Not too long ago the Pew Hispanic Center released a survey which posed a simple question: does the Latino community have a national leader? In 2010 that answer was a resounding no. When asked in an open-ended question to name the person they consider "the most important Latino leader in the country today," nearly two-thirds (64%) of Hispanic respondents said they did not know. An additional 10% said "no one." While there is not a more recent survey, it is a safe bet that if the same question was posed to most Hispanics today they would respond similarly.
At this point it is a cliché to note that the Hispanic community in the United States will double in size over the next 40 years, it also widely accepted that Hispanics will comprise more than 30% of the United States population by 2050. Given how much the Hispanic population is set to grow, there is nowhere near that level of representation in our political system. There are 31 Hispanic's serving in the 112th Congress, 5.7% of the total membership. Twenty-nine serve in the House and two in the Senate. There are only two Hispanic Governors in the entire country in Brian Sandoval from Nevada and Susana Martinez from New Mexico. The representation of the current crop of Hispanics is commendable; no one would say otherwise. However the broader question before anyone reading this is where will the next generation of Hispanic leaders come from?
While being a leader is not limited to political service, it sometimes feels as if there is a void in developing the next generation of Hispanic Leaders. That is where the Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) at Harvard's Center for Public Leadership comes in. It asks a very simple question of its participants: what is a leader, how does society create leaders. Perhaps most significantly on the question of what constitutes a "leader," the initiative puts the emphasis on the community.
Dario E. Collado, Program Manager of the initiative, puts it this way: "The most significant learning that we have seen while building and working on the LLI is that our community, the Latino community, and those that want to have it prosper and succeed really do care about the well being, outcome and importance of helping to build leadership capacity for the betterment of everyone."
All of the students participating in the program are confronted by this simple question, what is a leader? For those who have gone through the process that includes not only the Hispanic community's best and brightest but also those looking for a second chance at being leaders in their communities. This includes people like Channel Baez, a teen mother who graduated with her high school diploma in the summer of 2002 and gave birth to her daughter that September. Since, June of 2010 110 students have gone through this program. Baez is just one of these Hispanic undergraduates who has demonstrated enough interest in serving their community and the country as a whole to be given a spot at LLI.
According to Collado, giving those in the community the tools to be leaders in whatever endeavors they pursue after they leave Harvard is among the most important functions of the program. Ostensibly the programs objectives are to enhance the leadership capacity and understanding of students committed to serving the Hispanic community and the country as a whole. But the program is also about so much more than that, it is about giving back and growing the infrastructure of a larger Hispanic leadership apparatus nationally.
So back to that thorny question about how to foster greater national Hispanic leadership, perhaps the Latino Leadership Initiative has the answer, start in the community. The Latino Leadership Initiative is important, fostering more national leadership among Hispanics is important, but at the end of the day that journey starts in the community. The investment in that, the work and toil at the end of the day is the stuff that leadership is made of.