Casting an Educated Vote

Latinos hold unprecedented political power in this year’s U.S. elections. Experts forecast that more than 12.2 million Latino voters will cast ballots on November 6, an increase of 26 percent over 2008. Our community represents an increasingly powerful voting bloc. We are starting to wield significant influence, which is forcing people to take notice. With that power comes the responsibility to carefully decide what agenda we want to champion. I want to see us double-down on education, especially in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Too many Latino communities struggle with high drop-out rates, low teacher pay, inflated class size, and a lack of basic resources like text books, lab equipment and in-classroom technology. We must continue to force our policy makers to focus on these issues. We’re going to hear promises from politicians on both sides of the aisle about the future wellbeing of our children. But there are several specific areas where we, as Latinos, must hold policy makers’ feet to the fire; namely ensuring that young Latinos are prepared for the workforce and technological world of tomorrow. There are are a few areas where we must improve our focus.

In Santa Clara County, where I work and live, Latinos are struggling to keep pace. In 2011 only 18 percent of Latino 8th grade students were proficient in algebra. It’s a local statistic representative of a broader challenge we face. STEM is the key to developing students into qualified candidates for future high-tech jobs. The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that over the next decade, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent, compared to 9.8 percent growth in other sectors. If our youth aren’t prepared to fill that gap, we’ll miss a huge opportunity.

We need to support organizations that train the future workforce in STEM disciplines. For example, Microsoft is a passionate supporter of The Tech Museum, a San Jose-based institution that offers incredible hands-on learning and interactive exhibits. Latino students and their parents learn together and apply the concepts of math and science to real-life situations, while fostering problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Without technology in the classroom and readily available to our youth, the practical application of STEM skills simply isn’t possible. Research has shown that computer use among youth positively correlates with the development of cognitive skills and academic performance. Tactical, hands-on experience with technology is a crucial way students can practice, reinforce and refine essential STEM skills. Look for organizations that provide children a framework for STEM application, and support them with your time, donations or by getting the children in your life involved with them.

For example, Latinas Contra Cancer is San Jose-based nonprofit that teaches young Latina women to code and build mobile applications. The apps are then used to provide information to the community about cancer. This is the epitome of practical application. When technologies and training are put into the hands of young people who might otherwise never have had the experience, a unique path of opportunity, growth and success opens up to them.

We are an especially resourceful community, thanks to the challenges we – and our parents and grandparents – have faced in seizing equal educational, employment and economic opportunities. The 2010 United States Census Bureau revealed that Latino-owned businesses reached 2.3 billion, and increased 43.7 percent between 2002 and 2007 – more than twice the national rate of 18 percent. With entrepreneurialism as a shared value, we have the power to motivate our children to own their economic successes.

We need to support nonprofits in our communities whose mission is to light the entrepreneurial fire within young people. Recommend these programs to the youths in your life. BUILD, a Silicon Valley organization which uses entrepreneurship to inspire disengaged, low-income students, has chapters in several major metro locations. Junior Achievement is one of the most impactful organizations dedicated to this issue, with more than 120 Junior Achievement Areas in the United States. Find one in your locale and learn what you can do to inspire one of its students.

We need to continue to model and teach entrepreneurship. The most fundamental thing you can do is to encourage youth to pursue their dreams and actively participate in making them reality. Motivational, one-on-one support from parents, teachers, coaches and mentors is proven to positively impact children’s perceptions of what they can achieve in school and work.

However you vote on November 6th, be sure you encourage policy makers to fight for the educational opportunities Latinos need. Let’s work together to advance our community now and to change its future, beginning with the opportunities and inspiration we present to our children.

Sid Espinosa is the Director of Corporate Citizenship, Microsoft Silicon Valley