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Lessons on Involving Latino Residents in Public Decision Making



The full version of this article appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of the National Civic Review.

Involving Latino Residents in Public Decision-Making

Involving Latino residents in public decision-making can be challenging for many reasons, including language, literacy and cultural barriers, time and transportation issues, and a climate of distrust of government, especially by undocumented residents and their families.

However, some leaders are overcoming these challenges by developing effective strategies to reach out and involve Latinos in civic life to a greater extent. This is giving public officials more information from more perspectives to inform and guide their decision making. Latino inclusive civic engagement allows leaders to better understand the needs, concerns, and goals of their increasingly diverse constituency. This knowledge enables officials to make decisions that are appropriately reflective of the public interest. A transparent and inclusive civic engagement process is likely to increase public support for the decisions made. This, in turn, can create an atmosphere conducive to successful implementation.

Latino inclusive public involvement can also increase the number of residents who are civically active in the community. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos have historically lagged behind white and black Americans in percent of eligible people who register to vote and also in polls of how many of those registered actually vote. In the 2006 elections, eligible Latinos registered at a rate 17 percent lower than eligible white residents and those registered reported voting at a rate 12 percent lower than whites. Inclusive public engagement can help to weave Latino residents into the civic and political life of their communities. This may take the form of volunteering, serving on commissions, running for public office, attending and participating actively in public meetings, as well as participating in democracy through voting. Being included in well designed public meetings and neighborhood conversations will involve Latino residents, with others, in civic activities and help them overcome the fear and mistrust that often act as barriers to full community participation.

In his 2004 report by commissioned by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Craig McGarvey posited that civic engagement contributes to the development of three factors that are vital to a person’s ability to actively participate in democratic processes: motivation, capacity, and networks of recruitment. Opportunities to identify and discuss issues that are important to them and their communities will motivate participation. Such engagement also builds the capacity of individuals to address community issues by adding to their self-confidence, knowledge, and skills. Latino civic engagement participants develop a better understanding of local government and a range of communication, analytical, problem solving and community building skills. Inclusive engagement also serves to build relationships that support collaborative efforts and bring additional resources to bear in addressing community issues.

These networks of relationships (or “social capital”) reduce the isolation of immigrant groups and offer new avenues for community problem solving. The focus may be on a particular policy decision, or broader efforts may address issues such as education, youth violence, healthcare or substance abuse.

In his 2007 article “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century”, Robert Putnam presented a controversial update to his ongoing research on civic engagement. His findings suggest that while in the long run immigration and ethnic diversity are likely to have significant cultural, economic, fiscal and developmental benefits; in the short run immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. Putnam presents evidence that in ethnically diverse American neighborhoods residents tend to “hunker down,” becoming less trusting, less giving, and having fewer friends. “Diversity, at least in the short run,” he writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.” (p. 151)

For local officials this underscores the importance of making efforts to involve Latino residents and the full community in civic and political life to ensure the broadest possible participation. Opportunities for leadership development, common work and successful civic participation may reduce this “turtle” phenomenon.

The challenge is to remove obstacles to public involvement and allow more Latino residents to become active participants in democracy. Bringing new voices and perspectives into public discussions helps people to bridge cultural divides, have a richer discussion of community issues, and learn more about each other. Benefits of inclusive public dialogues can include reduced tensions in the community and broader support for community improvement initiatives.

In an effort to survey current thinking on best practices in targeted participant outreach to American Latino communities, AmericaSpeaks initiated a modest research study that was conducted in the fall and winter of 2007. In the first stage of this survey, Theo Brown (a senior associate at AmericaSpeaks with 30 years of community organizing experience, and the original instigator of the research study) and I interviewed 12 people who were responsible for outreach in Latino communities for the CaliforniaSpeaks statewide public engagement initiative on state health care reform. They were asked to share their most successful strategies and helpful hints for attracting Latino participants to public meetings. Interviewees were also asked to identify individuals outside of the AmericaSpeaks network who they considered to be exemplary organizers working in Latino communities. A second round of interviews was conducted with 14 of the organizers who were recommended. These people worked in a variety of locations and settings and included union organizers, faith based community organizers, health clinic staff, elementary school and community college staff, and adult ESL program staff.

