In this episode, we welcome María Teresa Kumar, an Emmy-nominated political and voting rights activist who has dedicated her career to advocating for inclusive political participation. She is the cofounder and president of Voto Latino, a national grassroots organization focused on building a more inclusive democracy by educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters. Under her leadership, Voto Latino has registered over a quarter million voters and was a founding partner of National Voter Registration Day, the largest one-day effort toward voter registration.
Join this conversation as María Teresa shares how her background as a Colombian immigrant ignited her passion for democracy and how she has dedicated her life to mobilizing young voters to build a stronger America for future generations to come. She is a true champion of a robust inclusive democracy.
Darren Isom (00:01):
Welcome to Dreaming in Color, a space for social change leaders of color to reflect on how their life experiences, personal and professional, have prepared them to lead and drive the impact we all seek. I'm your host, Darren Isom, and I invite you to join me in these candid kitchen-table conversations, where together we celebrate these leaders' ingenuity are inspired by their wisdom and wit, and learn how collectively we can all strive to do and be better. This is Dreaming in Color.
As an Emmy-nominated political and voting rights activist, María Teresa Kumar has dedicated her career to advocating for inclusive political participation. She cofounded a national nonprofit organization with actress Rosario Dawson called Voto Latino that uses media and technology to encourage younger generations of Latinx voters. Under her leadership, Voto Latino has registered over a quarter million voters and was a founding partner of National Voter Registration Day, the largest one-day effort towards voter registration. A true champion of a more inclusive democracy, she's a force to be reckoned with. It's a true joy to talk with her today. It's so great to chat with you, María Teresa. Really, I've been looking forward to this conversation. It's good to see you, you're looking good for the folks at home. And so, as you know, I like to start off the conversation by giving you the floor to offer a bit of an invocation.
María Teresa Kumar (01:15):
One of the things that I like to recall is in the times of difficulty and struggle, I often like to channel my grandmother, who was a single mom of age by the time she was 26 years old, and she is Afro-Latina and made it despite all circumstances. And whenever there's struggle, my grandmother often reminds me that no is for everybody else. And I say that because we're so often hearing "nos" that we realize sometimes we just need one "yes." And so, as we renew our aspirations for 2023, just for us to carry that, that carries me in this journey. We don't need all the friends. We just need the right friends to help make great big things.
Darren Isom (02:05):
Listen, you've given me all kind of gems just to start. We do not need all the folks, we just need some of the folks, and yes, you only need one yes to keep going. Thank you for that. That is a wonderful invocation and a great way to kick off the conversation. I know that you immigrated to the US from Bogotá as a young girl, and I would just love for you to just tell us a little bit about how your background as an immigrant shaped your perception of the US and also informed your idea of what is possible for our country's future.
María Teresa Kumar (02:33):
Ours are always these complicated, layered stories that oftentimes our origin stories aren't always revealed at the moment, but then as you get older, you start understanding your "why." And we ended up in this country, my mother and I, because my mother married this wonderful white man that was in Bogotá at the time, teaching English. And my mom, as I mentioned, she is half Black and wasn't with my birth father because he wasn't sure how acceptable we would've been to the family. And so, oftentimes in Latin America, we talk about colorism and the challenges of it and the opportunities that may result as of it.
And quite frankly, it was his insecurity of how dark I was or wasn't going to be. That allowed my mom to find an incredible man through my dad, Ed Petersen. And shortly after they met, my dad suffered from encephalitis, which is a disease to the brain, and we had to leave Colombia. So they had just started a family together with myself. I mean, I wasn't his biological daughter, but as my dad always said, we were so fortunate enough to have chosen each other and there was no other man that I would've wanted to father me. But he became very ill, meaning that he basically was half paralyzed.
Darren Isom (03:54):
María Teresa Kumar (03:55):
And he had to learn how to walk and talk and all of that. And we didn't have the resources or the family structure to do that. So we went back to his home, which was Geyserville, California, not too far from Sacramento. But to imagine, we went from Bogotá, Colombia, which is a bustling city of 7 million to in the last census, the 2020 census, Darren, Geyserville was a metropolis of 700.
Darren Isom (04:20):
Yeah, I can't even imagine, those are... I mean, talk about being worlds apart.
María Teresa Kumar (04:24):
Worlds apart. And we found ourselves at the doorstep of my grandparents, who were kind people. They were grape growers, and they didn't know what to do with my mother. When you asked me what shaped me, all of a sudden I found myself translating cultural norms, perceptions. And in a way that was eye-opening, but also relevant for a four-year-old. My mother, because my grandparents didn't know what to do with her while my father was convalescing, sent her to work in the fields. And you can imagine that Thanksgiving dynamic, sitting around the kitchen table with the rest of the relatives, with my mother's hands being dirty and fingernails and everything, and recognizing that there was a different type of classism here that we had never encountered. But it shaped me to understand the importance of always culturally translating and recognizing that when even members in my most nuclear family saw my mother, they saw a person of color first and not herself, if that makes sense.
