09/14/2011 10:27 am ET Updated Nov 14, 2011

Giving Ourselves A Voice

It is my heritage to stand erect and unafraid; to think and act for face the world boldly and say: This, with God's help I have done. - Thomas Paine, 1776.

This quote came to mind after I read a blog titled the "The 2012 Hispanic Vote Matters for the Economic Advancement of America".

The writer made excellent points. This nation would be stronger had the full creative power and innovative spirit of Latinos been unleashed. Some of the greatest contributions to our economy were made by immigrants, "40% of the Fortune 500 were founded by immigrants and their children". That intellectual power certainly resides within the Latino community as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of companies generating over $100 million on the Hispanic Business 500.

I was surprised, however, when he entreated Democrat and GOP leaders to undertake meaningful strategies to give Hispanics a voice of their own, to empower them.

Since when have Hispanics ever needed anyone to give us a voice? We already have a voice. We have seen how the Latino vote impacts elections. Whatever hindsight may dictate, in the 2000 elections Hispanics, historically categorized as Democrat, voted Republican in record numbers and were touted as a significant factor in President Bush's victory.

We should stand up again and leverage our numbers, our votes to demand that we are heard; to ensure that the issues of our communities are given their due attention. Let us engage so that those who are elected to serve know that we will hold them to their campaign promises or that we will exercise our voting power to elect others that will. Let us remind them of their duty to serve.

Never has the need for a national conversation been greater. The concerns of our community are many and they run the risk of creating generational norms that will take decades to unwind.

Take, for example, the abject deterioration of the K-12 public education system. Latino students are certainly receiving short shrift here, a frightening thought when you consider that it is largely in school that children learn why civic engagement is important.

A recent study by Education Next and Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance brilliantly captures the gravity of this challenge. The report, "Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?" states that only 32% of American students are proficient in math. Math proficiency among Hispanic students drops precipitously to 15%.

Another study by McKinsey & Company in 2009 showed that "in eighth grade math, US Latino students perform below students in Malta and Serbia and about as well as students in Malaysia... in science... US Hispanics [score] at the level of students in Chile and Serbia." If our children are not well-prepared, if they do not understand their rights as citizens and how civic engagement can create change, when they reach adulthood they will not know that they have a voice or how to use it.

Moreover, the McKinsey study underscored the economic impact of the race gap. "If the United States had closed the racial achievement gap and black and Latino student performance had caught up with that of [whites] by 1998, GDP in 2008 would have been between $310 billion and $525 billion higher... (The magnitude of this effect will rise in the years ahead as blacks and Latinos become a larger proportion of the population.)"

Note the year referenced was 2008, the year that signaled the beginning of the Great Recession that generated a decline in consumer confidence from which we have yet to recover. Imagine how much stronger our economy would be today had Latinos' intellectual capacity been nurtured and enabled to fully contribute to our nation's fiscal health; it would be stronger by hundreds of billions of dollars. It is a loss we simply cannot afford when the entire globe is fraught with uncertainty and economic frailty.

Never before have the fortunes of Latinos and the United States been more intertwined.

Cesar Chavez' once said, "From the depth of need and despair, people can work solve their own problems and fill their own needs with dignity and strength." Education is not the only challenge faced by Hispanics in our nation, certainly there are myriad challenges we face across the country. Rather than wait for someone to give us our voice, let us stand together and use our voice and inspire others to do the same. Let us take responsibility for the health and well-being of our people and this great nation we are privileged to call ours. In fact, if we are truly serious about our desires to fix our problems, we should host a national State of the American Latino forum, a place where real issues and real solutions are discussed.

I remember my first professional mentor asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. At 22 I thought she was crazy. I offered myriad excuses why I was too young to know, why I wasn't prepared to answer that question having had no real coaching in my life. She looked at me for a moment, a piercing look that seemed to last an eternity and said, "You have all you need to determine your future and to put in place the pieces you need to get there. Let's start today." That lesson has stayed with me ever since.

It is with that spirit that I ask, "What role can we play to further empower our own...rather than waiting for it to happen organically or worse, for others to concede some measure of power and influence? How do we collaborate across neighborhoods, states, partisan differences and nationality to leverage the collective strength of our most successful leaders and institutions strategically? How do we help the disenfranchised understand that if they remain so and do not exercise their rights, they will never find that voice and we will never fully realize the American Dream that inspires us all?

It is time to stand unafraid, to think and to act boldly.