We’ve seen the Latino leader. The Latino leader is us.

By Victor Landa, NewsTaco

“Is it important for the U.S. Latino community to have a national leader advancing the concerns of Latinos?”

Three out of four people who were asked that question in a recent Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project poll answered “yes.”

It makes sense that when those same people were asked “who is the most important Latino leader in the country today?” 62% said they didn’t know.

Most people will see those poll percentages and think there’s a vacuum at the topmost level of Latino leadership; a lapse of some sort, or a failure to prepare and produce a community standard-bearer. I don’t think it’s that simple.

I would answer the poll questions with another question, or at least a clarification: Define leader.

Are we talking about a political leader, a cultural leader, a business leader, thought leader, a leader of a movement? It makes a difference. I’d also ask what the expectations were for this purported leader. To be a spokesperson? To set an agenda? To be a champion for Latino causes? All of the these together?

I’ve asked these same questions to influential Latinos through the years.

I’ve asked it of politicians at all levels of government; I’ve asked it of top-tier business persons; I’ve asked it of thought leaders and community organizers, and they’ve all denied the need for a single, national leader, as such. They’ve also denied that they are, or could be such a leader.

Most people in high positions point to a need for leadership, but not necessarily for a leader. They define it as something that must occur at all levels of community; as something that needs to happen organically in neighborhoods, and schools, local governments and institutions.

I think that’s what the Pew poll tells us as well.

Latinos across the country hunger for leadership. 

The problem isn’t a lack of a national leader. But that’s what people were asked. So they found their frustration with the plight of Latinos in the U.S., and vented.

And they vented because they see the problems: the persistently high drop out rate; the lack of voter participation; the low levels of professional attainment; the economic barriers … the list is long. In fact it’s too long for any one person to handle – despite our highest expectations.

Sonia Sotomayor can’t do it.

Luis Gutierrez can’t either.

Neither can Julian or Joaquin Castro, alone or together. But that’s what the poll would seem to ask. Do we need a líder  to point the way and be gracious enough to let us follow?

We are the leader we’re looking for.

If only we looked in the right places.

Part of our collective Latino frustration has to do with the stories we tell ourselves and the way we frame our own reality. We look for a savior to walk a few steps ahead of us because the U.S. Latino narrative says we’re under-educated and poor and don’t vote – a self fulfilling story line.

And that happens because we’re not in charge of our own story – we let others tell it for us and about us: in national media; in national politics; in national research; in big business decision-making levels; in national advertising. They talk about us, include us in their conversations or as topics of debate. But how many of those top level narrative-makers let us sit shoulder to shoulder with them, as equals?

That’s part of our story too; the fact that we wait to be “let” into those circles.

We have the means to be our own leader.

Why wait?

Why lament and navel-gaze incessantly about our lack of voter participation?  Why don’t we just get “out there” and register new voters. We don’t need a structure to do it, just ganas.

Why are we waiting for someone to “do” something about Latino education, dropouts and college attainment? We have more than enough institutions, organizations and non-profits doing the work that’s needed. But they’ve been at it for more than 40 years, 80 years in some cases.

We’re the most connected sector of society living in the most connected time in history: Latinos, as a percentage, are the highest  users of social media, most of us connect through mobile devices. We’re naturally connectors, chatty, community builders, and we’re doing it online – bigger and faster than others.

The old way of going hat-in-hand to funders so we can do our work through large institutions no longer suffices. And to be honest, many of those large institutions don’t “get” social media. They hire specialists (on a funder’s dime), create new positions within their organizational charts, but they don’t embrace digital storytelling and narrative building as a central paradigm to their mission. “Oh yeah,” they say, “we should do Facebook and Twitter.”

We’re already leading.

That’s the big secret that most people don’t get.

We’re already talking to each other about our challenges, organizing outside the traditional institutions. We’re already looking for solutions in small conversations, sharing web links, organizing Tweet-ups, debating on Facebook,  launching websites …  it’s vigorous activity. And it can’t be lead in the traditional sense.

Latino leadership must be convened.

The people who answered the poll question know it, instinctively. But that wasn’t the question they were asked.

Latinos must create their own spaces, then come together in these spaces to exchange ideas, innovate systems, work out solutions. And these things happen organically, they’re happening now.

Steve Moya talks about changing the way we think of neighborhoods, looking at them as social networks not necessarily bound by geography. I think he’s on to something. He’s describing new, connected centers of leadership. We need more of that kind of thinking.

The present Latino leadership should be thinking of ways to create the conditions that make organic leadership possible. It should be open and inclusive, and not territorial and protecting funding sources with jealousy (many of you know exactly what I’m talking about) – that old paradigm has gotten us nowhere.

We don’t need a leader, we need to recognize ourselves as the leader we seek.

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