In the past five decades, Latino leaders in the Saginaw community have made their mark for different organizations and programs to help our greater community. Yet, in more recent years concern over the apathy among Latino youth has propelled the creation of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Hispanic Leadership Institute (GLBRHLI).

Enter Monica B. Reyes and Larry J. Rodarte, who initially met with the founder of the African-American Leadership Training Institute, Jimmy E. Greene, in April 2008 when two leadership classes of young African-American men already had graduated.

"In a community and state that's devastated as much as Michigan is, it is imperative that we push new people resources to the forefront," said Greene, who is president of Total Solutions Group, a telecom auditing and consulting firm in Saginaw. "I had always felt that the Hispanic community was absent in the same manner as young Black men were from representation. I only hoped that someone from their community would get the same sort of frustration as I had and do something about it. Finally, someone did."

"The GLBRHLI provides the forum for Hispanics to learn, network and collaborate with individuals from all walks of life," said Reyes, director at the Center for Business and Economic Development. Located in Curtiss Hall on the Saginaw Valley State University campus, the institute operates out of the Office of Continuing Ed & Professional Development. "This innovative program is designed as a leadership identification program, with the specific goal of developing and fostering our future community leaders."

Rodarte, publisher of Mi Gente magazine, said he saw a huge need for greater Latino leadership because he is asked from different civic boards in the community "Do you know of any Hispanics?" He added, "From my experience of serving on different boards, there is a great divide in familiarity with our Latino community. Their presence is usually the one-token Latino or none at all. And this needs to change."

It has changed with the creation of the program developed for those ages 21-40 who may be under the radar for traditional leadership programs. Thirteen "ambassadors" were accepted into the original class. It began in April and will run until January 2010, when graduates will receive a certificate of completion.

Reyes and Rodarte are both members of the Mid-Michigan Hispanic Business Association (MMHBA) and developed the program with input from Greene. They've also recruited others, such as MMHBA President Victor Aviles, to serve on the steering committee.

"The different Hispanic organizations in Saginaw have had the same leadership for the last 20 year," Aviles said. "They did a great job, but we need young, well-connected leaders to represent our community. The ambassadors are helping the Mid-Michigan Hispanic Business Association by branding. More and more people are aware of the MMHBA because of their civic involvement in the area. We have to thank SVSU and Dow Corning for their leadership and support," said Aviles.

Reyes concurred, saying that her university is always looking for ways to reach out to the community, and the program was a good fit. "President Eric Gilbertson is always supportive of any program that promotes diversity at the university, and Mamie Thorns, special assistant to the president for diversity programs, stepped in to assist in the development of the institute and continues to contribute and serve on the steering committee," Reyes said.

Dow Corning Corporation also teamed up with SVSU and the MMHBA to lend expertise in developing the program's content. "It is because of the commitment from these three organizations, we were able to launch this initiative," added Reyes. Other subsequent contributors include Northwood University, Dow Chemical Company and Prudential.

When the ambassadors meet once a month, they focus on such themes as identifying strengths and talents, community service, career planning in the corporate world, and economic development. They are exposed to different professionals and corporations, like Dow Corning and Dow Chemical.

Vicente Vasquez is a 2001 Delta College graduate who jumped at the opportunity the institute was offering. "The desire to get involved and help out in the community were the main factors in deciding to apply," said Vazquez, an AD operator at William A. Kibbe & Associates. "I figure this program is headed in a positive direction, so I want to hop on for the ride. It's also nice to meet other Latinos that are just as ambitious about life. I enjoy seeing my raza excel."

SVSU Assistant Director of the Office of Admissions Miranda Garcia is an ambassador who already has learned that instead of trying to fix personal flaws and concentrate on deficiencies, a person should instead focus energy on strengths and talents. "For Hispanics, we are the largest minority group in America; it's important for us to have and utilize our sense of worth ... we shouldn't just let ourselves be put on the back burner and be seen as consumers," Garcia said. "We can be the decisionmakers. I know for myself I've also realized how important we are to some of the older community members. They see the importance of preparing the next generation, and I think that helps us to realize our worth and capability."

According to a 2007 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, persons of Hispanic or Latino origin make up roughly 7.2 percent or 14,500 of 200,745 people in Saginaw County. In 2003 Hispanics became the largest ethnic group in the United States at 49.4 million.

The ambassadors recently teamed up to build a float for the 30th annual Cinco de Mayo parade, displaying this year's bilingual theme of "Yes, We Can." and "Sí, Se Puede." They took first place for Best Youth Float. "We're only two months into the program, yet we've already had a chance to get to know each other and have fun. I think we're all excited about what each class has in store," Garcia added.

The African-American Leadership Training Institute has already shown positive results. Greene says eight graduates now serve on the boards of directors for different organizations; eight are reading buddies; four signed up to be Big Brothers; 17 continued to enhance their leadership skills by enrolling in the 1,000 Leadership Project initiated from Saginaw County's Vision 2020 program.

Kimberly Houston-Philpot, diversity and compliance officer at Dow Corning, defined the leadership institute goal nicely, saying it "reflects increased diversity and inclusion in the region's development of leaders." She added, "The ambassadors are talented and dynamic; we expect they'll broaden the conversation on cultural thinking and will also reflect a 'younger generational' voice toward sustainable regional growth."

© Larry J. Rodarte, 2009