CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The city of Charlotte recently graduated its first Hispanic Leadership Academy. A total of 18 people participated in the eight-week program. City leaders say there was a language barrier with the Hispanic community and that was causing people to get left behind.
“It meant that we weren’t connecting with people all the time when we are out asking for community engagement on how we improve our program and services,” Office of Equity Mobility and Immigrant Integration Specialist Emily Yaffe said. “And it is so important that we connect with everybody in Charlotte when we seek to improve things.”
To qualify for the program participants have to be Charlotte residents and committed to attending the sessions. During the eight weeks, they learned about how city government works, developed relationships with community leaders and got behind-the-scenes look on how to navigate it so they can help promote change.
“We learned the difference between the city and the county,” participant Irlanda Ruiz said. “We learned about the police, about the firefighters, about safety. We learned about the budget - where the money goes. That was an eyeopener.”
The Hispanic population is growing in Charlotte. The US Census estimates Mecklenburg County is home to more than 148,000 Hispanic residents - that is approximately 14 percent of the total population. Those numbers are causing city leaders to help Hispanics no matter their status.
“As a city, we are here to serve our residents,” Yaffe said. “To have a strong city and a strong community, that means serving all of our residents.”
The city budgeted $15,000 for this pilot program. This was the first city academy geared toward Hispanics and leaders say it won’t be the last. Ruiz says she will tell other Hispanics about the program. She believes this type of education says something about the city of Charlotte.
“It seems like the city cares about the citizens,” Ruiz said. “And cares about the citizens to be engaged and I think that makes a lot of difference.”
Graduates were told after the academy to get active and join a board to get their voice heard. Ruiz says she signed up to be part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District’s Equity Committee. That committee will be responsible for ensuring students have the resources they need to be successful in the classrooms. So far a decision has not been made on the CMS equity committee. Ruiz now sees the importance of completing the academy.
“That’s the way you make change,” Ruiz said. “You have to have the connections. You have to go to them and talk to them and be there - be on the table. You have to be part of this.”
The hope is this academy will motivate Hispanics to run for office. Currently there is no Hispanic representation on city council.
“If we want to see a difference in public policy,” Facilitator Wendy Pascual said. “We need to have the Latino community because people that are making decisions now - don’t know that much about our culture and the decisions they are making affect the community.”
This program is free for participants and it includes materials about Charlotte.