Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement

With millions of young Latinos now voting or soon reaching voting age, national nonprofit Voto Latino (VL) works to help Generation Zs and millennials assert their voice and stake their hold in America. VL president and CEO Maria Teresa Kumar was in Omaha Nov. 2 for a roundtable discussion with community leaders and to deliver the keynote address at One World Community Health Centers' annual Milagro dinner.

Kumar, 41, joined VL soon after its 2004 founding by actress and activist Rosario Dawson. It is noted for using new media to activate young people. Kumar, a blogger, thought leader, MSNBC contributor and analyst, is passionate about the influence young Latinos can wield in this dawning majority minority nation.

Hispanic Business and Hispanic Executive named her among America's most influential Latinos. The wife and mother of two is well-traveled.

Born in Colombia, she came to the U.S. at 4 and was naturalized at 9. She was raised in Sonoma, Calif. by a single mom.

"I often say how idyllic a place it is," Kumar said of rural Sonoma, "and it is because my family contributed greatly to it from picking grapes to mowing lawns  taking care of the elderly and children."

Even as a child, she saw America as a land of opportunity and discrepancy for minorities.

""I've translated two cultures all my life. I was the first person in my family to go to college (Harvard’s Kennedy School and the University of California at Davis), but at the same time some of my male cousins got lost in the system. There's a lot they had to encounter they shouldn't have. It was an awakening that while America has a lot of potential, not all of us are allowed to excel in our potential because of institutional racism.

"I believe deeply in fairness."

The demographic shifts transforming America present identity, self-determination and opportunity challenges.

"Right now, we're going through growing pains with the changes happening," she said. "We still have a lot of work to do. I'm a big believer our institutions are strong, but I don't necessarily agree with occupying institutions, so our job is to prepare the next generation to use those institutions to promote equity and fairness."

In the 1990s, Kumar worked as a legislative aide for then-U.S. Democratic Congressional caucus chair Vic Fazio (Calif.). The experience affirmed her belief Latinos must take social action to get the change they need.

"It's not enough to work hard every single day without being civically engaged," she said, "because otherwise the politics come after you, as we're seeing now."

VL uses text messaging and apps to organize–mobilize large numbers of Latinos to march for civil rights, register to vote and cast ballots at the polls, thus dispelling myths this population segment doesn't care.

She said voting's "a key way to show our community’s strength." In support of that belief, VL helped found National Voter Registration Day.

Its Power Summit Conference brings young people together with key leaders and provides resources to budding entrepreneurs and innovators.

She said for young people to participate in civic affairs "we have to meet them where they are," adding, "We can't expect them to come to the Democratic or Republican congressional committee – that is not how they organize, that is not how they speak. We have to actively find them and invite them online or at the movies, saying, 'You're welcomed into the conversation.' We have to do it now because it's very urgent.

"We are about to experience a tsunami of Latinos hitting the voting rolls who are at the brunt of terrible (federal) policies. They are vulnerable only because they're brown. We need to make sure we are investing and standing up for them and creating the space where they can determine the next 10 to 15 years of this country."

Kumar said the Latino agenda will be marginalized until the community speaks with its votes.

"We are not building the infrastructure our community needs to really maximize and flex our political power. We often times get the spare change. We are not core to anything. And that is one of the things we need to really figure out quickly.

"We have to start investing in each other."

She said tense minority-immigrant issues, new tech workforce challenges and national infrastructure failures mirror where America was a century ago.

"We gave people jobs in a real, solid middle class. We built roads and libraries. We provided pathways to upward mobility. And that was by design and purposeful. Our challenge now is are we going to do the exact same thing for our country that looks completely different?

"I think America is built for this moment. We've been through this. We enjoy so many diverse cultures united by the American belief of being an entrepreneur."

Her "accidental advocate" voice has become more intentional in the age of Donald Trump.

"What he is stirring up is the antithesis of our American identity. We fought wars against what he's trying to promote. My family came from Colombia and we know what the erosion of media and the courts and judicial institutions will look like if you're not diligent – and we have to be diligent."

The antidote to hate and fear, she said, is "giving young people the tools so they can really speak for themselves and understand the country they're living in and navigate that country with information and power."

In Omaha, she laid out ways for locals "to connect to a national conversation."

"Not surprisingly, I think Omaha right now is a microcosm for what we're seeing in the country when it come to demographic explosion. What was really nice to see is that there's a lot of collaboration across sectors and this idea that they are part of a larger community."

Visit votolatino.org and follow Kumar on Facebook.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.
Leo Adam Biga

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