María Teresa Kumar

Moving Forward in An Inclusive America - March 26, 2019

María Teresa Kumar
March 26, 2019— Sherman, Texas
Print friendly

Kumar was the recipient of Austin College's 2019 Posey Leadership Award.

Apologies. I just want to make sure that I am respectful of your time.

First of all, Antonio, that was an incredible introduction. I had the opportunity to speak to Antonio before coming here and I have to say that his energy, I believe, exemplifies Austin College. He is energized to change the world and he deeply believes in the power of international travel, to seed his ideas, to grow. But he wants to give back as a medical student to eventually become a doctor for geriatrics. This idea of cross-bridging generations actually delineates where we are today in this country. And Antonio, I applaud you. I applaud you for your work, for your ethics, but more than anything – if you haven't talked to Antonio – his enthusiasm.

I want to thank Austin College, the president. Larry, thank you so much for having me today. I also want to thank the young women from 6:22 Edomite Hills High School who are sitting with us today.

The reason I started working with Voto Latino 14 years ago – actually this is our quinceañera, for folks that don't know, quinceañera was…. When I was 29 years old, I was at a crossroads in my own career. I had basically done exactly what my parents had outlined for me to do. I was the first person in my family to go to college. How many people is the first person in their families to go to college? I was translating America for my family long before I turned 18 years old. I was helping them navigate America. I was at the doctor's office helping my grandmother make really difficult medical decisions. I was negotiating on of my mother when it came to to landlords. And every once in a while, if I must admit, I was also not specifically translating exactly what was happening during parent-teacher conferences, for those who can relate.

But it was right after September 11. I had just graduated from the Kennedy School. I had just decided that I was going to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, and September 11 happened right when I was in New York. And like so many young people at that time, it redefined me. It was a time for me to have a real honest conversation of the path that I wanted to take in this country.

Because while I was the first person in my family to go to college and I had incredible access through scholarships and great mentors, I called home that day, back to Sonoma, a small rural community, to learn that my cousins were not doing so well. One had just been arrested. Another one basically had been not been able to meet bail. And I realized that at 29 I did not have the words to describe the institutional constructions that had prevented them from accessing a quality education like I had.

And it was right around September 11 that redefined where I wanted to go. And I had an honest conversation with myself that while I could have gone into corporate America – and I did for a year and a half because I had student loans, who can relate – that what I really wanted to do was dedicate myself to the Latino community and to young people specifically, because I recognized that they were leaders in their household long before they turn 18 years old. They were actually making decisions – adult decisions – long before they were 18. And so for the next 15 years, that's exactly what I did.

But for you to appreciate where Voto Latino was when I started. It was a series of PSAs that Rosario Dawson gave to me and said, "Do whatever you want. But there's no money and just an idea." And not knowing what I should know, I decided that Voto Latino was exactly for me because it was the very first organization that said out loud what I deeply felt inside – that I was American.

Up to that point – I was 29 years old, I had gone to the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I had worked for three years in Congress, I had worked in the state legislature in California, I had done door-knocking – and no one had ever out loud said I was American, even though I fiercely believed that I was.

And that's what sparked my passion for Voto Latino. I packed my bags, left New York, moved back into my mother's house. She was incredibly generous because it was on the eve of my 30th birthday. The checks that I was writing to her stopped coming, and I funded Voto Latino for the first three years on my credit card. Young ladies, don't do that. Don't do that. But it was because I didn't know.

But I was fortunate enough to go back in the backyard of Silicon Valley. And the idea behind Voto Latina was that I was going to reach young people on the internets, in English, to mobilize them to participate in our democracy. Because I realized that the reason that there was such inequity in California, in Sonoma, in the town that I grew up in, was because people were not participating and people were not asking them to participate.

When I was 13 years old, in California, as diverse as it was, the town next to mine had a neo-Nazi march. There were Confederate flags that would drive down the street with impunity. There was not one young man in my family – and there's a lot of us. My husband jokes that I was basically did not grow up in California, that I grew up in the colony of Columbia in California. We are the chain migration family. Despite all of this, we were absent from the political voice, even though there was such a large population in Sonoma.

And so the way to fix the judicial system, the way to fix education, the way to grow business in our society is a robust, thriving11:10 country.