Organizational development literature suggests an outside viewpoint from other organizations for comparison can be beneficial. Although the subjects of the second round interviews did not necessarily work in dialogue based public engagement, I felt that their experiences with turning out Latino people for Union meetings, community meetings, issue advocacy meetings, etc. would be applicable to the work done by AmericaSpeaks and other groups trying to engage ethnically and socio-economically diverse populations in public policy decisions via deliberative democracy. And I thought a fresh perspective from different types of organizations might yield new insights and point out any “blind spots” that AmericaSpeaks staff and associates might have missed.

All interviews were conducted by phone and all subjects within each round of interviews were asked the same questions. Each interview lasted about an hour on average.

What We Learned about Successful Strategies to Include Latino Americans in Public Decision Making Processes

General Considerations to Keep in Mind

Most organizers identified building a relationship with people as the single most important strategy to ensure high levels of participation in public meetings. One organizer explained, “I’d say that trust is more important and personal connections are more important with Latinos-especially those who are newly arrived here and/or don’t speak English.” Other comments included, “You need to understand that when you go into a Latino community, you need to have some kind of legitimacy before people embrace you,” and, ““The Latino culture is inherently suspicious of ‘outsiders.”

Trying to recruit Latino participants without first building a relationship with them can be disappointing. People who happily agreed to attend don’t show up. As one organizer lamented, “It can be really hard- it seems like Latino people don’t want to say no a lot of times, but they don’t end up showing up.” This agreeable tendency may be a cultural trend worth keeping in mind. One Latino organizer explained, “One problem is that sometimes people may be trying to be polite and are saying yes when they don’t mean it, or when they may not exactly understand what has been asked.” Another commented, “Sometimes Latinos may have more trouble than others saying no—they particularly don’t want to be rude to people in authority.”

Another factor to consider is that Latino’s, especially recent immigrants, may have little experience with being asked to participate in civic engagement processes and this may lead to disbelief and/or ambivalence when they are asked to make a commitment to attend. One CaliforniaSpeaks organizer said, “Because Latinos aren’t used to being asked for their feedback or used to forums like this, they may not have been that into it.”

Because of the recent increase in immigration related raids and detentions, there is apprehension and mistrust that many documented and undocumented Latinos feel towards the authorities. This makes some reluctant to participate in any meeting where public officials are involved. A 2008 report by the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights details hundreds of raids by the U.S. federal government and a 400 percent increase in detentions between 1994 and 2006. The authors suggest that these federal efforts are creating a climate of fear among immigrants. One CaliforniaSpeaks outreach staffer commented, “I was told several times that there would be a reluctance to sign up for a meeting like this due to this fear of immigration enforcement or deportation.” Organizers of other efforts voices similar concerns. “Even if people have all of their papers they may be concerned for their families or friends and not want to draw attention to themselves,” said one interviewee.

Common Mistakes in Latino Outreach Efforts

The most common mistake that the organizers reported witnessing was attempting to reach out to Latino communities without bilingual, Latino looking, and/or culturally sensitive staff and/or translated materials. Comments included, “Hire people who speak Spanish and are a part of the community. White people can gain Latinos’ trust, but it’s easier if you are Latino,” and, “It’s very important for organizations not rooted in the community to avoid the perception that white people are parachuting into the community.”

The second most common mistake organizers reported was relying on impersonal methods of recruitment like phone calls from strangers or general letters or flyers. “It’s a waste of time to randomly call people or put up flyers, unless it’s a really hot topic. People don’t trust just anyone to come to a meeting,” said one person. Other comments included, “Sending a form to a central location and getting calls from strangers is not part of Latino culture,” and, “Personal contact and follow up are what get turn out in a Latino community.”

