Voto Latino has only 27,000 followers on Twitter, but as a group they wield unusual power. "If we want to trend something on Twitter," says President and CEO Maria Teresa Kumar, "we can do that within 20 to 30 minutes." She says this apologetically, almost embarrassed by the kind of influence that most organizations must hire overpriced social media experts to achieve. But she's tried this three times, and it worked each time. "We're very fortunate that the people who are loyal to us are very loyal to us," she says.
That's in part because those people—young American Latinos, which Voto Latino encourages to vote and participate in the political process—are also very loyal to technology. They are on Twitter (and other platforms) in higher percentages than most other demographic groups. Kumar knew this when she joined Voto Latino in 2004 with actress Rosario Dawson (the duo were among Fast Company's Most Creative People in 2012. "When I started this ten years ago, people told me I was wasting my time," Kumar says. "They said that Latinos didn’t speak English, that they didn’t use technology, and that millennials were apathetic."
"They" were wrong on all counts. Latinos, who represent America’s fastest-growing demographic, turned out in record numbers to recent elections. And it was in no small part due to the steady drumbeat of creative technological engagement that Voto Latino has pioneered. The group sent out text messages as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign. They teamed up with emerging media organizations. They produced a spoof telenovela in which Rosario Dawson’s character dumps her fiancé when she learns he doesn’t vote. They made an iTunes album, built the first bilingual app, and developed online curriculum to educate a netroots base of organizers. And they figured out, it seems, how to quietly rule Twitter.
Kumar says Latinos are natural tech consumers. They were the earliest, strongest adopters of text messaging, something Kumar hypothesizes may be because land lines require credit checks. And Latinos have a particularly strong YouTube presence, perhaps because of Latinos' lack of representation in mainstream media, Kumar says. For her group's purposes, it made the most sense to focus on youth. Half of eligible Latino voters are under the age of 40, and while the average American age is 42 years old, the average Latino is 26. Kumar says that 800,000 Latinos come of voting age each year—about the population size of a congressional district.
But despite all these Latino tech consumers, Kumar is concerned (as is Platform's Hank Williams) that Latinos still lag in being technology producers. Only 7% of Silicon Valley employees are Latino, she says, a number that’s low when compared both against the population at large and the rates at which Latinos use Silicon Valley’s products.
Kumar would like to help change that, which is why she developed a just-launched initiative, the VL Innovators Challenge. It seeks to address this discrepancy by granting up to $500,000 to folks who propose innovations that can help the Latino community. "It can be anything. It doesn’t have to be an app," says Kumar. She points, though, to a recent app developed at a Facebook hackathon as the sort of thing she's looking for: a dynamic mapping tool that alerts schoolchildren to gang activity in the area, and then helps them choose a safe route home from school. Winners of the VL Innovators Challenge will be selected at Voto Latino’s 10-year-anniversary gala in November.
This, as Kumar tells it, is the next chapter in the tech-fueled story of American Latinos' political history. She points to what she calls the "first social media revolution," predating the Arab Spring by years, in which Latinos organized via text message to resist immigration reform legislation in 2006. There was the mobilization of undocumented Latinos, who banded together and built a get-out-the-vote campaign around the phrase, "Vote Because I Can’t." And there was Voto Latino’s role as a founding partner of National Voter Registration Day, the largest one-day effort towards voter registration, which this year is scheduled for September 23.
"What we’re trying to do, fundamentally," she says, "is to get young people involved in the political process."