As we address the need to better understand American Latinos and to further involve them in solving our country’s most critical issues, many times we forget to talk about one of our biggest assets: Latino youth.
Latino youth are well aware of issues in their communities, and their upbringing gives them a unique perspective — a powerful combination to solving problems. However, Latino youth are not often thought of when solutions are drafted.
This may be because studies show that when it comes to educational attainment, Latino youth sometimes lag behind. What isn’t always accounted for in these studies, however, are experiences, work ethic, drive, and persistence to take advantage of opportunities. In failing to see the value of Latino youth, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
During the Aspen Institute’s Latinos and Society Program’s second annual America’s Future Summit: Reimagining Opportunity in a Changing Nation, over 200 activists gathered to present and discuss opportunity, and how to solve growing disparities and the unequal distribution of opportunities. The Summit also looked to collaborations among cross-sector players such as businesses, community, and philanthropic organizations, governments, and movements to solve these issues.
While the entire Summit was productive, there was one instance that moved attendees, and that was when three Los Angeles high school students addressed the audience, shared compelling stories and issues affecting them, and offered solutions of their own.
To present an issue affecting them and their communities, three first-generation Latinos, Wagner Escobedo, Kimberly Gomez, and Cyanne Rangel, mustered their emotions and courageously gave raw insights into their lives.
Escobedo, an undocumented immigrant, spoke on immigration and the fear he and others share due to the “scapegoating and blaming” of problems on immigrants. “Let’s take our advocacy level from five to 100,” he asked the audience, urging them to provide opportunities for immigrants.
Gomez shared with us what it was like for her growing up, as she witnessed the effects of alcohol and drug abuse and her efforts to help at a wellness center at her high school. “We need to heal,” she said. With tears, she closed by saying that students “need the support to grow. Students deserve to grow. We deserve this.”
With the help of her history teacher, Rangel found the word to describe what she was witnessing in her community: gentrification. To address the displacement issue in her and other low-income communities, she asked the audience to “Invest in our local establishments, and prioritize rent control and affordable housing.”
Escobedo, Gomez, and Rangel are students who participate in a Mikva Challenge program, which harnesses the power of youth and their voices, experiences, and actions. Mikva is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots organization that “develops youth to be informed, empowered, and active citizens and community leaders.”
The three students wrote their speeches to present at Mikva’s Soapbox Competition, where they’ll present a call to action with goals of having a transformative impact in their communities.
At the Summit, they most certainly had an impact. Before starting his “Creating Opportunity through Social Entrepreneurship” conversation, Donnel Baird, founder and CEO of Blocpower, stated, “I’m really taken aback by the young lady that presented prior to us. Wasn’t she awesome? The guts that she had … She should email me for a job.”
That’s right. After hearing Latino youth, a CEO went on record with a job offer. This action speaks volumes about Latino youth and their ability to comprehend, tackle, and provide solutions. Youth perspective and solutions may have policy implications and improve decisions taken by leaders. Mikva Challenge students, for example, have created an application to improve access to legal justice; they proposed the updated guidelines for Chicago Public Schools regarding restroom and locker rooms for transgender and gender conforming students; they worked with the Chicago Department of Public Health and launched a citywide safe-sex campaign; and they created a campaign to help improve the student-police community relationship..
The facts that Latino youth may be from underserved communities, that they may be first generation Americans, and that they may be faced with repeated adversity does not preclude them from being integral in proposing ideas and providing solutions. Rather, it makes them just as (or even more) equipped to address the country’s most critical issues. Why? Because they’re in the middle of it. They’re observant, and their life experiences have forced them to develop expertise, making them brilliant and powerful.
Miguel Blancarte, Jr. was a 2016 social media ambassador at the Latino and Society Program’s America’s Future Summit and a Ricardo Salinas Scholar. He is also a part of the “Unlocking Latino Millennial Civic Potential” convening, hosted by the Institute.