I came to this country when I was four years old. I became nationalized at nine years old, and I still declare that one of the most satisfying days of my life. I remember when I was…I had just gone to City Hall in San Francisco. The next day I went to a parochial school because my mother deeply believed in education, and the teacher asked us what are we thankful for. I raised my hand. I said, "I'm thankful for being a U.S. citizen." Nobody understood what that meant. My teacher looked at me like I was an alien.

But I deeply realized that the opportunities that the United States afforded me from a single mother that hadn't finished college, would have been limited in Columbia where I came from. But in the U.S. it provided me an open opportunity to be who I wanted to be, to define who I was.

And I'll be very honest – it wasn't until I was 12 years old that that dream slowly tarnished, only because I came running home, I was crying, my step-father – the man who raised me – said, "What's going on?" I said, "Well, I realized that I have a limitation in America." And he's like, "Well, what's that limitation? He's like, "I can't be president!" I was a precocious twelve-year-old.

But it's because I deeply love this country is why I do the work that I do. In the last 15 years, Voto Latino's registered over a half a million new voters. In the last election, Voto Latino directly registered 15% of all Texas voters. And it's because we deeply believe that Texas, this state, is ground zero for our future.

I have had the privilege of spending a lot of time in Texas in the last 10 years. My in-laws moved to El Paso because my sister-in-law and her husband live in UTEP. And I've seen the transformation of El Paso into a small town into a thriving metropolis that is incredibly generous, incredibly kind, and is at the crossroads right now of identity of who we are as Americans.

Last year when the President declared the family separation policy week, we were in Tornillo which had created the very first internment camp of children in the middle of a desert. We brought in incredible activists such as Kerry Kennedy. We brought in Dolores Huerta. We brought in MSNBC and they did a three-hour special on the border, because we knew that fundamentally what was happening there was not who we are as Americans.

We built it, not knowing who would come. We had over 500 Americans from across the country jump on a plane, including a few Canadians, to bear witness of what our government was doing, because we knew that it was wrong.

And what gave me hope, what gave me opportunity to see the future, and what really instilled of who we are as Americans was the fact that the people who drove from El Paso, who flew into El Paso to Tornillo, Texas, were American. There were Republicans, independents, there were Democrats. But what bound us together was this definition of who we were.

Right after the presidential elections, when you saw the largest marches of our country's history, what we witnessed was Americans coming together across all states, unifying 10 years of marches bearing witness to our country. That past November, 123 million Americans sat it out. They decided not to vote because they figured that their vote wouldn't matter. Right after the inauguration….

And what I mean by 10 years of marches – in 2006, we saw up to that point the largest marches of our nation's history when it came to immigration reform, and who led it? Young Latinos defending the rights of their parents. Over 2 million people took to the streets. Shortly after, we saw Occupy Wall Street – young people saying there's a disparity happening in this country and no one is paying attention. We saw climate change marches. We saw marches when it came to this idea that we had to have equality and fairness when it came to marriage. You saw Black Lives Matters protesters come out.

But we saw Americans come out on the Women's March that Voto Latino helped coordinate across the country in all states. But I thought what was beautiful was that it was in the red states that Americans say, "We are going to bear witness."

Right after Election Day for Voto Latino – it was one of the hardest things that we witnessed because it…. Voto Latino, we went from providing voter registration information on that Tuesday, on Election Day, to suicide prevention hotline information. Because our audience – some of them who are DACA and Dreamers – all of a sudden realized that they had given their information to the federal government, who now said that they were going to basically track them down.

We worked very closely with the Obama administration, provided people with information, and then we basically a week later talked to our college campuses around the country basically saying, "We did voter registration. This is where we're basically going to transition and we're gonna continue doing regular work after this, but right now we're gonna transition. We're going to actually shut down these local chapters of college campuses. But I want to thank you for your work."

And what proceeded was that from Oregon all the way to Pennsylvania, every single college Voto Latino chapter president had experienced a racial incident. We could have shut it down, but at the end, the conclusion, of that call I said, "Well, what would you guys like to do?" And the young people said, "We want to have cross-cultural conversations, intersectional conversations. We want to talk to college presidents. We want to talk about the issues that we care about. Will Voto Latino help us?"   And we started coordinating young people, so that now we went from nine college chapters to over 28 college chapters, and by the end of next year, we're gonna have close to 50 college chapters.

But in order to have a college chapter on your campus, you have to sign a pledge that you're going to start with an intersectional conversation, bringing in diverse groups and diverse conversations, because that is what we need right now. There's plenty of divisiveness, of telling us who is American and who is not. But when we have conversations, when we bring people in, when we encourage people to have those tough talks, we're stronger for it.

