Q&A with Consuelo Saragoza, Co-Chair, Oregon Latino Agenda for Action
What is the mission and vision of OLAA?
The vision is to be able to bring together the diverse statewide Latino voice. Our primary goal is to catalyze a statewide advocacy voice for Latino Oregonians to influence policy that impact different areas of concern to our community. Certainly, we want to work in partnership with other existing groups to continue to build the Latino Oregonian voice.
How did the OLAA Summit come about?
Dr. Carlos Crespo, director of Community Health for Portland State University, and I co-founded the Oregon Hispanic Agenda, the predecessor organization to OLAA, more than two years ago. We both served on the board for Hacienda Community Development Corp., working with Dr. Rebecca Hernandez, who staffed the health sub-committee for the Hacienda board. We started talking about a Latino health initiative for Multnomah County, and decided to get other people involved from different organizations, bodies of government, and community groups.
We wanted to build upon the “Salir Adelante” report, written in 1999 as a baseline. The report was a comprehensive review on services provided by Multnomah County for the Latino community health which was commissioned by then Multnomah County Commissioner Serena Cruz. The report not only identified services that were being done well but also identified disparities, service gaps and barriers to access among our growing population.
Health was our starting point; when a wider diversity of people took interest other issues of concern to our community, such as education, immigration, housing, economic opportunity were identified as well. There was also interest in expanding the discussion to include the tri-county area and possibly statewide.
Dr. Crespo and PSU were able to bring resources from the Policy Consensus Center and the Oregon Solutions program. Oregon Solutions helped us put together two salons, facilitating meetings among Latino leaders statewide who are interested in carrying out the OLAA work. Of course, there was pushback, but the resounding conclusion from the meetings was that we’re on the right path toward organizing a statewide presence and political voice. People agreed that since we’re the fastest growing demographic in Oregon, it’s time for us to have a concerted effort to build awareness around issues. We have tremendous buying power in the state, and we contribute to the economy by providing to the workforce. Yet our children are dropping out of high school, and our young women have the highest rates of teen pregnancy across all racial and ethnic groups in Oregon. Our planning committee determined that a statewide summit was the best next step.
What are some of OLAA’s key priorities?
Several of us in the Latino community got together because there was a need for this kind of organizing and advocacy work to occur. The summit helped surface the different policy areas that people feel very strongly about. What we found is that the areas of concern are the same throughout the state, but folks may prioritize them differently depending on where they live in Oregon. There are several areas to address and prioritizes issues are necessary. The prioritized issue areas were identified as health, education, immigration, and economic opportunity. Many other issues fall within these priority areas which are closely inert-connected.
At the summit, attendees had the chance to prioritize action items under each focus area. It was a very inclusive process, but it wasn’t easy choosing just one action item under each priority area.
One of the top priorities for the immigration focus area was to repeal the driver license law that essentially bars undocumented workers and immigrants to get their license. In the health area, there’s an interest to get more Latinos to serve on policy-making bodies across the state to lend an important voice for our community.
In terms of education, a priority area is to use the model of peer education among Latino parents, to provide training and leadership capacity. For our economic opportunity focus, our community is mainly interested in getting funding for small grassroots organizations that help community members start small businesses.
What is your primary charge as the co-chair of OLAA?
My commitment is to support bringing together a Latino Oregonian voice, as well as supporting the foundation for OLAA’s next evolution. People have talked about forming a Latino policy center, or having OLAA develop a report on the state of Latino Oregonians. We have also discussed OLAA’s role as a convening body. So, we’re still in the process of identifying what is the best next step for OLAA. It’s exciting to be part of such an organic process, where many ideas are generated and what is realistic in terms of longevity and influence.
What is the significance of the statewide summit to the community?
