Fernando is the education coordinator at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.
I grew up in a mostly Mexican community in San Diego and went to college in Baltimore. In both cities I saw what was possible when individuals came together under the banner of unity.
And this isn’t just a coastal phenomenon – I have spent the past couple years learning what opportunities exist for low-wealth communities in Arkansas when residents organize and take action to unlock their full economic potential. A community is a group of people that have a particular characteristic in common. Regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or geography, I have seen what communities pushed to the fringes are able to accomplish when members are willing to stand up for each other and lend a helping hand to the most vulnerable among them. And opportunity exponentially increases when communities form coalitions with others and empower youth to lead.
I started at the Arkansas Public Policy Panel in the summer of 2017 as a Southern Education Foundation Leadership Initiative Fellow to learn about education issues and take action to increase opportunity for students in the US South. New to Arkansas, I spent much of my time traveling to rural communities across southern Arkansas to listen to residents and reflect on my experiences. It was my first time visiting rural, majority African American communities, and I felt uncertain, disoriented, and out of place.
As I learned about these communities, I explored why resources and services were so limited – and there was no single, clear-cut answer for why so many residents lacked wealth and the skills employers needed them to have. Low intergenerational family and community wealth, limited access to public services, structural racism, and both historical and current inequitable policies are all factors that have combined to disenfranchise residents and erect barriers to meeting their full potential.
A few months ago, I joined Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation (WRF) partners and staff in southwest Detroit to learn about community organizing. As I listened to different community-led organizations like the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, I heard how local leadership shared a sense of unity with the people they served and an urgency to collaborate across racial and ethnic lines to increase opportunity for everyone. I noticed that black and brown collaboration was essential to increase prosperity and educational attainment in diverse communities because their shared past informed how they created a brighter future. Through black and brown coalitions, residents were able to pool their knowledge, influence, and resources to drive greater change more quickly.
In Arkansas, I had heard time after time that African American and Hispanic/Latinx communities were too different to collaborate. That belief created unnecessary competition and even hostility among these communities. Instead of supporting each other, infighting and competition took more time and resources that could instead be used to mutually benefit and improve lives.
Sitting in that room, I realized that I needed to do my part to bring black and brown communities together to build resident-led coalitions.
Part of the Detroit Industry Murals series by Diego Rivera in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts
At Congress of Communities, I learned what consistent youth engagement and organizing had accomplished in Detroit. The Congress’s Youth Council provided Latinx youth opportunities to lead community-change initiatives, reflect and report on civic engagement activities, and participate in fun and exciting extracurricular experiences. Maria Anita Salinas, Congress of Communities executive director, explained that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to develop strategies for engaging and organizing youth. Rather, they developed partnerships with organizations that already supported youth and collaboratively built upon existing programs so more young leaders could benefit and support each other.
In Arkansas, I have heard youth organizing is not worth the time because young residents do not vote and will not stay civically engaged. However, there are plenty of national examples that show that is not the case – youth are building and leading movements across the country like Black Lives Matter and March For Our Lives. If well-established organizations in Arkansas reach out to youth and form the right partnerships with them, nonprofit leadership can more effectively engage young people and provide them opportunities to build their capacity as community leaders and future professionals.
Detroit showed me the value of investing time and resources in our youth as drivers of community change, and I saw an opportunity to advocate for youth organizing in Arkansas.
I am determined to do my part to build a thriving and prosperous Arkansas that benefits all Arkansans. To realize my vision, it will take commitment from all of us to continue investing in community organizing, build coalitions between communities that have historically been divided, and empower youth to lead and be heard. We can do it. We can truly make Arkansas the land of opportunity every resident deserves.