Latinx Conference Grapples with the Economy, Race, and the Politics of Change

Photo by Black Sete from Pexels.

As participants at Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP)’s annual conference gathered, both in Los Angeles and online, the state of the Latinx community and how to build coalitions for social justice were central to the agenda. Introducing a panel on the politics of change, moderator Efrain Escobedo, vice president of education and immigration for the California Community Foundation, opened by noting that election campaigns themselves “are not about building power; it is the time you can exercise it…you need to build and invest in the infrastructure way before.” He posed the question, “What does it look like to build or sustain a movement that really empowers the Latinx community?”

The conference took place September 13–15, 2021, amid a recall effort against California Governor Gavin Newsom (D). Election day in California fell on Tuesday the 14th, in the middle of the conference. While the recall effort ultimately failed in spectacular fashion, that wasn’t certain going in. What was certain was that in last year’s presidential elections, Donald Trump made significant inroads among Latinx voters. In 2016, Hillary Clinton had carried the Latinx vote by a 66 percent to 28 percent margin; in 2020; Joe Biden carried the Latinx vote by a much smaller 59 percent to 38 percent margin—a very large shift in the Republican direction.

Tory Gavito, president of Way to Win, a group of progressive donors and organizers that seeks to elect liberal candidates, said her own father was a lifelong Democrat but had told her he was “done with Democrats. They’re not fighting for working families on the border anymore for economic change.” Gavito added that, “I think what is happening with my father in south Texas is a trend happening with a lot of Latinxs.”

Gavito elaborated, “Where is the role for us to confront anti-Black racism in the Latinx community? I think it is everything.” Gavito said she had hoped the rise of Black Lives Matter (BLM) would spawn a “great awakening of solidarity.” Certainly, she added, there “are many Latinxs who take that framework. There are also many Latinxs who are choosing to separate their own experiences from the experiences of our Black brothers and sisters.” Jonathan Jayes-Green, vice president of programs at the Marguerite Casey Foundation, concurred: “As someone who is Afro-Latinx, I’m not surprised.… It is not always popular when Latinx leaders take a stand to support BLM.”

On a separate panel that focused on narrative change, Hector Mujica, economic opportunity lead for the Americas for Google.org, sounded a similar note, observing that Latinx community members “are both responsible for the systems of oppression as well as represented among the oppressed.” Julio Marcial, vice president of the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles, added that the Latinx community needs to address both “How are we elevating systems of oppression?” and “How do we lift up narratives of the oppressed?”

Earlier in that panel, Mujica used his personal story to illustrate the range of communities that fit into the concept of latinidad [Latinness]. As Mujica put it, “What does it even mean to be ‘Latino,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Latinx’? What does that even mean?”

“I came from Venezuela. I grew up in the city of Weston (Florida), a predominately Venezuelan-Colombian community. I grew up in a majority Latino community that was in power. It wasn’t until I moved to California ten years ago that I realized how nuanced and complex latinidad is. My lived experience wasn’t the same experience. We might share a common brand or identify, but our lived experiences and stories are so different…that is all intertwined in this concept of identity.”

Building a Latinx movement politically, Mujica added, requires breaking down silos “to create coalition and bring us together to be a stronger whole.”

Political, Economic, and Narrative Strategies for Change

At the conference, many speakers addressed the challenge Mujica and others raised. Jayes-Green emphasized steps philanthropy could take. Jayes-Green noted that some of the steps are rather basic, like multiyear general operating support. They noted that under the leadership of Carmen Rojas, Marguerite Casey has started to make five-year grants (before that, “multiyear” meant two to three years for the foundation) and increased the maximum grant awards to $500,000. “If we believe it is our job to create freedom for leaders to lead,” we need to do everything we can…give them more money, a longer period of time, eliminating tedious reports. If we understand that we are in a moment of crisis, and our leaders on the ground are taking risks, putting their bodies on the line to transform the democracy and economy, it is our job.”

Specific tools of leadership building were also emphasized. Nellie Gorbea, a Latina who currently serves as Secretary of State for Rhode Island, emphasized populating boards and commissions as an important tool for citizen education, one which for some is an important entry point into the public sphere before seeking elected office. Robert Ross, president of the California Endowment, emphasized that philanthropy should invest in power building and youth leadership.

For her part, Gavito lifted up the work of Ian Haney López, a University of California, Berkeley public law professor and co-creator of the race-class narrative project, which seeks to combine economic and race analysis and develop political organizing strategy centered on openly discussing the intersection between racial and economic justice. Gavito emphasized, “When we think about our community, our charge with our resources, we have to contend and grapple with the racism in our communities.” She added that “there are tools to do that” which center deep organizing strategies of person-to-person outreach between elections.

A separate panel on building an inclusive green economy echoed the threads of the other panels while linking the conversation more explicitly to the economy. Jorge Madrid, program director of the Cities program at the Energy Foundation, began the session by emphasizing that, “The pandemic laid bare existing disparities that were already there.” Madrid noted that 25 cities participate in the foundation’s program. “I went to every single one. Black and brown people are not able to live in the city proper.”

Minerva Villa, curriculum design and trainer at JOLT Action, a Texas-based 501c4, highlighted the group’s Levántate (Get Up) Leadership Institute, which focuses on youth leadership. She also emphasized the importance of talking about the “green economy” in positive terms. “Messaging is key. People want the change. But these communities have built their livelihoods out of oil and gas. Especially in Texas. It’s taken them out of poverty. If you say, you are going to take this job—they are thinking, ‘What about my family, my livelihood?’”

The way to address this, Villa says, is to emphasize what is being gained in terms of health, clean water, and clean air. Manuel Pastor, director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, made a similar point. “It is incredibly important to make this concrete in terms of employment…solar farms, solar installations: a lot of jobs there. Energy retrofitting of buildings: there are a lot of jobs there.”

As for strategy, Pastor called for a multifaceted approach. When asked what “one thing” philanthropy could do, Pastor responded, “The one thing you can do is not think there is one thing. Organizing, metrics, policy, job development, and the ecosystem. We always look for the silver bullet rather than the seeds we plant to create a garden of change.”

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