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The Hispanic Community Has Many Voices: Are Our Leaders Listening?

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On June 23, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) will convene in San Antonio for their 28th Annual Conference, bringing together Hispanic leaders from local school boards to the President's Cabinet to engage in today's critical policy debates.

With a 43% growth in the Hispanic population since 2000, it is widely acknowledged that the Hispanic vote will be crucial to win the White House. It's a critical moment for Hispanic leaders to reconsider not only which issues have greatest resonance with their constituencies, but also the most effective means to engage and activate them.

Consider the 2010 mid-term elections where loosely confederated, highly motivated groups of citizens triggered a sea change at every level of government. These activists did not wait for the establishment to validate their demands or for the media to grant them a platform to spread their message. They leveraged old-fashioned person-to-person networking, but then took it to the nth level by aggressively leveraging social networks. It was a strength-in-numbers moment amplified by the gigantic reach of online networks.

Apply this now to the currents swelling within the Hispanic community, particularly among young Latinos, who with a new sense of place and purpose, are redefining what it means to be a US Hispanic and affirming a collective responsibility to America and all Americans.

Hispanic voters are also flexing their ideological muscles, no longer easily falling into traditional roles of Democrat/pro-labor or social-conservative. The community is more active and involved, and their opinions on issues such as immigration, education and the economy are all over the political map -- from ultra-conservative to liberal and left.

There is no "one" Hispanic voice; there are many and they are aggressively expressing this multi-varied identity via online networks. The notion of a monolithic Hispanic "voting block" is thus obsolete and irrelevant. Those who cling to it fail to acknowledge the distributed leadership that was so prevalent during the midterm elections, born in part of the rapid growth of social media and the primacy of online/digital in the lives of Hispanics.

Our communities have embraced social media in a big way. Facebook now reaches 22 million Hispanics (70% of all Hispanics online), and these numbers have grown 125% since last year. Twitter reaches 10% of all online Hispanics, with over 3.2 million Hispanic users, and those numbers have been increased by 22% since 2010.

Similarly, the high volume (70%+) of online Hispanics who loyally visit each of the major online destinations -- like AOL, Google, Yahoo, YouTube and MSN -- demonstrates that Hispanics are eager and adventurous adopters of new technologies.

Online media allow communities to conduct unprecedented conversation about critical issues of empowerment. So for example, digital agency SocialVibe just released the findings of a May 2011 study, which shows that people's Facebook "friends" have a greater influence on their voting choices than the evening news. Further, 94% of social media users who are of voting age, have engaged with a political video in their social network, and almost 40% of them then shared the video with an average of another 130 people online.

Because 'online' is where the people are, political and community leaders need to pay attention to this new reality and leverage the potential of this medium -- not merely to push out information, but to listen to what our communities have to say. Failure to engage directly with constituencies on their turf and terms is a recipe for collapse of electoral relevancy. The people will find other leaders or simply choose to lead themselves. To fail to understand this medium is to fail to deliver el mensaje.

So, as the leaders who comprise NALEO get down to business in San Antonio this week, I join the chorus of the many who welcome them, who support their mission and action, and who wish them insight into helping identify solutions for the many obstacles facing Hispanics and all Americans.

This post originally appeared in The San Antonio La Prensa.

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