Welcome to the neighborhood

About every other month, it seems, I hear from a nonprofit that wants someone to represent the Latino community on their board. That’s all well and good, but first, those board members need to ask themselves this question: “Are we really ready and willing to welcome and be receptive to the Latino community and its representatives?”

If the answer is yes, maybe they should consider hiring a Latina or Latino. There are many qualified individuals in our community who deserve to be compensated for their hard work.

But if the honest answer is no, it may mean there are issues of cultural competency that need to be resolved first. I’ve conducted trainings for groups that wanted to connect with the Latino community but needed some help addressing personal barriers and stereotypes.

Even if a group successfully recruits a Latino, however, that doesn’t mean they’ve instantly “solved” the diversity “problem.” Remember, you’re putting the person you recruit in a tough spot, asking them to represent the experiences, viewpoints and needs of an entire community.

It may seem as though I speak for the whole Latino community (mostly because I’m always talking about it), but believe me, I don’t — and neither does any other individual Latino. It simply isn’t possible, anymore than it would be with any other population.

Besides, it can take years for an individual to really be comfortable and develop a level of trust with a group of people he or she knows only through service on a board. In the meantime, the Latino may not readily share his or her experiences. And it may take just as long to educate a group of even genuinely interested people about an unfamiliar culture or community.

As my friend Dr. Nolo Martinez likes to say, “Latinos are transformational people, not transactional people.” In other words, we want to transform others and be transformed ourselves, not just conduct a transaction with someone. That means we want to forge a relationship first, before making a serious time commitment.

Cultural differences aside, though, I’ve served on enough boards and commissions to know that finding quality board members requires building relationships. When someone calls me and says they’re looking for a Latino to serve on their board and would I be interested, I almost always reply: “I would love to; however, I’m not taking on more volunteer service right now. May I introduce you to a Latino whom you could get to know and perhaps offer them the opportunity?” Years ago, when helping MANNA FoodBank find a Latino board member, I just provided the introduction; Kitty Schaller, the executive director, built the relationship — and made a friend in the process.

Of course, some of the issues that arise in these situations apply to any potential board member, regardless of their ethnic identity. The organization needs to make sure that the person in question is a good match. Do their interests fit with the group’s mission? Does the person understand the kind of time and/or financial commitment for which they’re being asked? Do they have board-level experience, or would it make more sense for them to serve on a committee or subcommittee first? I once made a commitment to a board because a good friend of mine was on the nominating committee and recruited me. I regret to say that both my interest in the organization and my level of commitment diminished greatly after she left the board.

Another issue that transcends ethnicity is not always relying on the same three or four people. It’s always good to spread things around, and groups may want to consider inviting more than one latino to participate.

If Latinos want to effect positive change for our community, we must be willing to invest our time and resources and join our neighbors in serving on boards and commissions — especially when they’re inviting us to join their team. Keeping the above points in mind can help everyone achieve their goals, and maybe build a few new bridges along the way.

[Edna Campos, a political and public-relations consultant, currently serves on the Mission Hospital board and the steering committee of the Coalition of Latin American Organizations in WNC.]

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