And yet, my father was the most loving individual that had to figure out how to navigate his family and our family in a separate way. And so, talk about inputs, those were incredibly contradictory. And then I would spend my summers in Colombia. And in Colombia, I'd see Latinos, yes, absolutely taking care of the gardens, but they were also the lawyers. They were also wearing suits. And I will tell you, Darren, the first time I saw a Latino and an African American wearing a suit was when I was interning, I was 21 years old. I was interning in Washington, DC, and I remember walking the halls and being, "Oh my gosh, here too, we could wear suits." And I think it speaks to why I do this work, and it is very much trying to be a strong advocate for the Latino community, for communities of color. And at the same time, recognizing that the perception of when I walk into a room, as my mother would always say, is whatever the person, however they perceive you, it's something that they're carrying and it's their journey.
Darren Isom (06:38):
100 percent. It's their problem, not yours.
María Teresa Kumar (06:40):
Exactly. But she did it more beautiful, it's not surprising, it's their journey. They're on a different journey, but your journey is who you know who you are and you have a keen understanding of what our possibilities are. Flipping that script, especially as a young kid, understanding that, for a parent to teach that, I think it allowed me to feel comfortable in spaces even when I wasn't necessarily welcomed. And allowed me to feel that fortitude of creating space for others too. Just because they're on a journey, they don't feel like you should be in that space, it doesn't mean that you don't belong. And our job is to make sure that especially in a multicultural America, if we are going to thrive collectively, that intersectionality has to be not just mere speech, but actual practice.
Darren Isom (07:26):
There's so many things that are powerful about that story. One, I mean, definitely jumping worlds and jumping between Colombia and Geyserville, that's hilarious. But there is something you said as well about your ability to have to find a sense of belonging in both of those worlds and how you were able to calibrate very different realities and find a sense of space in those various realities. And also, I joke all the time about this ability of being able to normalize your world and see yourself as a part of very different worlds. And this is your world. This is what you know. And so, in some ways, you've seen things that others haven't seen. You normalize, things that others haven't seen as well. And in many ways as well, you're able to make yourself at home because you're not at home anywhere, almost. It's like you're still out of place everywhere that you're in place everywhere. But how did the immersion across both cultures shape your beliefs on both democracy work and the power of democracy work?
María Teresa Kumar (08:16):
From a very young age, Darren, I knew that had my mother been a single mother in Colombia raising me by the virtue of my family roots, my destiny was predetermined. My ability to thrive was already predetermined. It had nothing to do with ability or my mother's will. It was very much already the system, this caste system is real. It's language. When I would go home to Cartagena, to spend time with my mom, I was the morena, which was the fair-skinned dark one. But when I was in Bogotá, I was la negrita because my full lips and my hair and all of that. And so, it was always that, that struck out. Whereas when I was in the states, partially because they didn't know what I was, there was almost this ability to navigate education, and real education. And I had a chance to learn, and I fell in love with this possibility of what America was.
I remember being nine years old, and I went to a Catholic school at the time, and I remember raising my hand when I was asked for what we're thankful for, and the teacher called on me and I said, "I'm thankful because yesterday I became an American citizen." I was nine, and I still remember the moment, but I knew that that opened my possibility of everything. Whereas my country of origin, my abilities were predetermined. And it was this idea that democracy, while imperfect, at least I saw ways and crevices and openings that were not afforded to me, had I not been here. And that is why I love the work that I do, because when we work with young people and we encourage them to vote, when we encourage them to run for office, when that light bulb goes on and saying, it's absolutely that what you're experiencing is not in your head, it is injust.
But we do have a framework in parameters that we can change the system. And one of my favorite stories of progress for Voto Latino was there's a young man, his name is Gregorio Casar, and he came to our very first power summit in 2014. He was the kid that was marching for fair wages. He was chaining himself to walls. And he came out of the power summit. He's like, "I think I'm going to run for city council." He became the youngest city council member in Austin history at 26 years old. He changed the law and got fair wages that went on to bail bonds and so on and so forth. And then most recently, he became a member of Congress.
