March is National Women’s History Month. Recognizing the contributions older Latinas make is important, but it does not happen often enough in our society. The Hispanic older women that the National Hispanic Council on Aging (NHCOA) works with encourage others to contribute to their communities and provide inspiration for those looking for the right way to give. The theme for this year’s Women’s History Month is “Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination,” and the community leaders that NHCOA has trained live this theme on a daily basis.
Over the last several years, NHCOA has conducted Empowerment and Civic Engagement Training (ECET) and developed over 800 community leaders, the vast majority of them older adult women. This training inspires the imagination of participants, and it helps them find innovative solutions to the issues facing their community. The older Latina leaders that have gone through ECET learn how to represent the best of their communities. The concept of advocating for community and meeting with elected officials is not familiar to many Hispanic older adults, as many come from countries without strong democratic traditions or large, civically engaged older adult populations. After a bit of practice, however, they become some of the most powerful advocates for their communities. ECET informs participants of their right to petition the government, teaches them how to assert this right, and how to mobilize their community to gain support. Here are three techniques we regularly tell our participants:
- Identify issues that can both have a positive impact and can be achieved through an organized and motivated community;
- Combine statistics with your experiences to develop a compelling story. For example, combine statistics on hunger with anecdotes from volunteers at food banks to tell a story about the importance of nutrition programs;
- Treat elected officials and their staff with respect, but also realize that they are there to serve you and your community.
After taking part in the training, the new leaders then bring the skills back to their community by training others on how to become successful advocates. In individual and small group meetings, the new leaders meet with their friends, families, and neighbors to tell them about their right to advocate. This technique engages more people, talents, and perspectives in an effort to improve the community. By spreading the lessons they learned in ECET, these older Latina leaders are literally inspiring innovation through inspiration.
ECET is just a first step, however, as NHCOA has helped these leaders develop other skills. After ECET, some new leaders have become health educators to teach others in their community about managing chronic disease and the importance of vaccinations. Other leaders teach their peers about how to recognize and report Medicare fraud. Some have also organized their communities to advocate for safer and healthier housing conditions for older adults. Older Latinas are eager to become their own best advocates, and others learn from their example. Their efforts build on one another and steadily improve their community.
NHCOA has helped empower hundreds of people across the country, but we rely upon the older Latinas and other leaders we have trained to continue our work. And these leaders will then go on to empower thousands of others. In fact, the people that they have taught and inspired have gone on to start their own community-based organizations, petitioned their government, and encouraged others to vote.
During Women’s History Month, all of us at NHCOA are proud to recognize the many Latinas who have become leaders in their own communities and who will go on to inspire many more. Felicidades!
Jason Coates is the Public Policy Associate for the National Hispanic Council on Aging. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.