Community, voter engagement encouraged

ROCHESTER — Brianna Casserly believes that the Latino voice in local politics needs to be louder, but she also believes in the power of collaboration.

The 16-year-old junior at Gates-Chili High School said that the Latino community needs to be involved in voter and community engagement. Minority communities face similar issues and should unite to be even more powerful, added Brianna, who also is an intern at Metro Justice’s Citizens Action group.

"This is something everybody needs to be involved in," she said of boosting community engagement among people of color. "We are all in it together."

Brianna was among a group of mothers and daughters who attended the second in a series of civic engagement workshops held Aug. 8 at Anthony Jordan Health Center.

She and her friend, Kathy Henríquez, 14, said that attending the workshop was helpful for them to learn about the history of Latinos in local politics and how their numbers in elected office should be greater. The workshops also provide networking opportunities for all residents, said Brianna.

"Our generation needs to learn about what’s going on," added Kathy.

Educating the Latino community on the key players and issues in local governments and how to get involved are among the goals of the workshop series, organized by La Cumbre, Ibero-American Action League, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish, state Sen. Rich Funke and Rochester ACTS (Alliance of Communities Transforming Society).

The Aug. 8 session included an overview of the history of Latinos in Rochester, which highlighted a 20-year gap between the election of the first Latino to a Monroe County legislative position in the 1960s to when another Latino gained a seat on the school board.

Moderator Carlos Garcia said that the gap shows the importance of voter engagement.

"If we don’t vote, we don’t have anybody at the table to represent our interests or bring them up at the table," he said. "We don’t want another situation where we go another 20 years (with no Latino representation). … It’s all about the numbers."

Rochester City Councilmember Jackie Ortiz takes part in a panel discussion during the final part of the Our Community, Our Voice workshop promoting civic engagement among Latinos, August 8.

The more than 15 area residents who attended also learned through a matching game how the different levels of government — city, school and county — function, as well as who currently holds government and school positions. They also tried to match up various issues — such as body cameras, business filings and enrichment classes — to the entity that oversees each issue.

Providing this information is important because their unfamiliarity with the system may hold them back when more Latinos than ever are needed to represent this growing population, said Anthony Plonczynski, a legislative aide for City Councilwoman Jackie Ortiz.

Ortiz concurred that the idea of running for public office is daunting to most people, including herself when she first ran six years ago, because most people don’t know what the primary and election process entails for candidates.

Running for any office doesn’t just involve getting your name out there and putting up signs, she said. Candidates must go through a selection process by their respective parties and may have to go through a primary and general election, said Plonczynski and Ortiz.

"(The process) is so much more complicated," Ortiz said. "There are lots of different steps."

But with information comes power, which the Latino community has the potential to wield if more of its members vote and become part of the political scene, Plonczynski said. Nationally, Latino voter turnout has decreased in the last three decades, he said.

"The hard reality is that we can do a lot of great things, but we have to know the vocabulary," he said. "When we’re traveling, we need a map. I want to provide that map."

The workshop presenters encouraged the participants to start attending meetings and see for themselves how legislation is reviewed and adopted. And if they have an issue that is important to them, Plonczynski said to get organized before approaching any government body.

"Most organizations with the clearest message get heard first," he said. "It’s just human nature."

As an example, Jon Greenbaum and Mario Escalante from Rochester ACTS described the faith-based campaign they are working on to boost child-care funding in Monroe County.

Their goal is to get 10,000 signatures on a petition addressed to all three county executive candidates, they said during their presentation on advocacy during the workshop.

"Our value is the golden rule … we care about all our children as our own," Greenbaum said. "That’s part of all our faiths."

But in addition to their organized campaign, the value of one-to-one conversations cannot be discounted, said Escalante. That is how Henrietta residents got their message across and were successful in preventing a casino in their town, noted Leslie Rivera, who has served on the Monroe County Legislature.

What surprised some participants was the fact that most of the board positions discussed during the workshop are part time in addition to the full-time positions most elected officials hold. Having that kind of awareness and understanding of the system helps overcome the hesitation of getting involved in a political issue or campaign, said Tunya Griffin of Rochester.

Griffin is an AmeriCorps VISTA worker assigned to building up infrastructure in the Marketview Heights neighborhood. She applauds the groups working on boosting civic engagement through the workshops and will be taking the information back to her work and her own city neighborhood.

"Because if you don’t understand how (an issue) concerns you, you don’t do anything about it," she remarked.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information or to attend the next workshop on Sept. 19, send an email to

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