And he tells the story of he had never been to Washington, DC. He had never been on a plane, but he got on a flight and went to the Voto Latino Power Summit and realized that he could change how he interacted with institutions that he often fought out. And that is my purpose, this idea that there, one, there's more of us that we actually do need to nurture our institutions and our democracy. We need to give it the love that it needs in order for it to perform as it must. I've been fortunate, like I'm a naturalized citizen, but I am absolutely American. And there's no doubt my mind that had my mom ended up in Sweden, I would've never been Swedish. I just wouldn't have. And so, if people want to talk about the value of democracy and being American, ask a woman of color and we'll really tell you what that is.
Darren Isom (11:30):
You famously utilize some really unique strategies to reach citizens and get them involved in the democratic process. Pioneering text messaging for voter registration in 2006 seems really innovative and radical now, and launching a voter registration app in 2018. And so, I would just like to get some thoughts on how your life experiences have enabled you to identify those innovative methods to engage the community, and more importantly, how your life experiences have offered you some innovative narratives, if you will, that become inclusive narratives that pull people in.
María Teresa Kumar (11:58):
Before I started with Voto Latino, I worked in the private sector and AT&T was a client. And I did the unfun stuff, which was trying to get people to get equal access to the telephone system. This is how long ago it was, Darren, no judgment, no laugh. But there was this thing called the internet, and at the same time, there were these cell phones.
Darren Isom (12:17):
Well, listen, I still remember my first internship in college. The email was just starting to be a thing, so I know exactly what you're talking about.
María Teresa Kumar (12:21):
I'm walking down this memory lane then, because it was around 2004 at the same time, I was transitioning, that I saw young people everywhere in the urban area were trying to get their hands on the T-Mobile Sidekick. You remember that thing? It was like a training wheel. It was like a brick.
Darren Isom (12:43):
I'm dying laughing over here. Yes, it was a huge brick. Totally.
María Teresa Kumar (12:44):
Those young people were connected online before we were, because they were trying to navigate fun stuff and have conversation and everything. And at the same time, MySpace was all the rage. And we had roughly at the time, five million kids of all ethnicities learning to code. And instead, we left that behind because we wanted something pretty through Facebook. But at one moment, we had all of these really beautiful assets, and it was technology that was talking to kids in a different way. And that's why we started exploring it, because we knew that kids had text messages. That's how they were communicating. We knew that they had phones, we knew that was the cool thing to do. And one of the true norths of Voto Latino is that we always try to go where our community is.
One, because no one does. And it's malpractice, I think, by all politicians because it's not recognizing that oftentimes, especially communities of color, back to this, we'd feel like we don't belong in the political process. We feel that it is too hoity-toity. We feel all of this, but it's because there are systems that are trying to put us in our place. And so, you have politicians and parties who don't seek us out. And at first, I thought, I was like, "Oh, it's laziness." And then I'd realized, oh no, because then if you really enfranchise us, you really got to listen to us.
Darren Isom (14:02):
Oh, 100 percent.
María Teresa Kumar (14:04):
And so, that's why we started using these mechanisms and these technologies, and some of them were spectacular, and some of them failed miserably. Voter registration, Darren, I was like, this is going to be fantastic. No one wanted to fill out a 20-question form via text message. No one, Darren.
Darren Isom (14:19):
That is not what text messaging was for. Particularly when we were paying... I'm sure they were paying for messages still then, right?
María Teresa Kumar (14:23):
No. Well, we would do it on the weekends. It was all free. We had a certain... But what we did learn out of that was that all those people that we banked, that we did register, it wasn't very many. It was like 8 or 9,000. But the people who did engage, we sent them a reminder to go vote. And it turned out that reminder encouraged young Latinos to participate eight times more than if they weren't.
Darren Isom (14:54):
María Teresa Kumar (14:56):
And when we did a control group to their white counterparts, we just saw a 3 percent increase among white young people. But among Latinos, it was eight points. Those are elections. And that's where like, wait a second. So the experiment itself didn't go as we planned, but this externality allowed us to really understand how do we communicate with young people and how do we make sure that they are part of the process and how do we continue using it as a tool? And I think that the biggest challenge oftentimes, when it comes to voter registration engagement and democracy building, is that most funders are afraid of deploying experimentation in a place where we have all these incredible available tools that corporate America uses every day to sell their wares. And the way I see my job at Voto Latino is that we market democracy every single day to our community, and we have to go where they are.
This idea that they have to come to us is bogus. It's lazy, and it allows politicians to remain in power with little effort. Oftentimes people say, "Well, how did that person get elected with 10,000?" Because they only needed 10,000. But if we're really going to change the system and make it work for us, we need maximum participation understood across boards. And I think that, and what we do know is that with maximum participation, you have the special interests toned down and extreme voices toned down. Because now you have to play to all of us. And I think that's where policy then really actually starts being transformational: when you have to speak to all of us.