Another pitfall for organizations wishing to attract Latino people to public meeting that interviewees discussed was failing to use recognized community leaders enough who can mobilize their followers. “You have to recruit leaders and get their buy in for why it’s important and have them influence other people,” explained one seasoned organizer.
“I planned an immigrant rights rally at the only Latino church in our area, but I didn’t get the padre’s support enough and hardly anybody came to our event,” lamented a less seasoned organizer.

Another criticism of less successful outreach efforts was failure to do enough to make the public engagement event seem culturally friendly. Organizers recommended providing culturally appropriate foods that make people feel more at home. One Latino attendee at a public engagement meeting commented, “If you had Latino personalities such as radio hosts it would have drawn out more people and made it a safer place.”

Finally, some interviewees cautioned against treating all Latino groups as if they are the same and not being sensitive to the differences between people from different countries or those who have been here a long time versus recent immigrants. One pointed out that not all Latino immigrants speak Spanish. “There are real differences between Mexican-Americans, Central Americans or those from the Caribbean, and these need to be taken into account,” advised one subject. “You need to target the group you want—first generation or second generation is different and you can’t use the same recruitment strategy for both,” commented another.

Strategies for Success

The organizers we interviewed collectively contributed a fairly comprehensive list of strategies for successful outreach to Latino communities.

1. Take time to build relationships with Latino leaders and get their buy in to help with outreach and planning.

  •  “… meet with leaders of key organizations before doing broader outreach.”
  •  “Try to explain how they can be a part of this event and, if possible, part of the planning process.”
  •  “I think the keys to ensure high levels of Latino participation are to invite leaders and get more tied in with the local organizations and their leaders on a continuing basis.”

2. Enlist help of trusted key organizations such as service providers, unions, nonprofit advocates, immigration law and immigrant’s rights organizations.

  •  “The most important strategy is making contact with local advocates and leveraging existing high trust relations to get to the actual target person.”
  •  “We are able to get people involved because we let them know all of the services we offer and show them all of the specific ways we can help them and their kids.”

3. Clearly explain how attending will satisfy a person’s self interest.

  •  “If you want me to come and listen to you, then you need to show that you are really interested in me and not just in selling your point. You have to personalize it, tell me not only why it’s important to you but why it’s important to me. People have to be genuine and nice and sometimes people are not.”
  •  “We need to stress that just because you can’t vote it doesn’t mean you can’t be a part of the political process. They need to be empowered and know that they have influence.”
  •  “One obstacle in CaliforniaSpeaks outreach was that getting involved in a policy discussion about health care seemed so far removed from the daily reality of the Latino Immigrants I was trying to recruit.”

4. Use organizational networks so that participants are invited by people they know and trust.

  • “The key is to work through the structure or base of an organization so that there is an organizing structure that works to psyche them up for an event and make sure they come out.”
  •  “If people are invited via organizations they have a sense of loyalty and don’t want to let the organization down.”

5. Work with churches and interfaith networks and get endorsement and help from religious leaders.

  • “It’s important to work with the churches. If the priest says to go that is really going to help in the Hispanic community.”
  • “Being connected to the church and having relationships with the deacon or priest and having the ability to use this safe space gives people a feeling of security, especially for Latinos who may be worried about immigration status.”
  • “Going to parishes worked really well, speaking during the announcement period and then signing up people immediately afterwards was helpful.”
  • “Churches and faith based organizations have powerful connections to the Latino community so I would target them more in the future.”

6. Work with Latino media—especially Spanish language radio stations.

  • “Latino media is critical…get them as a partner to promote the meetings.”
  • “Radio is particularly important with immigrant groups. Radio stations were the key to big turnouts at immigration rallies the past couple of years.”
  • “Latino organizations have confidence in the local Latino media so they need to see it in the newspaper and radio to get them to want to participate.”
  • “Local Spanish language radio is great to use—have voices of people who are well respected by the Latino community inviting them in PSAs.”

7. Provide some sort of incentives or recognition when possible.

  • “These folks [Latino immigrants] may have to take a day off from work and their budgets are very constrained, so the financial incentive really honors that.”
  • “Anything tangible that you can give as a reward for attending helps with recruitment.”

