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Jose Antonio Tijerino Headshot

Dealing in Hope, Vote by Vote

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When I heard that Maria Teresa Petersen Kumar had a baby very recently, my first thought was that she is exhausting every way possible to register yet another young Latino voter - even if it means waiting 18 years!

As the the founding Executive Director of Voto Latino, America's leading national, civic engagement organization targeting Latino youth, she takes her mission seriously. I've always believed that to understand a Washingtonian's heart, your assessment happens behind closed doors with no one else around, not at a podium in front of others. I met Maria Teresa eight years ago as she laid out a vision, strategy and even tactics, which were nothing short of purposely prescient. Her ultimate goal was to empower our youth to impact the direction of America. Lofty, yes, considering that fewer than half of 18-to-29-year-olds go to the polls compared with more than two-thirds of people aged 65 or older. Lofty for a one-person team setting out to nationally mobilize the youngest, fastest-growing, and most disenfranchised segment of our population.

Aristotle once said something to the affect of "Youth is easily motivated, because it is quick to hope."

But no one has completely figured out how to get youth to vote, which is a great exercise in hope. In Aristotle's ancient Greece, the inventors of democracy set up a law that required every person to vote, regardless of who they voted for. If anyone was found not voting, the person would be publicly marked and labeled. In today's democratic society, Maria Teresa has to work harder to register citizens to vote, especially youth.

I've always said great leaders deal in hope. And that's what Maria Teresa does ... Hope to inspire, educate and mobilize young Latino voters. Hope to provide young Latinos the opportunity to leverage the astounding numbers of our population. Hope for social change, which starts behind a curtain in a booth. Hope to be valued as a voting bloc in America. That is her currency, hope. And young Latinos all over America are buying what the dedicated visionary of Colombian descent is selling.

Named by PODER Magazine as one of the most notable 20 US Hispanics under 40 years old, Maria Teresa is making an impact. A measurable impact. No one is more resourceful. No one is more creative. No one is more driven by her mission. And that mission is measurable.

In the 2008 presidential election for instance, Voto Latino effectively used social media and celebrity participation in five battleground states, all of which saw Latino voter participation increase 5% or more above the national average. Voto Latino's innovative web initiatives - including a tele-novela spoof that became an internet sensation - won two Webby Official Honoree awards and a MySpace Impact award. Voto Latino's benefit album produced with Apple iTunes during the 2008 election was the top selling album on iTunes Latino for weeks. She has made her vision come true. She basically said then "this is where we need to be" and here she is. But apparently she is just getting started.

My last conversation with her in her office was similar to the one when she first founded Voto Latino. (Except she now has a robust staff and new office space.) She was completely unaffected by the awards, the national attention, the media exposure, the remarkable accomplishments she and founder Rosario Dawson have achieved. She was just as energized, just as focused, just as visionary as she was nearly a decade ago. Once again, dealing out just as much hope, vote by vote.

With approximately 50,000 Latinos turning 18 years old every month in the United States, Maria Teresa gives me hope.