Darren Isom (16:32):
And I want to come to that policy point a bit, but I also just want to acknowledge that since 2016, we've seen a lot of folks begin to lose faith in American democracy and with good cause. I mean, things are looking raggedy as hell, right? So you look at the situation, it looks like a bit of a mess for sure. As a person who has spent so much of her career getting people critically involved, what does it feel like to watch folks actively disengage from participating in our democracy? And how can social change leaders bring these folks along without ignoring the challenges and the contradictions that currently exist from a democratic perspective as well? So how do we acknowledge the contradictions at the same time, bring people along, and encourage them in a way that's hopeful but also realistic?
María Teresa Kumar (17:11):
Before 2018, I kept having to remind people to trust me, to trust the system. And then 2018 happened, Darren, and we saw the most diverse group of Americans come out and participate and register, the largest group of young people ever. And then we elected the most diverse House of Representatives that we'd ever seen in our history. The most women, the most Muslim, the most gay, the most veterans, the most...
Darren Isom (17:36):
All the things.
María Teresa Kumar (17:37):
And all the things, right? And then a testament to what that diversity meant when we had even a modest tick of a participation was 400 pieces of legislation that spoke to our values. Four hundred pieces of legislation that talked about gay rights, that talked about immigration reform, that talked about parity among women when it comes to pay, about gun reform, about the environment, and the list goes on. And then we took it up a notch and said, okay, well, we're going to do rinse and repeat and win 2020, and we did it. We took the White House, and we took the Senate. And when folks are saying, you know what? The change is not happening fast enough. Now we can point to what we will call the largest package in American history of legislation that I hadn't seen in my lifetime and most people around have not seen in their lifetime.
This is what Biden has been able to do, is produce legislation, sign legislation that is going to be far more impactful than the New Deal of the last century. And I don't say that lightly. And does it mean that it is sufficient? No. But it shows that when we participated, coalitions came together to invest almost over $500 billion in our environment at a needed time, that we passed legislation on gun reform after 35 years. And it goes on, that we're bringing manufacturing out. And I say this because I know separately people who've been working on a single part of this legislation for over 30 years. But it's the coalition of multicultural Americans to come together and vote. And the reason we're having this moment where people think that the system isn't working is because we do have a group of Americans who are being un-American and unpatriotic, and they are trying to create subversive tactics for us to stop paying attention.
Because what happens is, if we don't have a democracy, we are closer to what I would consider and other scholars have written on apartheid rule, where a minority of people are dictating the destiny of the masses. But we are right now at a crossroads. We could say that the system works imperfectly and continue at it, but participating in the records that we've been able to see in the last two election cycles. Or we can get too tired and say, this is too hard and cede our democracy for future generations. And the second scenario does not sit well with me because one, there's no plan B. Two, I have two children, a brown boy and a daughter. And this idea that to look at my kid's faces in 15 years and say, "What happened to our democracy?" And for me to look, I just got tired.
Darren Isom (20:38):
There's something to be said, one, and I'm glad you named it as a apartheid rule. Because I've been sitting around the last few years thinking about, we learned in school all the time about the tyranny of the majority, but we never learned anything about the tyranny of the minority. What is that? It's apartheid rule, that's literally what it is. But I think that your words are reminding me of Urvashi Vaid, who I quote all the time and I interviewed last season, her parting words to many of us at an event was, "We are winning. This is what winning looks like. Winning looks like chaos." And when folks see they're losing their rights, the folks who have tyrannical views see that their rights are being lost.
Deservedly, they become pretty desperate. And I think that speaks to where we are now, where we have increasing amounts of folks who are very afraid of the idea of all Americans gaining voting rights. So how did that become a partisan issue, right? Voting rights. So I mean, it speaks in many ways to why this moment is so important. But I would love for you to just talk a little bit more about why this moment is so important in the history and the calibration and the work and the navigation of all that we're doing. Why is this moment so important?
María Teresa Kumar (21:42):
About 18 months into the 2020 cycle, Kevin McCarthy went after Voto Latino saying, "A liberal rights group is shaking up the process because they're registering voters." Yes, but you should be competing for those votes. And this is the time, Darren, that we need to have very frank conversations why it didn't happen in 2000s, why it didn't happen in the 1990s, but why it's happening. It is happening because children in fifth grade represent a majority-minority generation, the alpha generation. And there are people in power who do not want to share that opportunity that they were given to a multicultural America. And shame on them, because I deeply believe that America's strength is absolutely our diversity. It is absolutely a multicultural America that if we educate us, if we make sure that we have access to healthcare, that we have a thriving middle class of Americans, like a truly thriving middle class of Americans, we are unstoppable worldwide.
