This year marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of The LIBRE Initiative.
Back in 2011, a small group of activists launched an organization dedicated to building a stronger Hispanic community.
They knew that in the ongoing debates over policies that affect America’s Latinos, an essential voice was missing: one that came from Hispanic neighborhoods themselves, and that sought to unlock the potential of individuals languishing in those neighborhoods. They saw that bad policies at all levels of government held people back, and they were dedicated to changing them.
Part of the problem was the assumption among many in elected office that they already understood the concerns of Latinos. As LIBRE president Daniel Garza says,
“People try to pigeonhole the Hispanic community. They think they know what we think, how we vote, what we care about – without even talking to us. Here’s what LIBRE realized: American issues are Hispanic issues. We care about immigration, yes. But we care about the economy, the debt, education, healthcare, and all the things our fellow Americans care about. We don’t want leaders who talk at us. We want a give and take, and through that process, we know we’re much more likely to reach a solution that works best for everyone.”
Over the last 10 years we’ve been heartened to see how many people — Hispanics and others — recognize the importance of this effort.
As we continue the work to improve policies on education, health care, immigration, and the economy, we welcome the support of new allies. While progress has been made, these efforts have barely begun.
Elevating the voice of people, not just their “leaders”
From the beginning, LIBRE was focused on amplifying the authentic voice of America’s Hispanics, and letting the nation hear from a community that was largely overlooked.
Too often Latinos have been an afterthought in the policy debate, with many people incorrectly believing ours is a monolithic community whose views were well understood. When “leaders” in our community spoke, they failed to reflect the range of views in so diverse a population.
LIBRE’s early commercials spoke about the contributions of immigrant entrepreneurs, people building the American dream, and those who fled government oppression and violence and came to this country to work hard and make a better life their families and communities.
From day one, we highlighted the power of individuals to begin to heal fractures in their local communities, and to make our society stronger overall.
We knew what could be achieved if people were empowered to break barriers that held them back, and to do more for the people around them. And we highlighted the cost of bad policies that created barriers to these successes.
After determining how to talk about our mission, LIBRE was ready to launch its first major campaign.
A campaign to fix immigration laws: Estamos Contigo
LIBRE has always understood that one of the important sources of American vitality is the people who come here from abroad to live, work, and succeed.
But outdated and misguided immigration laws make it harder for them to arrive and contribute, and they even create incentives for some to come here in violation of the law.
In 2013, LIBRE launched the Estamos Contigo campaign (“We are with you”) to build support for updating these laws. The bilingual effort involved phone banking, online and broadcast commercials in multiple states, and grassroots activities, encouraging members of the Hispanic community to call for immigration reform.
Many thousands joined with LIBRE and registered their support for the ongoing work to fix outdated immigration laws.
As the debate in Washington continues regarding Dreamers, the visa system, and immigration more generally, we believe updates to our laws can help improve enforcement and make it easier for immigrants to legally contribute to our nation while helping themselves and their families.
But while immigration has always been an important issue, LIBRE knew there were many other ways to help Hispanics prosper.
How LIBRE began to break barriers that kept people from prosperity
Most of us share a lot of common desires: we want to study, work, and buy a home. We hope to start a family that we can help support, and we hope to contribute to our communities. There are some basic tools each of us needs to do this successfully — tools that some people take for granted.
We need the chance to obtain the right education, and to develop our skills. We need economic opportunity, to do productive work that others value, and to have the chance to grow our incomes and build a career.
But what happens to those who are assigned to poorly performing schools, and lack the resources to access a quality education?
What about those who lack work authorization, or who can’t get to a job that matches their skills, or who reside in areas where excessive taxes and regulation crush economic opportunity?
In communities around the country, The LIBRE Initiative, as well as its sister organization, The LIBRE Institute, began to offer services to break down those barriers. These community building events have been an important part of LIBRE’s service mission for years.
