Investing in the wave of change for Latinos in Texas
Cristina Tzintzun, founded and is executive director of The Jolt Initiative, a nonprofit that focuses on issues impacting the Latino community in Texas. Here, Jill Nokes, community organizer and conservationist and Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, co-founder and CEO of MissionBox talk to Cristina about organizing Latino communities in Texas
Tell us about how you started your journey in the nonprofit sector?
I grew up with two very different backgrounds, which gave me a huge privilege and ability to see the world in a different way than many other people. My dad is a hippie that lived on a commune in Mexico back in the ‘70’s. My mom is the eldest of nine kids who came from a poor farm-working family.
I’d like to say that my mother is an organic intellectual. She understands the world and her place in it, and why certain doors are not open for certain people. She taught me so much, like where I come from and to always be proud of who I was.
I [was raised] in Ohio, in a very white middle-class neighborhood. But, I grew up going to Mexico and seeing my family extremely poor; it didn’t seem to matter how hard they worked, they never seemed to get ahead, that [there] weren’t the same opportunities afforded to both [sides] of my family. Also, just growing up, I’m light-skinned and when I would go into schools or doctor’s offices with my father (versus my mother), I would see how differently we were treated. It made me really understand how, within the same society, there could be two systems for two groups of people.
My parents always taught us that our greatest privilege was not necessarily being born in the United States, but being able to understand two cultures, two languages. With that privilege comes responsibility to address the inequities that you see around you.
So early on, you dedicated your whole career to working for equality, for people that were unserved, right?
Yes. I started working with immigrants from Latin America when I was 16 doing translations at doctors’ offices, [and] helping people get their kids into school. Then I recognized that helping one person at a time was important, but I wanted to also address the root causes of why people were facing those struggles in the first place. So I started working with the immigrant community and that is how I got involved with the Workers Defense Project.
How would you describe the mission of the Workers Defense Project?
Immigrants play a huge role in the economy of Texas and that there are key industries, like construction, [that] could not operate without immigrant workers. It’s the largest employer of immigrant workers in the state. There are close to a million construction workers in Texas, 70 percent of them are foreign-born and most are from Latin America. They do really hard, difficult work that we all benefit from. We live in the houses they built, the schools, the stores, everywhere we go, we have benefited from their labor.
Immigrants have not prospered at the same rate as the growth they’d helped to produce. One in five [will] not be paid for their work after doing it. They work in one of the most deadly places to work in the country. We wanted to make sure that people that worked hard, and whose labor we all benefit from, they were able to have safe and good working conditions so that they could take care of their families. It’s just a very basic principle. But, in Texas, that’s a radical idea.
Tell us about the Jolt Initiative.
Our mission is very simple; that our democracy should work best for the people that make up our state. Right now, we feel like our democracy is in crisis. In Texas, we have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country. When you have low voter turnout, you have poor representation. We can’t tackle the major issues that we face as a state, whether it be in education, economy or healthcare, if we don’t have our voices represented, then our community isn’t fully represented either.
Latinos are a big part of that piece of the puzzle. We make up 40 percent of the state’s population. By 2030, we will be the majority yet we don’t have real representation on the issues and needs of our communities. In fact, our communities are consistently being disenfranchised and [they] don’t have the power [nor] the level of representation that they should have.
Jolt is investing in young Latinos. Half of those in the state under the age of 19 right now are Latino, which is very important; it’s a future wave of change coming. Yet, we are the only statewide organization organizing young Latinos to engage in our democracy, to increase their voter participation and their voice in the halls of power of the state capitol and in the local government. So we equip them with the training and leadership skills [needed] to be able to advocate for themselves, for their communities, to organize their peers and register them to vote — mobilize them to vote. For us, it’s really important to give people a sense of their own power.
53 percent of young Latinos have one parent that’s foreign-born, that’s an immigrant. Many of the laws that we see being passed are intended to make us feel like outsiders in a place that is our own home. So we want young people to know these attacks that we see on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) ... are really about the potential power that young people hold in the state, that millennials are now the largest voting bloc in the country and in Texas.
By 2022, one third of all eligible voters will be under the age of 30 in Texas and the majority of them will be young people of color and Latinos; those numbers equal power. But we won’t be able to ... have a true democracy that lives up to the principles that our country espouses to unless people engage, unless people vote and unless we make that process as easy as possible for people to have their voices and votes heard.
How can others help your cause?
We need people to volunteer and help open doors for us. For instance, we have teachers at schools that help bring us into their classrooms to register students to vote, artists that come in to make art with our members, our data crunchers that help us figure out where do we really hone our efforts. There are so many skills in our community. [Also], share the stories that we share online. We share stories of young people doing great, incredible things through Jolt in their communities, to fight back, to lift up their voices, to talk about what’s important to them — sharing that on social media has a huge impact as well.
What can we expect for the future of the Jolt Initiative?
AsLatinos, we have an equal stake in the future of this state and country, and that this is our home, we are not foreigners or outsiders.I have absolute faith that given the right tools and support that Jolt will transform this state and transform our entire nation’s democracy.
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Jolt has won two of the most competitive awards in the country for new innovative projects and ideas; the Roddenberry Fellowship, and the J.M.K. Innovation Prize. Out of thousands, and thousands of applicants, they were the only organization from Texas.
Jolt Initiative is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that increases the civic participation of Latinos to build a strong democracy and state where everyone is heard.For more information about the Jolt Initiative visit them here.