And don't take my word for it. The Russians know this, the Chinese know this, and that is why they are meddling in our election. And they recognize that racism is our Achilles' heel. And they recognize that if we are busy fighting ourselves and creating division, then all of a sudden the world's stage leadership is ceded to an unknown world order that is chaotic. And I say this because part of our work is, we do a lot of work around the ordinance of disinformation who's bringing disinformation. Some of it is absolutely coming from the right, but some of it is absolutely coming from foreign actors. And it's mostly through the lens of race. And you have to question yourself that why would foreign states care so much about our race relations unless it could be weaponized to divide us for their political gain?
And I think it's one of the reasons why there was not a red wave in November, because Americans as a whole are on to this idea that our democracy right now needs nature and nurture and love and care. But also that there is opportunity for us to have free conversations of why are we having a lot of gay Jim Crow laws now? Why are those modern Jim Crow laws in effect, after a certified free fair election of 2020? Why are they trying to pile on more? Why are they trying to put women in their place when the disproportionate amount of women that are going to be impacted by these laws are women of color just because of how old we are compared to older white women? And you have to start putting pieces together. It's a way of controlling individuals. It's a way of removing them from their voice. It's a way to make sure that the concentration of power and resources is not evenly shared among a population who works their butt off every single day ...
Darren Isom (24:44):
María Teresa Kumar (24:45):
... to provide for the country.
Darren Isom (24:47):
And I think it also something to the effect that, I mean, you eloquently spoke to this idea of how do we make sure that we don't allow them to kind of hijack the American narrative and what it means to be American and what America looks like. This is literally America living into its best and a fear of that. You mentioned in many ways is demographic shifts in the fifth-grade population as you talked about it, and that diversity. What do you think the future of American democracy will look like, and how will the democratic shifts becoming a Latino minority? What does that mean in some ways? Be instrumental in turning this future into reality?
María Teresa Kumar (25:20):
I think right now we have to double down on our education of democracy, because so many children and so many families don't know what that means in how to participate in efficacy and governance and our social contract with each other. And when you have the opportunity to study or travel and see other systems, and you recognize that there is a reason why the world emulates us even in our imperfection. It's because we are still on the pathway of creating the best form of governance that has ever been experimented in. But that's going to mean that our citizens have to be well versed in their role and in that social contract. And as I travel around the country, most young people don't know, and it's easy for them to want to tap out because they feel like another system is better until you’re just like, "You don't want other systems."
Where it's funny because oftentimes people talk about socialism and communism. I've said, "No, those are all under the guise of socialism, it’s a guise only because it's really a concentration of power and corruption." There is no checks and balances. If you want to look at what happens in Russia where it's a "democracy," quote, unquote, but it's only the oligarchs who Putin has plussed that havethat kind of accumulation. There is no bigger corruption tax on the little guy or that small business woman than autocratic governments and communism. And here in the United States, we have to make sure that that's what we're fighting for. It's not just the democracy itself, but it is a form of being able to define yourself as best as you can.
Are we living up to that moment, especially in communities of color? We're not. But it's because for so long, we haven't been nurturing and sending people in office that represent us. But I see few people like Maxwell Frost, I see people like Gregorio Casar. And it gives me hope because they speak to a generation that is aligned with a modern vision for America that is far more inclusive and recognizes at the same time clear-eyed about where we have been shortchanged and where we need to actually make up.
Darren Isom (28:03):
And I quote my Howard professor, Dr. Thornton. He always said that America's founding documents were perfect. They said that all men were created equal. We just spent our country's history deciding who is a man? Is it just landing on white men? Is it all white men, Black men, women, immigrants, children, gay folks? And so, I think there is something to be said about how do we, from a future perspective, live into the documents that were initially created and where there becomes some degree of pushback when we just let everybody be a man these days? Everybody's got rights. There is something really powerful though, in the narrative that you're talking about. We ask all the time, what's the endgame on those who are not progressive or those who are not inclusive? And the endgame is very clear. It's a very limited hold on power for a small group of folks.
And so, how do we work against that? I do think the shifts you talk about from a demographic perspective are really powerful and really meaningful, and gives us a huge opportunity to actually live into our values in a way that's really high impact and drives all the things that we've been trying to achieve. I want to spend some time talking about the Latinx community, such an incredibly racially, culturally, socioeconomically diverse group. What can funders do to honor these distinctions in their funding practices? And how can we get at that group recognizing its diversity while thinking about what are the narratives that link that community as well?
