Education is an essential part of ensuring that future generations are both equipped and empowered to create change and make this world a better place. It is a fundamental human right, and a powerful tool to ensure that today’s youth can become the influential change-makers and leaders of tomorrow. And yet, for many people and especially for minorities, education is not a guarantee. This is especially true for Latinos, who are significantly less likely to have access to education, less likely to graduate from higher education institutions, and also less likely to have access to professional opportunities in the education sector.
But Latinos for Education is dedicated to flipping the script and changing that story by helping to provide support and access to Latinos, with the core belief that education provides opportunities for every student to decide his or her destiny. This non-profit organization is on a mission to develop, place and connect essential Latino leaders in the education sector, with the ultimate goal of infusing Latino talent into positions of influence across the country.
Their work is important and invaluable — in order to set Latinos up for success in the future, we as a nation and a community need to break down barriers to educational opportunity for the next generation of Latino students. That is what Latinos for Education believes and works tirelessly to accomplish every day. Educational equality is an essential step toward achieving equal opportunity for the future, and when you look at the work of this organization as well as the new generation of Latino educational leaders and innovators, you can’t help but be inspired.
— Latinos for Education (@Latinos4Ed) November 14, 2019
The Numbers Don’t Lie: Latinos Are Under-Represented in Education
It’s no secret that there is a significant gap in terms of enrollment, graduation rates, and educational success for Latinos, compared to their white counterparts. A recent study out of Stamford University found that racial achievement gaps — with Hispanic and black youth falling behind white students in terms of educational performance — can potentially be attributed to socioeconomic disparities between white, black, and Hispanic families.
In addition to performance gaps for younger minorities, disparity also persists with Hispanics enrollment and graduation rates across the country. The good news is that the number of Hispanics enrolling in college is increasing at an impressive rate — the U.S. Department of Education reports that between 2000 and 2015 the college-going rate among Hispanic high school graduates grew from 22 to 37 percent, and as of 2018 about 28 percent of young Hispanics have at least an associate degree, which has increased from 15 percent in 2000.
But the bad news is that the graduation rate for Hispanics is still significantly lower than white students, with the proportion of Hispanics who graduate within six years remaining 10 percentage points lower than the proportion of whites. According to Excelencia in Education, 44 percent of all U.S. adults have an associate’s degree or higher, while only 24 percent of Latino adults have that same level degree.
In terms of professional opportunities in the education sector, Latinos are also underrepresented — while we know that diversity among teachers may be increasing, we also see that the gap between the percentage of Latinx teachers and students is larger than for any other racial or ethnic group, according to research from the Learning Policy Institute.
This is a huge problem, because the road to academic and professional success for many young Latinos is often connected to the presence of Latino leaders in organizations that can advocate for these children and teens. We know that children benefit from having representative role models with a shared experience and a shared vision. And Latinos for Education is on a mission to not only empower Latino leaders to enter the education sector but to also provide access, opportunity, and support to those future leaders.
How Latinos for Education Is Changing the Game
Latinos for Education supports an ecosystem of Latino education leaders to access highly influential roles and opportunities. This organization works tirelessly to develop, place, and connect essential Latino leaders in the education sector with the ultimate goal of infusing more Latino talent into influential positions in the education system. Having more Latino talent at the top who can advocate for Latino youth is a crucial step in creating change for future generations of Latino students across the country.
Their work is multi-layered, both supporting talented innovators and also helping to connect future leaders with programming and opportunities for growth and influence in the system. The Latino Leadership Program, Latino Board Fellows Program, and the Talent Hub provide pathways for the increased representation and impact of Latino education leaders.
This past month Latinos for Education hosted its first-ever Edupreneur Pitch Competition to help support and empower a new generation of Latino leaders. Latinx or Black-led ventures receive less than five percent of philanthropic investments in America, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. This number is even more puzzling when you consider that Latinos account for 24 percent of all new entrepreneurs. “The numbers don’t add up,” explains Johana Muriel Grajales, Director of National Strategy & Innovation for Latinos for Education. That’s why this nationwide competition was designed to spotlight and reward ten innovators in the education sector who go on to receive seed funding to support their ideas as well as access and opportunity to grow their businesses.
