Mass. doesn’t have to be worst state for Latinos

Commonwealth Magazine / Oct 05, 2019

But to accomplish change, we need a seat at the table

By Alexandra Oliver-Dávila

WHETHER OUR ANCESTORS have been here for generations or if we are the first generation of Americans, Latinos have deep roots in the communities in which we live. We are students, workers, entrepreneurs, business owners, and families whose residency enhances the community’s culture and is tied to its prosperity. We are also the fastest-growing demographic group in the country.

In Boston alone, the Latino community represents 20 percent of the city’s population. Still despite our growing presence, Latinos remain underrepresented in nearly every sector of society, from higher education and local government, to non-profit organizations and philanthropy. Even Microsoft and Google recently reported they’ve had trouble retaining Latino employees lately.

None of Massachusetts’ statewide elected officials are Latinos, and there are few in the Legislature or city halls across the state. In Boston Public Schools, Latinos make up 40 percent of our students, but less than 10 percent of our teachers.

Barriers to fair representation don’t spring from a single denominator but a collection of forces, and those forces are becoming more emboldened. Anti-immigrant sentiments reverberate across the country, with the loudest screeds coming directly from the White House. Income inequality. Language barriers. And plain, old-fashioned racism, systemic or otherwise.

Despite our state’s reputation as a progressive stronghold, the Commonwealth was voted theworst statefor Hispanics and Latinos to live in, pera studyby the website 24/7 Wall Street. By a number of socioeconomic measures — poverty, income, educational attainment, unemployment, and incarceration — Massachusetts has the worst inequality between white and Hispanic residents in the entire United States. For example, while the typical white household earns $82,029 a year in the Bay State, the median income for Hispanic households is just $39,742.

In order to affect change, Latinos need to have a seat at the table. The Greater Boston Latino Network, of which Sociedad Latina is a member, released two reports on the lack of representation in Boston city government and both found Latino participation in local government inconsistent with the city’s dramatic demographic changes. Had we applied the same metrics to other sectors – health, higher education, philanthropy, etc. – we would have found the same problem, with few (if any) Latinos in leadership positions or on boards. We could zoom out even further and find similar results across the state, and, indeed, the country.

A September 2019 report from Education Trust examined the nationwide lack of Latinos at public universities and colleges, not only in representation but also in graduation rates. They found structural racism and injustices throughout the education pipeline as the key culprits. The study also declared a more racially and ethnically representative public higher education system could actually help reduce the racial and ethnic inequities that exist in this country.

Our public school leadership and faculty should also reflect its demographics, but many Latino students can go through the entirety of their school years and graduate without ever having a teacher, principal, or administrator who looks like them. When our leaders don’t share the backgrounds of the students they serve, they have no shared experiences to draw upon that can inform how they make decisions on behalf of our children.

Latinos are also underrepresented at nonprofits and philanthropic foundations, making up fewer than 7 percent of these organizations’ board members. This leads to chronic underfunding of causes designed to empower our community. Since Latinos don’t have access to the same funding networks as their more affluent counterparts, they’ve often relied upon support from their local community organizations. But at the same time Boston’s Latino population is expanding, many of the organizations that served the community over the years have folded, including the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, Centro Latino, and OISTE.

Our community is gaining ground when it comes to sheer numbers but is losing ground when it comes to real clout. The paucity of Latino leaders has created a vacuum for skewed assumptions about who deserves a seat at that table and how prominently diverse voices should be included. It’s also allowed louder voices to prevail, dismissing the very idea of respecting and addressing diverse concerns as “political correctness.”

But instead of retreating, we should be getting organized and raising our voices. We have as great a stake in the effective functioning of our communities and livelihoods as anyone else. If anything, our social and demographic developments add urgency regarding certain policies and practices, like those affecting the availability of early education, the low educational outcomes for Latino school children, and the often-erratic school-to-college and school-to-work transitions for Latino youth.

So, how do we get there?

First, with our growing population and demand for more services, we must engage more community organizations that have the linguistic and cultural capacity to work with and support the Latino community. We also need these organizations to help educate the public to dispel fear of the unknown.

Higher education should sponsor more scholarships to Latino children throughout the state and hire a more diverse faculty and board. Businesses could also tap into the vibrant ethnicity of our city’s young college population, opening their doors to them through internships or by sponsoring scholarships.

Nonprofits should bring more Latinos into their own leadership while philanthropic foundations could provide additional funding to organizations that have language, culture, and leadership staff diversity.

Companies should strive for more diversity in their leadership ranks without tokenizing Latinos and other minorities by hiring them to serve as marketing props, or worse, to spearhead all of the diversity and inclusion programs. They could also offer mentoring programs that prepare minority hires for future leadership roles.

The same goes for public service. Government agencies will be more successful in their missions if they can bring more Latinos into leadership positions to effectively address the needs of the population at large.

As a city, we need to create policies that keep Latinos and their strong entrepreneurial spirit in Boston where they can raise families, send their children to school, open businesses, or participate in local government. Discriminatory lending practices and rising rents make it extremely difficult for Latinos to become homeowners, which we know builds wealth. We need to look at policies and promote programs that support home owners. This means providing more access to capital or awarding more city contracts to minority-owned firms.

We should also make more services bilingual, so Latinos can better participate in our elections and be more informed voters. Right now, Latino residents can’t even serve on a jury if they don’t speak English. In New Mexico, the state has enacted policies to provide multilingual ballot and voting forms and a person who does not speak English cannot be barred from serving on a jury or holding elected office. Massachusetts needs to support diverse cultures and languages via policies designed to help integrate its Spanish-speaking population.

As Latinos, if we want a truly representative government, we have to vote in all elections, from city council to president and every rung in between. The number of Latino voters that participated in the 2018 national midterm elections nearly doubled to 11.7 million, up from 6.8 million in 2014. Now, we have a record number of Latinos in Congress, but we still have a long way to go.

Finally, we need more Latinos to run for office at every level of government or else few of these advancement – civil rights, affordable housing, dollars for our public schools – will be realized.

In 2017, our Silent Crisis II report found that just 11 percent of city government executive positions, and just 5 percent of seats on boards and commissions are held by Latinos. But in the current Boston City Council race, we have three Latino finalists. Two at-large finalists, Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen, are running to become the first Latina’s in the council’s two-century history, and District 5 finalist Ricardo Arroyo is the current frontrunner. There has been no Latino representation on the Council since 2013.

Latinos must continue to demand their seat at the table, as well as an ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. We have too much skin in the game not to be on the playing field.

Alexandra Oliver-Dávila is the executive director of Sociedad Latina, which is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this month and kicked off an $8 million capital campaign to renovate its building and expand its services.