By Ernesto Nieto
With all of the "hoopla" about the rapid growth of the U.S. Latino population and projections that one of every three will be Latino by 2050, we can ill-afford to overlook another growing reality. Having numbers is one thing; having the critical mass of well-educated, skilled, and prepared leaders to go along with the growth is a different subject altogether.
Right now the big emphasis in our public school system is job readiness. Our schools are working diligently, or so they claim, to ensure that American businesses and industries have plenty of available workers with the competencies to navigate future job markets, especially as we go from a manufacturing to a service economy. Invariably, however, the one missing link in this effort is leadership training.
Some teachers and administrators will argue that students from elementary school to high school have numerous opportunities to experience leadership through school clubs, band, sports, student government, and other similar activities. I could not disagree more.
Our youth need real life experiences in the communities where they reside, with potential competitors in other communities near and far, and with the intent of providing them with the insight and skills for self-change. In other words, leadership is not something you read about in books or get through a classroom presentation. Leadership, for it to be internalized, has to place our youth in real life situations that are demanding from the standpoint of concentration, engagement, and opportunities to self-learn.
No, sorry, those experiences are not present in school-sponsored programs that are prefabricated by the education system and essentially run by adult sponsors, no matter their good intentions.
Our hope is that schools start setting funds aside that encourage their students to attend well-designed leadership conferences and experiences that are skill-enhancing, designed to strengthen the competencies of our youth, and motivate them to realize the benefits that invariably come from becoming engaged young citizens. The benefits are life-lasting, but, more important, our youth learn soon enough that they represent value to others. Once seeing this, they learn to change old habits, beliefs, truths, perspectives, and habits while adopting new ones that are transformational to their individual identities.
Ernesto Nieto is the founder and president of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI). He has spent 34 years developing youth leadership programs that occur nationwide and today serve high school students from the U.S., Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. Nearly 4,000 youth attend programs of the National Hispanic Institute for specific age projects that include the Great Debate, Lorenzo de Zavala Youth Legislative Session, and Collegiate World Series. For more information on NHI, view the organizatin's Web site at www.nhi-net.org