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The Toronto Star

Bringing In The Diversity Vote; Forum Examines Multiculturalism Include People In Political Process

by Nicholas Keung

April 28, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Toronto Star. All rights reserved.

During the 2001 Massachusetts state election, loud speakers blaring salsa and Latino music entreated in Spanish: "My people. C'mon. Let's vote."

The 310,000-strong Latino community responded with a strong showing at the ballot box, with voter turnouts in some areas approaching 100 per cent. That was a very different landscape from 1999, when Giovanna Negretti started Oiste, the first U.S. national Latino political advocacy group.

"It was awesome," said Negretti, who moved to Boston from Puerto Rico 10 years ago.

"You develop leaders, educate people and make politics exciting for your people, so they feel included and they are making the changes they want."

Negretti was speaking this week at a workshop on immigrants' participation in the political arena, as part of the 55th Council on Foundations convention, held at the Sheraton Centre Hotel downtown.

"In the past, they would say, 'Most politicians don't look like us. They don't speak to us,'" Negretti said. "'Why do we vote?'"

It took a lot of creativity and effort to change Latino voters' attitudes. Public education that takes into consideration cultural nuances and language sensitivity is key, Negretti explained.

Supported by philanthropic donations, Oiste runs a three-month program called "Wake Up," which offers the Latino community job-shadowing opportunities with local legislators, at city councils and in volunteer experiences in election campaigns to get to understand the political process.

"When people understand, they want to get engaged," Negretti said.

In Toronto, which prides itself as the world's most multicultural city, ethnic representation in politics is still lagging, Ryerson University political science professor Myer Siemiatycki said.

Although 43 per cent of the city's 2.5 million population are visible minorities, they represented only 11.1 per cent of the city council, 4.5 per cent of MPs in its 22 federal ridings and 13.6 of MPPs in the legislature in 2001, Siemiatycki noted.

"The voter turnouts were disappointing and we found a strong correlation between immigrant population and voter turnouts ... This signals to the elected officials which constituency they can ignore."

The three-day conference, which wraps up today, attracted 1,600 people from around the world. It aims to explore ways to help those in charge of giving out grants respond to shifts in public policy and social trends.

In another session on strategic diversity management, Roosevelt Thomas, a 20-year veteran consultant in diversity practices, said the movement of workplace diversity has been stuck in a circle of "activity, hope and frustration" over the years.

Thomas said it is difficultfor people to admit they are "diversity-challenged."

"It makes them feel as if they are guilty of racism, sexism and other 'isms,'" Thomas said.

He said to make diversity work in the workplace, the concept must be embraced from management down to the rank and file. "The problem is not about people not knowing what to do, but (having) the will to do it."

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