The Competition Winners Are Dedicated to Creating Change for Latino Students
The finalists were selected after a nationwide selection process, and winners were chosen after pitching their ideas and solutions to a panel of judges. In total, more than $75,000 in seed funding was given out during the event. In addition, all finalists gained access to a virtual Impact Hub and won the opportunity to attend LearnLaunch’s Across Boundaries conference.
The top winner, Lisa Maria Rhodes, received $20,000 in seed funding for her startup ALAS, an organization that addresses barriers to education for students in the criminal justice and immigration court systems. ALAS trains educators to do two things: connect undocumented students with legal representation and write letters to judges for students with charges to be in school instead of in jail pre-trial. Thanks to her award, her company will impact more than 540 immigrant and court-involved youth by increasing their access to legal, educational, and economic support.
The second-place winner, Katherine Leiva from Miami, FL, received $15,000 in seed funding for her venture, FitLit. This passion project brings together fitness and literature, offering a unique growing experience to at-risk youth. By providing the time and space to read for pleasure and workout, the goal is to instill a growth mindset in all “fitlitters” and help them make reading and exercise a part of their daily routine.
Boston-native Natasha Lopez came in third place with her venture called CollegeConnect, a mobile app that will help guide high school students through the complicated college application process with the hopes of increasing enrollment and helping first-generation, low-income students access college and prepare for post-secondary success.
We chatted with Johana Muriel Grajales, Director of National Strategy & Innovation for Latinos for Education, as well as Lisa Maria Rhodes, Founder of ALAS, Natasha Lopez, Founder of CollegeConnect, and Katherine Leiva, Founder of FitLit, to learn more about Latinos for Education, and how this organization is helping emerging Latino leaders change the face and the future of education.
BELatina: What are you most proud of in terms of your work with Latinos for Education, and how did your own experiences growing up motivate you to work with an organization dedicated to developing and connecting Latino talent in the education sector?
Johana Muriel Grajales: What makes me most proud about Latinos for Education is the community of leaders that we have brought together. Each one of our members is extremely passionate about serving as a role model and investing their talent to represent and lift the next generation of Latinos and their overall communities. They are resilient, support each other, and work con ganas every day to make a difference in their organizations and the students they serve.
Growing up in a time of conflict in Colombia ignited a passion for social change in me. I was one of few children around my family to graduate from high school and had very limited options for higher education. It was thanks to the support of family, friends, and philanthropists that I was able to migrate to learn English and earn an education in this country. I was very inspired by the power of the social impact sector in the United States but also very disappointed to learn about all the injustice and inequity facing the Latino community, so I decided to pursue a career that will allow me to help change that. We are the only organization solely focused on ensuring Latinos are at the forefront of addressing those challenges, so when I learned about Latinos for Education, I knew I had to be part of this movement.
BL: Why do you think that historically Latinos haven’t been able to (or been motivated to) access positions of power and influence in the education sector?
JMG: There are many variables contributing to the under-representation of Latino leaders within the education sector, but one primary challenge is the lack of training and mentorship available to Latino educators and that’s the organization’s main goal. Latinos for Education is committed to developing pathways to help Latino leaders obtain positions of influence within the education sector.
BL: Tell us about the Latinx Edupreneurs Pitch competition and how winners were selected. What are your goals for the competition winners in terms of their educational and professional paths?
JMG: The 10 finalists for the pitch competition were selected through a national application process that included interviews and thorough review. From this group, the winners were selected based on a comprehensive rubric that considered various elements such as their engagement through the program leading up to the pitch competition, feedback from their coaches, the audience vote, and the recommendation of a panel of esteemed judges from prominent diverse organizations including 4.0 Schools, NewSchools Venture Fund, Lubbock Independent School District, and Stronger Consulting. Our goal is to inspire Latinx leaders to create change through education, innovation, and entrepreneurship as well as connect the Edupreneurs to the philanthropic community and their peers so they can continue to collaborate and support each other.
BL: As a Latinx entrepreneur, how did you first learn about Latinos for Education and the Edupreneurs Pitch competition?
