04/17/2012 12:26 pm ET

Voto Latino Brings Latino Youth Activists Together

LOS ANGELES -- As the Presidential election approaches, the Latino vote has become a hot topic of conversation.

A recent study by the William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI), a policy analysis organization, indicates that the drop in registered Latino voters in 2010 “may diminish the size of Latino voter turnout in November 2012 by more than a million,” according to WCVI President Antonio Gonzalez.

Ahead of that curve -- and along with a coalition of several Hispanic organizations working to register Latino voters ahead of November -- Voto Latino, an organization dedicated to empowering U.S. Latino youth to organize around the vote, held its first annual conference this weekend in Los Angeles.

Over 300 youth leaders and activists from Washington, D.C., Arizona, Florida, and California, among others, gathered at the University of Southern California (USC) for a two-day conference “on media, leadership and activism.”

“We are thrilled that we are having this power summit,” said Sindy M. Benavides, Vice President of Field Operations and Political Affairs at Voto Latino, to The Huffington Post. “Our goal is to make sure that the students who are coming are getting the tools that they need when it comes to organizing folks to register to vote and then turning out to vote, and making sure that in November, they are at the polls.”

Founded in 2004 by civic leader Maria Teresa Kumar and actress Rosario Dawson, Voto Latino’s first annual Power Summit was sold out.

“Our outreach is organic, it comes directly from the individual and their willingness to really reach out to the community," Benavides explained on the standing-room only turnout at some panels.

Rocio Martinez, a USC graduate student in the School of Social Work and an organizer with the South Los Angeles neighborhood council said, “This event fits perfectly with how I want to promote and help my community. I want to get as much information and resources as I can to bring back to my community on how to [register to] vote.”

The conference brought together noted activists and community leaders who spoke about a range of topics concerning civic engagement, from how to run for office and coalition building to preparing for the polls. Speakers included Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, Maria Elena Durazo, actor Wilmer Valderrama, and legendary labor leader and co-founder of the United Farm Workers (with Cesar Chavez), Dolores Huerta.

“A lot of people know about the farmworkers movement,” said Huerta to a room full of youth activists and community leaders from all around the country.

“But what a lot of people don’t know is that a very large part of our movement was register people to vote. When we talk about leadership, the first leadership experience that I ever had was asking people to register to vote. Going door-to-door, knocking on doors, and talking to people, and for Cesar [Chavez] too.”

The presence of DREAM Act-eligible youth -- undocumented persons who qualify for the federal immigration bill -- at the conference was also evident. During the question and answer portion of the opening plenary, two students alluded to their immigration statuses as motivation to their community organizing efforts.

Myrna Orozco, a United We Dream member from Kansas City, Missouri wore an Orange County DREAM Team t-shirt -- a reappropriation of the now famous San Diego, CA caution sign -- the running family now replaced with undocumented graduates, cap, gown and diploma included.

“Whether we are advocating for immigration reform, the DREAM Act, healthcare issues, education, etc.,” said Orozco, “This is a great space to come and just talk about voter registration and get-out-the vote efforts for the Latino community, which provides a focus point for all of our different issues.”

Durazo stressed the importance of reaching out to young people very early on.

“Today’s focus on young people is just great. The sooner that they become involved in the political process, then it just becomes part of the culture," Durazo said to HufPost. "Our most important activist group within the youth is the DREAMers. They are just extraordinary [and] so courageous. So, when they’re involved, they really inspire their generation.”

Rosario Dawson ended her remarks with “Thank you all for not being at Coachella this weekend, and being with us” -- referring to the music festival happening at the same time -- “I truly appreciate that."

“Where you put your heart, your time and your mind is really what is going to affect the change that we need to see. Especially this upcoming election."