When I started out basically highlighting that Antonio is basically helping bridge this divide between two generations. In the last election, millennials and baby boomers were roughly at the same – there's roughly 62 million people on both ends of the spectrum. This coming election, we're going to have roughly 12 million more young people than baby boomers.

What gives me hope is that in the last election that just happened in 2018, it was the biggest participation in our election in our nation's history in close to a hundred years for our midterms. What did that tell me, is that our elections matter. People all of a sudden realized that in our democracy, in order for it to be robust, in order for it to be strong, we have to love it. We have to care for it. We have to tend to it.

One out of six voters this past election were young voters, and what did we see the next day? We saw people going from resisting to occupying our institutions. And I deeply believe that the institutions reflect the country they serve, those people who vote.

I often times have an opportunity to talk to folks and people say, "Well you know, the system is rigged." I don't like to use that word. The system is made for the people who represent and who participate and who vote. And there's a lot of folks trying to make sure that we don't participate, but there's so many more people, so many more Americans, who are sharing our values and voting our values.

This past election we saw over 126 women go into Congress for the very first time. In our country's 240-plus year history, this is the Congress that is the most diverse that we've ever seen. Some of the most when it comes to youngest in terms of elected representatives, some of the most when it comes to military veterans re-entering and running for office. We often hear of the most progressive voices, but when you actually look at the map of the people who actually entered Congress, are reflective of our values. They're individuals that deeply believe that in order to fix America, is that you have to roll up your sleeves and get into it.

About four years ago, we started working very closely with the MacArthur Foundation and we started creating what we call power summits. And the power summits is really identifying skill gaps among a lot of the folks that Voto Latinos serves. Roughly 90% of the people that we register and 90% of the people that go to our power summits are the first in their families to go to college. Through these skills, we're able to work very closely with the MacArthur Foundation and teach people how do you learn basic skills as mentoring, how do you network, how do you basically identify individuals in your own job areas that could basically be advocates for you?

And about four years ago, we started introducing this notion of, why don't you run for office? Now granted, these are juniors and seniors in college, for the most part. In the last four years, once we start introducing this message, we've had four young people run for office. Three have been the youngest ever elected, including the youngest assemblyperson, Wendy Carrillo up in California; the youngest city councilman in Texas, Cesar Gregorio21:15; and the youngest woman in congressional history, Alexandria Ocasio. They took the message, they internalized it, and they said, "You know what – you're right. I have been navigating America for my family for way too long, and I know how to fix this."

And what we're seeing right now in Congress is legislation that better reflects the values of our country. Now what I mean by that, in less than a three-month period – when people say that your vote doesn't matter – in less than a three-month period with active participation of our nation's history of folks that have voted, we have seen people introduce HR 1, which is a modernization of our election system – why can't voting day be a free day off to participate in our democracy.

We've seen people introduce legislation for the for the Dreamers and for DACA. I know Texas is the second-largest state of Dreamers. This is an issue that really impacts the Texas community.

We've seen people introduce reproductive health legislation. We've seen them introduce equal rights act, so that if you're gay and you love someone you shouldn't be discriminated at work. We've also seen the very first time a modernization of background checks and gun legislation – the first time in 25 years.

But that only happened because Americans went from marching and resisting to occupying the voting booth. And it only happens when we talk to each other, when we have conversations, when we create the energy in saying that our country not only is exemplary but we share these values that are common threads.

And oftentimes people say, "Well, how is this going to turn out?" and I encourage people to look at the past. A hundred years ago we were in the same crossroads as a country. We had massive immigration. We were at war. We were going from an agricultural to industrial society. We were trying to figure out how to get out of the Great Recession. And what we did is Americans is that we rolled up our sleeves, looked around and we decided to nation-build. We bet on us.

And we bet on us when we ensured that we had a GI bill to educate ourselves. We decided that we were gonna build our infrastructure. We decided that we were going to put a man on the moon with less technology than you're holding on your phone right now.

So when people say that right now, America, we can't think too big, when haven't we? When haven't we written the rules? When haven't we created enormous opportunity to make sure that we not only have a seat at the table but we open it up for other folks and we move ourselves forward? Shame on us for not thinking big enough.

Because we created the internets, we created interstate highways, we created the world order when it actually came to even discussing how we were going to treat fellow refugees from around the world. We created those rules.

