Community Action Grows Organically at Hispanic Summit

José Rico, executive director of White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, arranged the last chair in the multi-purpose room of Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academies in Los Angeles and flashed a smile to his team. “Let’s do it,” he said.

Secretary Salazar speaking at the forum

Department of the Interior Ken Salazar speaks the Summit. Photo by Tami Heilemann.

On April 5, the Initiative and the White House Office of Public Engagement brought together more than 500 Hispanic community leaders for a White House Hispanic Community Action Summit. By using an Open Space format, the summit democratically captured the voices, needs and interests of all participants.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and other Hispanic leaders opened the day. Civil rights leader Dolores Huerta received a standing ovation. Students in neat blue-collared shirts from Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez Learning Center sat in the front row, looking shy but proud.

Next, more than 35 senior leaders from various federal agencies shared how their work supports Hispanic initiatives and priorities, and they invited the local leaders to engage in dialog to help the federal government be more responsive to the community’s needs. “I’m not leaving until I hear what you have to say,” one federal official said. “I’ll be here all day.”

An agenda in motion

Then, any summit participant who wanted to offer a session to the group took the microphone. A long line stretched around the room as the topics and locations for the sessions were projected on a screen for everyone.

Nearly 40 sessions were proposed, with topics addressing both local and national issues, including: “funding resources for PreK-12 education to provide support,” “building communication among Latino organizations,” “addressing enforcement issues in immigration,” “the Affordable Care Act and health disparities in the Latino community,” “regional environmental issues in the San Gabriel mountains,” and a teacher roundtable as part of the Department of Education’s National Conversation about the Teaching Profession.

After picking up lunch, people moved to the sessions that interested them most. At numbered tables and clusters of chairs, participants dug deeply into summit priorities, sharing experiences and expertise from their unique contexts. Laptops along the side of the room allowed groups to upload and share their session reports.

Summit Roundtable Discussion

A breakout session at the Summit

Taking action

At the end of the day, José Rico pulled everyone back together into a large circle to share their action plans and recommendations. “What,” he asked them, “are you going to be ready to do when you leave here today?”

The White House Hispanic Community Action Summit in Los Angeles was the 17th regional summit organized by the White House Initiative and White House Office of Public Engagement to address issues critically important to the Hispanic community. Summit discussions have informed the implementation of new policies and helped the Obama Administration increase participation in and awareness of federal initiatives programs, as well as leading to concrete next steps being taken by both the federal government and summit participants

A recently released interim report details some of the outcomes and follow-up from previous summits. For more information about the initiative, visit

Maryann Woods-Murphy is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow who teaches Spanish in Allendale, NJ. She is also the 2009-2010 New Jersey Teacher of the Year.