María Teresa Kumar (29:26):
Let me just table set a little bit, because most folks don't know how young this community really is. So if we were to have a plot graph right here, and your folks were able to see it, the majority of white Americans would plot around the age of 58. African Americans would plot around 31 years old. Latinos would plot around the age of 11.
Darren Isom (29:49):
María Teresa Kumar (29:50):
And we are talking about a young community that is coming of age when they're trying to stack the deck against participation purposely. Because they see that with this diversity of youth, they identify with the structural racism that has been beaten down into so many communities, and that we are formidable as a multicultural society. And if we are to thrive, we have to make sure that all our young people thrive and we have to have that social component. And so, when you're asking me for Latinos, we are absolutely completely different depending on where we come from. Our commonality is where we ended up, and I say this that my cousin in Miami, Florida, she grew up and she could walk out the streets and be from Miami. Her family was from Colombia, and there was no sass behind it, she owned all of it.
I grew up in Sonoma, California, and in eighth grade, the town next door, Napa hosted the skinhead rallies. Confederate flags growing up in Sonoma were not uncommon. I grew up in a very different America than my cousin who grew up in Miami. And that absolutely shaped how I experienced the United States. But it also shaped how I was identified and how I identified. It came to a culmination when Pete Wilson, who was the governor then, convinced our neighbors to pass the original show of your paper laws through Proposition 187. And I remember very distinctly having to come home from college and tell my aunt and my uncle, my grandmother, to become US citizens because that was the only way we were going to be able to protect ourselves.
And just like I had that conversation with my family that Thanksgiving, millions of young Latinos and Asian Americans had that conversation. And California ceased being a swing state because it was young Latinos and Asian Americans that mobilized to protect our families. And we took that understanding and went to other places around the country. So in 2003, Latinos became the second-largest group of Americans. For two decades in a row, Darren, Latinos have been responsible for over 52 percent of our nation's population growth. And that's not immigration, it's births. And when you look into a place where my lived experience of what happened with Pete Wilson, the moment we were about to tip and make it a multicultural state with all of our brothers and sisters, that nasty politicians tried to use that as an opportunity to divide us for their own political aspirations. We in 2004 looked at the census and said, "Where are young Latinos aging into the population?" And we took a bet on Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Pennsylvania.
Darren Isom (32:47):
I mean, talk about naming the states that in play. Good job, right? No, this is...
María Teresa Kumar (32:50):
Sadly, we know humans. At first...
Darren Isom (32:53):
Why didn't you look at Florida though? Because Florida's just.... Florida's killing me.
María Teresa Kumar (32:56):
This is the thing, and we work in Florida. But Florida's the only state where young Latino voters will not eclipse their aunts and uncles. There's just not enough young people. Arizona right now, to give you an idea, Latino youth represent a larger vote share of the older Latino. They're like 32 percent of the Latino vote share, but they're 47 percent of the classrooms. So they're aging. It's not by chance that you've seen voter restriction laws where you've seen...
Darren Isom (33:28):
María Teresa Kumar (33:28):
... Black youth coming of age. The most underreported story of the Shelby County against Eric Holder that gutted the Voting Rights Act, the most underreported story, Darren, is that Shelby County had experienced in 93 percent increase in the Black population and a 297 percent increase in the Latino population.
Darren Isom (33:48):
You got them losing sleep.
María Teresa Kumar (33:50):
Right? But I mean, I get this oftentimes from the progressives too. They're like, "Well, Latinos are anti-LGBTQ. Latinos are anti-abortion, Latinos are..." And I said, "No, you have to stop putting your perceptions, your biases on my community because none of that is accurate or true." In fact, among young Latinas, who are the largest vote share, 83 percent of them believe in abortion care. If I were to include my grandmother's generation, we're talking 73 percent.
Darren Isom (34:20):
María Teresa Kumar (34:21):
So they're not that far off.
Darren Isom (34:22):
No, not at all. Well, it is interesting, that whole concept of projecting onto the community, the things that you want to be treated ...
María Teresa Kumar (34:29):
All the time.
Darren Isom (34:30):
... for your own or the things that you're embarrassed about in your own, right?
María Teresa Kumar (34:32):
Yeah. I was talking to a reporter one time, it was right after the 2020 election, 70 percent of Latino youth voted for Biden. 60 percent of older Latinos voted for Biden. And then she had the audacity say, "Well, as I read that Latinos are deflecting to the Republican Party..." I said, "That's not true because of X, Y, Z." She's like, "Actually, no." And I'm like, "Yes, I'm Latina, but I'm also for the last 18 years an expert in the field."
Darren Isom (34:56):
You kind of know a little something about this, right?