The fact that we were able to pull off the event is pretty significant. There is always dissent in any endeavor that involves people who are passionate about the work – so there’s always positive and negative energy pulling at opposite directions. That is part of the process. What we really succeeded in at the summit is gathering together many diverse voices – from our very grassroots organizers to people who are in policy-making positions. We made a very conscious effort to get as many people who wanted to participate, from wherever they are professionally, civically and personally.
Holding the summit at Salem was an important decision, we were very cognizant of the perception that OLAA is Multnomah County-centric. We wanted to send a message that OLAA is for all Latino Oregonians across the state. The proximity to the state Capitol is also important to make the diverse Latino voice present at the capitol.
What do you consider as the best thing that came out of the summit?
With the summit, we were able to build awareness around the issues facing the Latino community. Also, being able to bring together professionals, business and community leaders in one venue has helped address the misconception of who makes up the Latino community. This is especially important for all the young people that we had at the summit, as they were able to see the collective strength, skill sets and power of our vibrant Latino leadership in Oregon. We respect the legacy of people who have come before us and who will come after us and together we can make a difference many times over. We have an opportunity to build upon their work, so that the next generation of leader can continue the path.
What are some immediate action steps for OLAA following the summit?
We’re in the process of analyzing the priority areas put forth by the community at the summit. At the same time, we’re continuing to look for funding that will enable us to build upon the work. We are also looking at how we can best shape our partnership with Oregon Solutions.
It’s very encouraging to have the commitment of people from across the state, who wants to be involved at a deeper level: from Eugene, Astoria, Southern Oregon, and Eastern Oregon. We’re figuring out the best way to tap their enthusiasm and expertise to really bring a statewide voice for Latino Oregonians.
How does your cultural background impact the way that you lead?
My grandparents on my Dad’s side were from Mexico, and my Mom’s family is from New Mexico. My grandfather was a very proud Mexicano. I remember that he had huge pictures of the fathers of the Mexican revolution in his house. He was proud of our heritage as Mexicans.
As an undergrad student, I decided to live in Mexico, because I wanted to learn more about our history and culture. I have always had this awareness about a “tri-cultural” element in my life that are influenced by my grandparents from Mexico, my New Mexican family, and where I was raised. Living in Mexico helped me understand what those pieces meant, and reinforced pride in who I was and where we came from.
In your years of leadership in the Latino community, what are some of the highlights of your experience?
I started out as an educator. My degree was in secondary education, and worked outside of the traditional education system. I worked with education service districts; my focus was on migrant youth – kids who were at risk for dropping out of school. What’s really important to me is educating our kids. It’s not always just about the schoolwork – it’s also about supporting our youth and letting them know that they are wonderful and capable. To me, it’s always been about building a pathway for our children to look beyond their immediate challenges and limitations, and to really see what they can accomplish.
What’s on your wish list for OLAA?
Latino Oregonians is an increasing population and youngest, in the long-term will impact all sectors of our state and do now but with a veil of invisibility. Our kids face many challenges; we have a high dropout rate, and a high teen birth rate. We have immigration concerns; there is no path to citizenship for our children – even those who have been here for a very long time, many may be bilingual or mono-lingual English speaking and are contributing to their schools and communities already. We have families that care and see education as a priority, but don’t always know what those steps look like.
We have a wonderful and incredibly rich community, and people are doing good work. Our collective voice can bring attention to issues and concerns and influence, this is one of the areas that OLAA hopes to create opportunity for. OLAA is in a good position to consolidate our collective voice. I am very pleased with the agenda that OLLA/ we are moving forward; we have built a venue where ideas from our community can be highlighted and discussed.
We want more community members and allies to become involved in our work. Of course, we’re not expecting everyone to choose be at the OLAA table, and we are very eager to support other groups that share the same goals of community empowerment, advocacy, and action. Certainly, OLAA is not about taking over and take anything away from what others are doing – instead, we’re here as a unifying voice for the concerns that affect all of us, especially our youth. This is a work-in-action, and we’re all working to make this happen.
Colors of Influence || Winter 2011