8. Choose locations for public engagement meetings that have a feel that is comfortable and familiar to Latinos.

  • “Choose a location that is not so ritzy and where low-income Latinos are going to feel comfortable. Maybe we need to make middle class white folks feel uncomfortable for a change”
  • “Holding events in the [Latino] community itself where people are used to going would make it more inviting and easier for people to come.”
  • “Churches and primary schools are best for Latino people and immigrants because they feel safe there.”
  • “Turnout will be better if they are already familiar with the school and Latino people are most familiar with primary schools and high schools—not universities.”
  • “Stay away from official seeming places like city hall or government buildings.”

Of course, organizers recognized the need to be flexible and adapt strategies depending on the specific population being targeted. For instance, Hotels, conference centers and universities are good venues for Latino professionals, but not always for recent immigrants.

9. Make follow up calls to people who have agreed to attend a public engagement event.

The surveyed organizers unanimously agreed on the importance of calling Latino people (as opposed to sending impersonal e-mail or mailed reminders) at least once and preferably more times before the event. Ideally the person who invited and signed up the potential participant, or someone else known and trusted by that person should be the one to make these follow up calls (or even personal visits). This can also be an opportunity to inquire about any transportation, food, or childcare needs.

  • “The more times we can call the better. I mean, you don’t want to nag, but you should call a week, three days before, the day before and the day of too if possible.”
  • “…lots of attention needs to be given to follow up calls. The calls are not just to remind people, but also to keep the relationships going. It’s very important … that it not feel remote from them or apart from them. You need a relationship to make it real.”

10. When arranging transportation for larger civic engagement events, use buses or minivans to pick people up at familiar places like churches, restaurants or community centers. Enlisting or hiring people from the Latino community to coordinate the transportation can help people feel more comfortable attending.

A separate survey of invited participants commissioned by AmericaSpeaks and performed by NSON Opinion Research found that monolingual Spanish speaking Californians were more than twice as likely as English speakers to report that they did not attend the CaliforniaSpeaks public engagement meeting due to transportation issues. Latino immigrants may not have driver’s licenses, especially in urban areas. Organizers offered some suggestions to overcome this obstacle to participation:

  • “If possible, pick people up at their houses. If not, it should be someplace that Latino people really know and go to a lot.”
  • “If you use minivans then it’s easier to spread out and pick up people at more different places.”
  • “Have Spanish speaking people who they can identify with pick them up so that they will be able to trust the person.”
  • “Whoever is working on the ground organizing should also make decisions about where and when to pick people up so that the relationship they have is carried on through to the transportation to the meeting.”


Engaging Latino communities and other communities with a high percentage of newcomers will typically take concerted efforts over time to be successful. Be prepared to learn and adapt as you go. Ask those Latinos who participate in civic engagement activities what “worked” in terms of the recruitment strategy, method of communication, meeting format, or the issue itself that brought people out. Ask these participants or other community leaders what they think would have been more effective to generate understanding and engagement. Including Latino people and members of a variety of ethnic groups from the community in this evaluation process will ensure that it accurately reflects the perspectives of all stakeholders. Getting feedback from the public demonstrates a transparent and fair civic engagement process and shows public officials’ dedication to continually striving to serve all residents at the highest level achievable.

Terry Amsler and Theo Brown contributed ideas and feedback to this article. Interview questions were designed collaboratively by the author, Greg Keidan, and AmericaSpeaks senior staff including Theo Brown, Janet Fiero, Joe Goldman, Ashley Boyd, Surjeet Ahluwalia, and Alberto Rodrigues.

Portions of this article were adapted from the Institute for Local Government publication, A Local Official’s Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement, also written by Greg Keidan, available at


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The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Over-Raided, Under Siege: U.S. Immigration Laws and Enforcement Destroy the Rights of Immigrants, Oakland, CA, January 2008. Retrieved 9/24/08 from

NSON Opinion Research, CaliforniaSpeaks Health Care Reform Town Hall Meeting Participant and Non-Participant Follow-up Surveys Summary Report. Salt Lake City, UT, February 2008 (unpublished).

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