There's responsibility in creating that leadership. Our challenges, though – are we willing to do the exact same thing we did a hundred years ago with less access to information, less access to money, less access to interconnectivity – but when America was more homogeneous. Are we willing to do it for the more diverse generation that is coming up?

And you better believe it. Because it is our intercultural diversity that gives us strengths and I deeply believe is preparing us for a more inter-global world. And it is on us to make sure that we are educating this new diverse, young population.

My children are five and six years old. They are the first generation of majority-minority country. That's exciting. That's not something to be afraid of. No one quite understands Texas because when someone said we're going to build a wall, everybody kind of scratched their head and said, but why – they're our neighbors, they're our loved ones, they are us.

And I've had this conversation with Texans that are Republican, independent, Democrats and questions. You are at the forefront of where the country needs to be. It is your energy, your value, but also recognizing that it's through kindness and conversations. Only in Texas will I literally sneeze at the grocery store line and five people say bless you. And it's refreshing and human.

So you're going to have – and you don't know this but I'm reading you the tea leaves – 2020 is going to be complete madness for your state, because everybody has realized 26:23that you what world was gonna realize in 2010 – you guys are ground zero for bringing our country forward.

And when you folks say, "Well, what is it that we can do here?" I encourage you to look at what your legislature is doing – modernize your election system. Texas is one of 12 states that does not have online voter registration – one of 12. I'm proud of you guys because you went from the dead last in voter participation to 41st, but I have yet met the Texan who's not proud of being number one. There's right now active legislation being proposed in your state senate not only to provide Election Day state workers to basically have a free day off to go vote, but also make Election Day a holiday.

There's information so that you can also make sure that you are participating, but I encourage you to call your state legislators. They have the power because you gave it to them. Oftentimes people forget that the reason that someone is elected is because they are the ones that are working for you, not the opposite. You literally write their paychecks.

Though I have to say, being a state legislator in Texas is amazing because you basically have two years off and two years on. I would like that gig. Actually I started working when I was 11 years old. All I know what to do is work.

But it's an incredible privilege that you guys have here. Because when I say that everybody is saying ground zero, it wasn't Beto. What was happening in Texas started long before. There's roughly 2.6 million Latinos that are under the age of 34 in this state. The majority of them are unregistered.

But we do know that when Latinos register, they vote. And that's the big misnomer. Seventy-nine percent, the chances of a Latino voting once they register is 79 percent.

Texas, you guys are still a little behind. In the last election, 46% of all eligible voters voted. However, when we register you, your chances of going out…. Voto Latino goes from being the cool sister to the nagging aunt very quickly, so we get you in and 77 percent of the people who register actually vote when they vote through Voto Latino.

And it's because we believe deeply in peer-to-peer conversations. We believe deeply that you need to have access to information, so we will text you. You ask us, well you know I don't know where my polling place is, we will do live conversations with you via text. So not only do we give you your polling place, in some cases we'll give you free ride to the polls through partnerships like Lyft. And we want to make sure that there is no excuses of why you're not participating.

Because one of the things I do know is that we are having the tough conversations that we've been avoiding for the last 20, 30 years. But it's through those tough conversations that we're seeing legislation better reflect the values that prepares us for the future.

I deeply believe that what makes us robust is having a conversation and a debate of ideas, and right now there's a lot of distractions not allowing us to have those debates, and I'm encouraging everybody to be very clear what the goal is. And that goal is having participation so that we elect individuals that are grown up, that provide leadership, that provide us with the encouragement but also the vision of our possibility.

Because while the Constitution was written 240 plus years ago, it laid out an incredible plan of equity that we have yet to fulfill as a country. But it is a blueprint that is the envy of the world, because if we were to accomplish it – to breathe it, to live it – we're unstoppable.

And there's a lot of hard issues coming up on the horizon that will be less about people but more about our relationship with work, with artificial intelligence, with automation. And if we're not prepared to see our humanity in each other, the love that we carry forth and the pride that we are as Americans, we won't be prepared for those tough conversations.

So I encourage you, don't be distracted by divisiveness. Because if you look around, you're what America looks like. This is what America looks like. And this their strength in conversations and power and love.

And I have to tell you, my grandmother always told me that love is worth fighting for. And I will translate that to say and include that this country is worth fighting for because our values are too strong, our courage is unwaverable. But we need all hands on deck.

Thank you so much for your generosity. Thank you so much.

Speech from