News | April 6, 2022
How do you prepare Latino youth leaders for tomorrow’s communities?
That question drove Ernesto Nieto to establish the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) in 1979 with the goal of both inspiring and training the rapidly expanding U.S. Latino youth population to be bright, forward-thinking leaders, deeply involved in community development.
“The 1960s and 1970s were such an important time for advancing civil rights for many groups in the United States, including Latino communities, but my father wanted to ensure that we were preparing new Latino leaders to evolve to the next level,” said Nicole Nieto, executive vice president of National Hispanic Institute. “Making systemic policy change through community endeavor requires a number of skills and cultural familiarity, and he wanted to set up a way to pass that knowledge to future generations.”
Nieto established the National Hispanic Institute to cultivate the brightest young minds as his way of perpetuating community causes and purposefully built a progressive curriculum to equip youth with the skillsets and knowledge to successfully engage in community organizations and the legislative process.
“We have a very rich curriculum, but ultimately, our goal is to show Latino youth how their community is an asset to build a better future,” said Ms. Nieto. “Too many Latino youth are conditioned to think of their community as a minority that needs charity. Our programs aim to disrupt that thinking and change their perspective for the rest of their lives.”
NHI develops Latino youth leaders through an emphasis on learning-by-doing in a series of three immersive programs that take place over summer breaks at partner universities. The first year focus for rising sophomores is the weeklong Great Debate, which emphasizes command of language as a tool for self-advancement and community change. Year two grooms rising juniors to participate in the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, which exposes youth to governance, organization development and policy design. Finally, rising seniors participate in the Collegiate World Series, which has a dual focus on college admissions and preparing for the call to community leadership. All three programs build communication, organizational and leadership skills, while preparing students for college and active community engagement.
“When we talk about having a progressive curriculum, we have a very specific meaning,” said Ms. Nieto. “In the Great Debate, we train our students to tackle a social issue and build a plan to address it, and that means galvanizing their peers to support their plan too. After this intensive week, they take what they learned about community organization and recruit new students for the next year’s Great Debate, while also advancing to the Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative session. Each part of our curriculum complements the others.”
Las Vegas resident and Rancho High School alumnus, Jerson Zarate was a participant in NHI programs in high school and recounted the impact it had on him: “There were a lot of us who had either low-income or undocumented parents. The Youth Legislative session was something very new for us, but it was so empowering. We started by having so many conversations about our community, what it means to be Latino and our strengths. We asked ourselves what do we want for our community? How do we make it happen? I learned never to underestimate myself or my community.”
Zarate’s experiences stayed with him. While at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he saw an opportunity to help other students. “I wanted to make sure we had inclusive resources and events for people of all backgrounds, especially undocumented students. I was able to advocate for funding from UNLV budgets for diverse cultural events, as well as scholarships for students from undocumented families. I could do that because of what I learned from NHI.” Zarate is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health.
NHI’s history of positive impact on youth such as Zarate was one of the primary reasons Sands committed to a cumulative three-year $150,000 Sands Cares partnership to launch the program in Las Vegas. Funding is enabling NHI to build a Las Vegas volunteer alliance to lead its leadership development curriculum and scholarships for 38 students to participate in the program’s initial year.
“Sands’ support for NHI will help us sustainably offer our curriculum to Las Vegas high school students, giving them opportunities to develop leadership skills, create networks and increase their college prospects,” said Ms. Nieto. “We will be able to empower young Latino leaders to look into the future, and see themselves as the stewards who will drive its prosperity.”
Youth interested in joining the National Hispanic Institute’s Las Vegas program can visit https://www.nationalhispanicinstitute.org/ and should apply by April 15, 2022.