Maria Teresa Kumar discovered early in life that she had an interest in political activism. The 37-year-old executive director of Voto Latino, a nonprofit organization that promotes civic engagement among U.S. Latinos, grew up in Sonoma County, California, but spent summers in her native Colombia. Witnessing her father fall ill and her mother struggle to make ends meet, Kumar was profoundly affected by Latinos’ lack of access to services in California.
That memory stayed with her through her experience as a legislative aide in the U.S. House of Representatives and, later, in her public policy courses at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. At Harvard, Kumar realized that technology could be an effective tool for business and government to bridge gaps in equality. “What young people need more than anything is information,” she says.
The result was Voto Latino, which Kumar co-founded with actress Rosario Dawson in 2004. Headquartered in Washington DC, the organization deploys marketing campaigns that leverage new media and technology to encourage Latinos—the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S.—to participate in the political process.
One instance of Voto Latino’s creative use of media came in the lead-up to the 2008 general election, when it produced a telenovela miniseries featuring Dawson and Wilmer Valderrama (of “That ’70s Show”) that stressed the importance of registering to vote. The project went viral on YouTube, garnering 2 million views that year.
More recently, Voto Latino partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau to increase participation in the 2010 census. At issue: each citizen not counted by the census amounts to $10,000 in government funds that are not reinvested in infrastructure, education or health care in that citizen’s community. To spread the word, Voto Latino and MTV’s Latino channel Tr3s aired public service announcements, created a hashtag on Twitter and established a nationwide network of bloggers. It also secured major corporate contributions. Apple donated 100,000 iTunes gift cards for Voto Latino to give away at local festivals and radio stations.
Kumar, who is also a contributor on Latino issues for MSNBC, believes that politicians “do a very poor job of targeting the Latino community”—something she attributes to a perception among both Democrats and Republicans that Latinos are expensive voters to woo. Voto Latino itself is nonpartisan, encouraging political participation among Latinos of all ideological stripes.
In 2010, Kumar helped create “Beyond Borderlines,” the first televised English-language town hall to focus on the emerging role of Latinos in U.S. society and politics. “Latino issues are American issues,” she says, noting in particular the lack of access to education, health care and economic opportunities. The two-hour special hosted by Kumar on MSNBC earned her an Emmy nomination this year in the Outstanding News Discussion and Analysis category.
Looking toward the November 2012 elections, Kumar remains focused on engaging Latinos. Next year, she plans to increase her staff by two-thirds, from 15 to 25. In addition, Voto Latino is rolling out a virtual one-stop shop for voters—an information hub with links to registration forms and polling locations that will be available online and via a smartphone application. The portal is aimed at streamlining the voter registration process—including facilitating re-registration for the estimated 18 million Latino voters whose homes have been foreclosed since the economic crisis hit in 2008.
Kumar sees no reason to rest on her laurels. She intends to remain executive director of Voto Latino “as long as the organization has the ability to see change.”