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Maria Teresa Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement

November 16, 2017 2 comments

Voto Latino founding director Maria Teresa Kumar is a national advocate for Latino empowerment. She was recently in Omaha as the keynote speaker for the annual Milagro Dinner held by One World Community Health Centers. She also participated in a roundtable with local leaders that discussed avenues and barriers to increasing Latino engagement and having Latino voices heard. She’s very passionate about the work she does. Read my El Perico story about her here.

Maria Teresa Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico newspaper

 

 

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.”

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Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

One of the smartest and kindest people I know, Lourdes Gouveia, has stepped down from directing the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS, a program she helped found at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  A sociologist by training and practice, she and her program have helped the university, policymakers and other stakeholders in the state better understand the dynamics of the ever growing and more fluid Latino immigrant and Latin American population.  OLLAS has become a go-to resource for those wanting a handle on what’s happening with that population.  She is very passionate about what she’s built, the strong foundation laid down for its continued success and the continuing research she’s doing.  Though no longer the director, she’s still very much engaged in the work of OLLAS and related fields of interests.  She’s still very much a part of the UNO scene.

 

 

UNO's O Icon

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia: Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in El Perico
When sociology professor and researcher Lourdes Gouveia joined the University of Nebraska at Omaha faculty in 1989 it coincided with the giant Latino immigration wave then impacting rural and urban communities.

Little did she know then she would found the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains or OLLAS in 2003. She recently stepped down as director of that prestigious center she’s closely identified with.

The idea for OLLAS emerged after her field work in Lexington, Neb. documenting challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of new arrivals on communities that hadn’t received immigrants in a century. She focused on the labor trend of Latinos recruited into meatpacking. While doing a post-doctorate fellowship at Michigan State University she came to see the global implications of mobile populations.

“It really did become a transformative experience,” recalls the Venezuela native and University of Kansas graduate. “It gave me a whole new level of understanding of issues I had been working on. It opened opportunities I had no idea we’re going to be so influential and consequential in my life. These were colleagues as motivated as I was to try to understand this tectonic and dramatic shift going on of increased immigration from Latin America accompanied with an economic recession in the United States.

“I learned a tremendous amount. It just opened a lens that gave me confidence to understand this shift in a larger context.”

 

When Gouveia returned from her post doc she accepted an invitation to head what was just a minor in Latino Studies at UNO.

“I said yes but with a condition we explore something larger. Many of us were beginning to realize the minor was just not enough of a space to understand, to educate our students, to work with the community on issues of this magnitude.”

She led a committee that conceived and launched OLLAS and along with it a major in Latin American Studies.

“OLLAS was built upon a very clear vision that Neb. and Omaha in particular was seeing profound changes in the makeup of the Latino immigrant and Latino American population. Neither the university nor the community, let alone policymakers. were sufficiently prepared to understand the significance of those changes and their long-term consequences or respond in any informed, data-driven, rationale way. That message resonated with people on the ground and at the top.”

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

Lourdes Gouveia (far right) is the Director of OLLAS at UNO. (Photo Courtesy UNO)

 

 

Significant seed money for making OLLAS a reality came from a $1 million U.S. Department of Education grant that then-Sen. Chuck Hagel helped secure.

From the start, Gouveia says OLLAS has existed as a hybrid, interdisciplinary center that not only teaches but conducts research and generates content-rich reports.

“Community agencies, policymakers, students and others tell us they find enormous value in those research reports and fact sheets we produce. That is a mainstay of what we do. It’s done with a lot of difficulty because they require enormous work, expert talent and rigor and we don’t always have the resources at hand. Yet we have maintained that and hope to expand that.”

She says OLLAS is unlike anything else at UNO.

“We’re an academic program but we’re also a community project. So we’re constantly engaging, partnering, discussing, conversing with community organizations, even government representatives from Mexico and Central America, in projects we think enhance that understanding of these demographic changes. We’re also looking at the social-economic conditions of the Latino population and what it has to do with U.S. immigration or U.S. involvement in Latin America.”

OLLAS also plays an advocacy role.

“We use our voices in public, whether writing op-ed pieces or holding meetings and conferences with political leaders or elected officials. We use our research to make our voices heard and to inform whatever issues policymakers may be debating, such as the refugee crisis.”

Gouveia says the way OLLAS is structured “allows us to be very malleable, more like a think tank.” adding, “We define ourselves as perennial pioneers always trying to anticipate the questions that need answers or the interests emerging we can fulfill. It’s extremely exhausting because we’re constantly inventing and innovating but it’s extremely rewarding. We’re about to put out a report, for example, on the changes of the Latino population across the city. Why? Because we are observing Latinos are not just living in South Omaha but are spread across the city. As we detect trends like this on the ground we try to anticipate and answer questions to give people the tools to use the information in their work. That guarantees we’re always going to be relevant to all these constituencies.”

 

 

OLLAS faculty and staff

 

 

OLLAS has grown in facilities and staff, including a project coordinator, a community engagement coordinator and research associates, and in currency. Gouveia says, “I’m very satisfied we did it right. We thoughtfully arrived correctly at the decision we just couldn’t be a regular department offering courses and graduating students but we also had to produce knowledge. Our reports are a good vehicle for putting out information in a timely manner about a very dynamic population and set of population changes.”

She says OLLAS could only have happened with the help of many colleagues, including Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado and Theresa Barron-McKeagney, “who shared enthusiastically in the mission we were forging.” She say OLLAS has also received broad university support and community philanthropic support.

“There was resistance, too,” she adds. “It’s a very creative space that breaks with all conventions. Like immigrants we create fear that somehow we’re shaking the conventional wisdom. But I think our success has converted many who were initially skeptical. I think we’ve pioneered models that others have come to observe and learn from.”

One concern she has is that as Latino students in the program have increased UNO’s not kept apace its hiring of Latino faculty.

A national search is underway for her successor.

“I feel very good about stepping out at this time. It surprised a lot of people. As a founding director you cannot stay there forever. Once you have helped institutionalize the organization then it’s time to bring in the next generation of leaders with fresh visions and ideas.”

Besides, there’s research she’s dying to get to. And it’s not like this professor emeritus is going away. She confirms she’ll remain “involved with OLLAS, but in a different way.”

Visit http://www.unomaha.edu/ollas/.

 
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