María Teresa Kumar (35:00):
I mean, if that is what's... I need to know for my work. And I have never been in so many rooms, and I'll never even forget this reporter, she's lovely. But she actually had the audacity to just look at me and say, "Well, that's just flat out wrong." I said, "I can't imagine you looking at..."
Darren Isom (35:13):
Well, we know how that works.
María Teresa Kumar (35:15):
John Podesta or Jim Messina or a Dan Fieber and saying, "You are wrong." No, you never do that.
Darren Isom (35:22):
That's not... Actually, you're wrong. America's all about narratives. And so, I think there's something powerful about being able to tell a new narrative. At the same time, there is something, I see it all the time where people will tell a story enough in hopes it'll be true, although it's a damaging and problematic story. And I think it speaks to as well, what does it look like as those populations increase and the demographic share increases to still other a group, that's the majority. How does that othering piece play out in, and I know you tweeted about this when the Grammy scandal where Bad Bunny's performance was, what is going on here? The implicit or explicit othering that happens in those situations. I mean, what do we do about that othering within the Latinx community?
María Teresa Kumar (36:08):
If you were to ask everyday Americans, what percentage of Latinos were undocumented? It's a good... I want to say one out of three people think that every time they see a Latinas it’s “undocumented”, where the number is actually less than 10 percent, I think actually, it's small. But part of it is because when you do read anything in a newspaper, it's always related only around immigration, or it's only related around the border specifically. But if you look at the media and how they cover it and who's in the newsrooms and understand this nuance, those executives aren't just not there. And part of it is because we're young, but part of it is because there's also this... One of my favorite conversations that interviews that I ever saw was between Frank Rich and Chris Rock, and it was a seminal conversation where Chris Rock said, "Do you know how hard it must be not to be able to find a Latino Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles that's 70 percent Latino?"
Darren Isom (37:11):
It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I mean, California is such a... I mean, talk about a state that's changed its brand in the best way possible. But we had some bad governors, we had some bad politics.
María Teresa Kumar (37:23):
Yeah. Also, it's not just our governors, I would actually say it's the implicit bias of executives, of where Latinos belong. I had a former boss, he was the chairman of an unknown network that I don't work at, another one, who literally looked at me, who basically... His critique to me once was, "You speak too fast. There's never any way that you're ever going to advance."
Darren Isom (37:49):
María Teresa Kumar (37:49):
And had I taken his word for it, I wouldn't have been able to continue on my journey. Six months later, he was clicking to MSNBC and he sees me all the time now. But and that's his own. But it's this idea of we need a lot of work when it comes to diversity and inclusion. We have to have conversations that are not just Black and white. But that is opening the aperture of who actually is here in America and what do we contribute and how do we make sure that we are resourcing these communities appropriately so that we maintain a thriving country. And with our work, we very much focus on young people because we deeply believe that they are part of a broader generation that believes in climate change, that believes in gun reform, that believes in access to healthcare. And I don't have to convince them of that. But what I do need to do is convince them of is that the system works if they participate. And to give you an idea, in Arizona, in 2020, we registered 32,000 folks. 19,000 of them were first time voters.
Darren Isom (38:49):
María Teresa Kumar (38:49):
Biden won that state by 12,000. But the work remains because just in those four years between 2020 and 2024, we're expecting 163,000 Latinos to turn 18 in Arizona.
Darren Isom (39:03):
That's really powerful. And I want to recognize the great work that you're doing, and thank you for that work. This has been a wonderful conversation, really enjoyed it. And one of the ways I love ending some of the sessions, I joked that a therapist many years ago used to always say that sometimes hope comes from experience. And so, I would love for you to close this out by sharing as you think about what makes you hopeful. What are the experiences that bring you that hope? Where does that hope come from?
María Teresa Kumar (39:31):
So, my life is oftentimes through electoral lenses. I've seen the shift of engagement. When I started Voto Latino, just tried to convince people, whether it was corporate America or a young person to participate, they always said it was too political. And now, what I'm seeing is an engagement that is so intersectional of Americans recognizing that our house is vulnerable and that it needs attention and repair. And it didn't just happen in the 2018 election. It didn't just happen in the 2020 election, it happened as well in 2022. And the fact that if you look at all the Secretary of States, where there were election deniers on the ballot for that role, none of them won. And that means that, again, it was a multicultural America that we all came to nurture our house and to fix it and love it.
And what we need is people to continue that participation, not just at the voting booth, but we still need great folks working on election date. But we also need great people to run for office, to make that aspiration trip. And so, that's what gives me hope, is looking at the entering class of Congress. We have such talent and such a young talent and such diverse talent. This is going to be this entering class in 2023 for the freshman class. It's the largest Latino electorate in history. That's progress. But it's also the youngest as a class, and it's also the most multicultural as a class. And so, when I talk again, these electives, what gives me hope is that I don't have to convince them that climate change is real. They're there because they know and they need to fix it.
