White House officials, local Hispanic leaders discuss community issues at summit

White House officials discussed issues pertinent to the Phoenix Hispanic community Saturday with local Hispanic leaders, community members and students during one of the first Hispanic Community Action Summits in 2012. (Cydney McFarland/DD)

Local Hispanic leaders gathered at the AE England Building in downtown Phoenix Saturday with more than a dozen White House officials to discuss issues affecting the community such as jobs, health care and immigration.

The meeting was one of the first of the Obama administration’s Hispanic Community Action Summits in 2012 to listen to the concerns of community leaders to try to secure their vote in November.

“There is a lot of power within our community, so it’s just a strategy for (Obama), but it could also be an intricate plan to help the community,” political science freshman Maria Hernandez said.

Hernandez attended Saturday’s meeting along with community members, and city and state representatives.

The conference began in an intimate setting by following an “open-space process,” where small groups discussed issues without a set agenda. After several participants pitched ideas to more than 300 people, they broke into smaller groups to meet with those who had the same concerns and a federal representative that could facilitate solutions.

The pitches were on issues including child obesity, mortgage fraud and health care. The most popular pitches had to do with immigration.

Hernandez pitched the subject of education in the Hispanic community. The student-led discussion first requested other community members to share their solutions. One solution included highlighting Hispanic student success stories.

In addition, Hernandez added, there should be more mentoring programs to help Hispanic students because parents might not be able to help even if they wanted to.

“It’s difficult for the federal government to understand specific community issues when they’re 2,000 miles away,” said Jonathan Koppell, director of ASU School of Public Affairs.

Senior officials were at the meeting, including U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Administrator Lisa Pino, January Contreras of Homeland Security and José Rico, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Local leaders included former Democratic state Rep. Ben Miranda, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, and Phoenix Councilman Michael Nowakowski as well as owners, teachers, and college and high school students.

“We have to let Congress know what tremendous wealth the country is losing. I have students who want to go into neuroscience and medicine,” said Rene Diaz, an AP Psychology teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District.

One plan that came from the meeting was for the federal government and the Hispanic community to create a website that compiles information from various organizations so students can find information they need to attend and finance their schooling.

“We can’t just keep on waiting; the president has been trying to help but he keeps putting off the issue,” Hernandez said. “It needs to be number one on his list.”

The 2012 Hispanic Community Action Summits has meetings scheduled around the country including Florida, Ohio and Texas. The next stop for the representatives is in Tucson today at Sunnyside High School.

Contact the reporter at mgranil2@asu.edu