Natasha Lopez: I first learned about Latinos for Education when I was nominated for the Aspiring Latino Leaders Fellowship that I was subsequently accepted to. One of my close friends knew that I was passionate about my venture, CollegeConnect, and shared information about the Edupreneurs Pitch Competition. Initially, I was hesitant to apply, but I’m so glad I did!
Lisa Maria Rhodes: Two different Latina educators forwarded me an email from Latinos For Education about the Pitch competition, and they encouraged me to apply! I had never heard of Latinos for Education, so in more ways than one, it was truly the power of community that made this possible.
Katherine Leiva: I had the pleasure of meeting the co-founder and CEO, Amanda Fernandez, as a first year teacher at Teach For America back in 2012 and instantly connected with her and her vision for how Latinos should rise as a collective in the country. When she announced the launch of Latinos For Education, I quickly added myself to their newsletter and have always kept up with the organization. Their work is phenomenal, and I have always wanted to go through their leadership development programming, but living in South Florida, I never had the chance. When they announced the national Latinx Edupreneurs Pitch competition, I was elated and made sure to apply and share with my peers. Now having gone through this experience, Latinos For Education has gained a cheerleader for life!
BL: What was the greatest lesson and most valuable experience from participating in this competition?
KL: The greatest lesson that I took from participating in this competition is that a coach is as invaluable as an entrepreneur. I have never truly received coaching before with a specific goal. The most valuable experience would have to be pitching and receiving feedback from so many experts in the field. For two days I had the opportunity to live and breathe FitLit in every interaction I had with funders, philanthropists, and leaders in the education entrepreneurship realm.
LMR: We are not alone. Through Latinos For Education I learned that there are many people and organizations with expertise and connections I lack who specifically want to invest in and support Latinx Edupreneurs.
NL: This competition has helped me rethink the way I see myself and my role in my community and has given me the encouragement I need to face the challenges of being a Latina entrepreneur.
BL: What has been the greatest struggle of trying to pursue a venture as a Latinx entrepreneur?
LMR: Not having the capital to focus on this full time means that I am constantly switching gears mentally and dividing time, doing this work alongside three part-time jobs. Most people are unfamiliar with immigration & criminal justice systems and the injustices inherent within both, which requires a considerable amount of time and energy making people aware of the problems that need solving to begin with, instead of getting to the work itself right away.
NL: As a Latina entrepreneur, I had a difficult time knowing where to find both financial and coaching resources that would help me move my venture forward. Through the Latinos for Education Pitch Competition, I not only gained access to a coach and seed funding, but the competition opened up a world of other resources and opportunities I did not have access to prior to competing. I now have the opportunity to participate in a three-month consulting experience, an opportunity to share my idea at another pitch competition, and a fellowship that will help me test my venture in the community.
BL: What advice would you give to other Latinx innovators, particularly those interested in the educational field?
KL: Something I have learned is that we know what our community needs more than anyone else. Approach our community problems with solutions and do what needs to get done in order to help all children. One of the problems in the education sector is that it’s so massive, so focus on what you can do now. If you are anything like me, you are all hustlers and work day-in-and-day-out for yourself and your family, so I suggest you shift that mindset and hustle with intention. Do not take a job or leadership opportunity if it does not advance you or your goals. I myself am still working on making this mindset shift. Because of this mind shift, I have seen such growth for my organization.
LMR: Believe in yourself. You are valuable and needed. Together with your community, you have the answers to redesign our educational system to serve all youth well. Ask for help. Everything we need is within our reach, as long as we are not ashamed to constantly ask questions and invoke the experience and expertise of those around us.
BL: What’s next for Latinos for Education? What are your larger goals for the organization’s reach and potential in the future?
JMG: For 2020 we will continue to focus our efforts on our signature fellowship programs, expanding our membership base, and advocating for policies in support of Latinx children and families. As it pertains to our innovation goals, we will conduct a hackathon in Boston to inspire and teach innovation and design tools to Latinx youth as a way to start early in the pipeline. We aim to motivate those who haven’t yet imagined themselves leading through innovation and entrepreneurship to step into the sector with the support of organizations like Latinos for Education. We are also in the midst of a strategic planning process to examine our work and impact to date, ensure our programs stay relevant, and define our strategic approach for the next three years.
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