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By Griselda Nevarez

Participants of a summit held Tuesday in downtown Los Angeles explored how the prosperity of the United States is deeply intertwined with the success and wellbeing of Latinos.

More than 200 Latino and non-Latino leaders from various sectors attended the Aspen Institute's Latinos and Society Program's second annual “America’s Future Summit: Reimagining Opportunity in a Changing Nation.” They discussed the importance of ensuring Latinos have access to healthy communities, high-quality schools, good-paying jobs and safe environments.

They also noted that while progress has been made, more intentional collaboration is required between various sectors – including government, business, philanthropy and community-based organizations – so that Latinos can have a fair chance to achieve their full potential.

More than 200 people attended the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program second annual "America's Future Summit: Reimagining Opportunity in a Changing Nation."Griselda Nevarez / Griselda Nevarez

“It’s absolutely imperative that we understand, as a country, that the future of America is tied to the future of this community,” said Monica Lozano, chair of the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program.

The Latino population in the U.S. has grown substantially over the last several decades. In 1960, there were 6.3 million Latinos in the U.S. Now there are more than 55 million, making up 17 percent of the nation's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

By 2060, Latinos are projected to constitute nearly 30 percent of the nation's population.

Los Angeles County, where the summit was held, has by far the largest Latino population than any other county at 4.8 million, accounting for 9 percent of the U.S. Latino population, according to the Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends.

To kick off the summit, participants were reminded of these stats and the important role Latinos will play in the nation's future. Throughout the day, they also heard from a number of speakers who engaged in thoughtful conversations about challenges they identified in their communities and how they’re working to overcome them.

For example, Mark Lopez, executive director of the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, talked about what his group does to encourage Latinos to advocate for communities who’ve been negatively impacted by industrial pollution in Los Angeles.

“When we knock on somebody’s door or speak at somebody’s classroom, we’re trying to get them to understand that this isn’t normal – this has been created,” he said, referring to how communities of color disproportionately suffer from industrial pollution. “If we can get them to understand that, then we can get them to take the next step.”

Abigail Golden-Vázquez, executive director of the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program, said the summit was designed in such a way that Latino and non-Latino participants from various sectors can learn from each other and work together to address issues affecting Latinos.

“They all have a role to play, and it’s very important that they’re collaborating with each other because the job is too big to be done by any one organization, individual or institution,” Golden-Vázquez said.

At the summit, participants also learned about the results of a national survey conducted by Nielsen for the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program. The survey asked Latinos to identify what was important to advance opportunity among the Latino community. At the top of the list was affordable health care, followed by holding elected officials accountable.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who spoke at the event, was asked what he thought about the survey findings. He said that while he agreed that holding elected officials accountable is “absolutely” important, depending solely on elected officials to lead change is the “wrong model.”

“Changes always come from the people, from the street, from the institutions. It’s certainly the model I look at,” he said. “I try to listen to my city, and then I try to lead from what I’ve heard.”

As an example, he pointed to the recent approval of the $15 per hour minimum wage increase in Los Angeles, where Latinos make up close to half of the city's 4 million residents.

“The $15 minimum wage fight that we won I was proud to lead as mayor, but that came from a lot of people working and having a coalition of people behind me,” he said.

Lozano concluded that the U.S. should care about the wellbeing of Latinos because they are among the nation’s fastest growing populations and are positioned to be “the drivers of the economic engine that will ensure America’s prosperity.”

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