development and operations for OCAD, said FOIAs have become an important tool in OCAD’s anti-deportation work.
“Many of us were able to get DACA [the Obama-era directive giving immigrants who came into the country as children legal protection from deportations] in 2012 but it also came with more detention and more arrests of our community,” Gutierrez said. “We were no longer in threat of deportation but many of our family and communities were now being placed in deportation, and that’s how we pivoted to anti-deportation work.”
Gutierrez said the group has filed FOIAs to the city of Chicago, U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement and other agencies. The group has also tried to make FOIA accessible to community members by hosting workshops, with other community organizations, to help residents file their own FOIAs to the police department and determine if an individual is listed in the database as a gang member.
“Once we found out about the database, we reached out to multiple immigrant rights organizations and also Black-led organizations… to discuss how we were going to erase this database because it’s impacting our communities,” he said. “The FOIAs was the proof that we used around our narrative for the public campaign we were building and the coalition.”
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