Darren Isom (41:20):
And María Teresa, I know that I promised that was the last question, but I just cannot let you go without acknowledging that there's a fear of funding the political on the philanthropic side. What words do you have for those funders, those in the philanthropic community who are backing away from funding that work? What advice do you have for them? Bring them in, please.
María Teresa Kumar (41:43):
We are fighting for the structures and aspirations of democracy, and we're on those front lines. And if we were going to have candid conversations with our donors and with our funders, the reason that they've been able to enjoy the fruits of their success is because of our democracy. It is because we have a stable system of governance. We also have a social compact where we are educating our folks effectively. There are roads that those folks that work in their offices get to drive to every day. We just understand that if we turn on the electricity, it will work. We take all of these things that our government and our democracy take for granted. But it is because it was rooted instability.
And when there's chaos in the streets, no one thrives. But in particular, the individuals that actually are reaping the most benefits of what our government has had to offer. Whether it is the stability of our government, whether it is educated workforce, whether it is access to incredible healthcare. There's no reason for us not to want a thriving country for all of us. And the best way to do it is through that democratic lens. And so, we have an opportunity to stabilize it because we are absolutely at a crossroads. But we have an opportunity to stabilize it for future generations in a great, beautiful way.
Darren Isom (43:15):
Wonderful, wonderful closing words. Great chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you soon. Thanks for making the time. See you again soon.
María Teresa Kumar (43:21):
Thank you. You have a great team. Thank you so much. I'm so appreciative.
Darren Isom (43:24):
Every single time I cast a vote, I'm reminded that my great-grandpa Lee, born in 1889. His daughter, my grandma Lewis, born in 1925, and her son and his grandson, my uncle, Krema, born in 1947, all voted for the very first time in the 1968 elections. The first election Black New Orleans were allowed to vote in since Reconstruction, an introduction of the grandfather clauses some a 100 years before. At 79, it would be the first and only time my great-grandfather, a third-generation college educated landowner, would be able to vote in his entire life.
He would die the following year, just some years before New Orleans, a forever Black city, elected Dutch Morial, the city's first Black mayor in its then 260-year history. And although this is a story that I've shared many times before, it's one worth repeating, because for so many of us, the rights of vote was a hard-earned one. Fought over multiple generations, events by many who knew they would never see the fruits of their labor, but they fought anyway to shape a world that future generations would enjoy. And as María Teresa spoke, with such hope of the youthfulness of the Latinx community and the promise to come, it reminded me of our duty act as elders for those that come after, to offer a roadmap for them to follow and to add to.
My grandpa, Joseph, was a huge jazz head. And he would often DJ for me, playing a nonstop roundup of his favorite jazz finals. Miles Davis, Coltrane, Garner, Monk. He had many favorites. But Duke Ellington was his absolute favorite. And as he played his albums for me, he'd repeat for me Ellington's story. Ellington's mother, Daisy, surrounded her son with dignified women to reinforce his manners and teach him elegance. His childhood friends noticed that his casual offhand manner in dapper dress gave him the bearing of a young nobleman. So they began calling him Duke. My grandpa loved Ellington's piece Three Black Kings, particularly the third and final movement, written as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. And it's easy to love. It's one of the most beautiful jazz symphonies ever written: smooth, soulful, hopeful, and love filled.
And although I grew up listening to it, I was well into adulthood when I learned that Ellington dictated this symphony from his deathbed to his son who scribed and that he would die never having heard it performed. It was his son who produced it from dictation many years after his father's death. Which makes me wonder, what are we dictating for others to take away and to build upon? What foundation, soundtracks, roadmaps, and green books are we offering for future generations to live by? What world are we dreaming for them to live in? Hopefully, it's one as beautiful, as vibrant as María Teresa imagines, because that's a world worth fighting for.
Y'all, that's a wrap. And while the episode is finished, the work continues. Thank you for tuning in and listening generously to Dreaming in Color, a Bridgespan-supported StudioPod Media production. Special shoutouts to our wonderful show producers, Theresa Buchanan and Denise Savas, our video editors, Dave Clark McCoy, Diana Radaelli, and Alejandra Ramirez. Our graphic designer are Diana Jimenez and our show coordinator, Nicole Genova. And a huge shoutout to our ever-brilliant Bridgespan production team and family, Cora Daniels, Jasmine Reliford, Ami Diane, Christina Pistorius, and Ryan Wenzel. Be sure to subscribe and leave a rating and review wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Talk soon.