LIBRE sees success in advancing educational opportunity
Wherever LIBRE is active, one of its most consistent efforts has been to encourage educational reform that expands options for families and students. We recognize how important education is to success in life, and we know that many families have limited means, and may lack the resources to customize their student’s education.
In such cases, young people often find themselves with no other option but the public school to which they are assigned based solely on their address.
Because every student is blessed with different interests and talents, and responds differently to educational settings and methods, government policy should empower families to find the best setting for their child.
It is a mistake to limit kids to nothing more than the traditional public school model, and to attempt to give everyone an identical education.
The LIBRE Initiative has worked in many states to education families about the options available to them, and to inform people about the benefits of these reforms. In New Mexico, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas, and elsewhere, LIBRE has worked with parents and teachers in support of educational innovation. There has been progress in some of these states, but more work remains.
Florida warrants particular attention, as the work of The LIBRE Initiative in partnership with others has led to steady, incremental progress there. Earlier this year, the governor signed legislation that expands options for more families.
Helping people find the tools of success
In addition to advocating policies to help Latinos and others better their lives, LIBRE has always recognized the importance of making sure people are empowered with the basic tools they need to get ahead.
For that reason, The LIBRE Initiative and its C3 nonprofit partner, The LIBRE Institute, remain focused on helping people acquire skills that are important to success. That effort takes a variety of forms.
Ivette Diaz, Foundation Director of The LIBRE Institute, says,
“When people understand how to participate in our society, they have a tremendous ability to contribute to their families and communities. America’s Latinos are a diverse group, and with about one-third having been born abroad, many face barriers and challenges to succeeding in the U.S. We’re proud to respond to these challenges with things like English language tutoring, and assistance with financial literacy, navigating the school system, civics and other resources. We’re also committed to the next generation of Latinos by developing leaders who want to make a difference.”
Over the years, LIBRE has enabled hundreds of people pass the test to obtain a driver’s license through Pasa la Prueba informational sessions. We know that having a driver’s license can be the key to obtaining and holding a good-paying job.
Small-business planning events allowed Hispanic entrepreneurs to learn more of what they need to succeed in the marketplace, and often allowed them to network with others pursuing a similar dream. Those lessons and connections helped them succeed, and created economic opportunity for others.
For years LIBRE has held annual back-to-school events in a number of states. We knew that if kids didn’t have needed clothes, backpacks, books, and other supplies, they would have a hard time succeeding. LIBRE helped unlock a better education for many students and families.
These discrete services, provided at a local level by local activists, enabled thousands to build better lives for themselves and their families.
The secret ingredient? Building from the ground up
Throughout its existence, The LIBRE Initiative team has recognized the importance of local teams that are grounded in the community. That’s the best way to stay connected to genuine challenges, as well as to ensure that policy solutions are crafted in a way that properly addresses those concerns.
Executive Director David Velazquez says,
“People often ask what makes The LIBRE Initiative so effective. It all starts with our local activists, and their roots in the communities they represent. I know because that’s where I began. I started as a grassroots organizer in Central Florida, listening to the priorities of the people in neighborhood after neighborhood.”
In a country as large as the United States, many community challenges cannot be effectively addressed except at a local level. Issues such as taxes, economic growth, and education, are among many with a strong local component. If local factors are not considered properly, those challenges may never be truly solved.
As Velazquez says,
“The facts on the ground in in Miami aren’t the same as Orlando. And in places like Las Vegas or Dallas, things are more different still. Even if the general topic is the same – for example, health care or transportation – you can’t just assume it’s the same challenge. You have to listen to people before trying to help. And now as executive director, I make sure our local leaders understand we count on them to act on what’s important to the local community.”
This approach will continue to guide us in the years ahead.
Focusing on the next 10 years
Building a stronger Hispanic community will help build a stronger America. To accomplish this, the LIBRE team will continue to push for reform at all levels.
If we allow students to succeed, promote economic opportunity, put in place a more rational immigration system, and prevent mare wasteful and destructive government policies, it will be easier for our entire community to succeed.