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For Sonoma County Latinos, themes of change and challenges at Los Cien forum

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A variety of Sonoma County leaders on Thursday highlighted efforts underway to increase the number of Latino voters, educators and nonprofit board members in the community.

As in past years, the third annual State of the Latino Community conference at Sonoma State University reminded listeners of the gap in academic achievement between white and Latino students. At the event, sponsored by the leadership group Los Cien, speakers also pointed to areas where institutions don’t reflect the larger community.

In Santa Rosa City Schools, half of the 16,700 students are Latino, but 85 percent of the teachers are white, said Superintendent Diann Kitamura.

Kitamura, who this spring became top administrator at the county’s largest school district, said her aim wasn’t to blame previous leaders but to note that “we have to move forward.”

The half-day conference drew about 600 people to the university’s third-floor student union ballroom. Those in attendance included elected officials, business leaders, and high school and college students.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the event’s keynote speaker, said roughly 7 million of the state’s 25 million eligible adults aren’t registered to vote. Such residents, he said, are disproportionately people of color, those living on low incomes and young adults.

In 2014, only 8 percent of Californians between the ages of 18 and 24 cast a ballot, he said.

The state is working to make it easier to vote, including by registering new voters when they obtain drivers licenses or state identification. Padilla, who planned to speak later Thursday about voter registration with students at Santa Rosa High, said such efforts can help bring “systematic political empowerment” and lead to “an electorate that better represents the people.” Speakers Thursday sought to give an overview of the role Latinos play in the community, as well as point to change in various arenas. Effren Carrillo, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said about 30 percent of the county’s workforce is Latino, but that rate rises to 85 percent in the service and hospitality industry.

He told listeners that farmworkers, who overwhelmingly are Latino, are “the lifeblood of our world-class wine industry.”

And he commended Gov. Jerry Brown for this month signing legislation that will entitle such laborers to the same overtime pay as most other hourly workers.

“That is a major step toward equal treatment of a historically marginalized workforce,” Carrillo said.

On the topic of employment, Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong urged businesses to hire a more diverse group of managers and professionals.

He noted that in the past two decades, the number of Latinos with a master’s degree has doubled, undercutting the argument that qualified candidates are too hard to find.

“That cannot be used as an excuse anymore,” Chong said.

During Chong’s five years as president, the number of Latino faculty at the junior college has doubled to slightly more than 30, he said. He later ventured that the racial makeup of the college’s instructors at the start of his tenure likely was similar to that of teachers in the Santa Rosa school district.

Other speakers, including Sonoma State President Judy Sakaki, noted the continued gap in student achievement.

Only a quarter of the county’s Latino high school graduates in 2015 were eligible to attend a four-year college, compared to 38 percent of whites, according to state data.

Among the community’s nonprofits, leaders until recently had not done much planning to build “the pipeline” to prepare Latinos to serve on their boards of directors, said Beth Brown, president of Community Foundation Sonoma County. As such, she voiced enthusiasm for a new pilot program the foundation has helped fund called On the Verge, which aims to help prepare such future leaders.

On a similar topic, SSU president Sakaki urged listeners to remember those who had helped them advance in their careers and to mentor young people on their life journeys.

“Lift as you climb,” Sakaki said.

Herman J. Hernandez, chairman of the 7-year-old Los Cien, later said mentoring the next generation will be key to his group’s efforts.

“Leadership is probably at the heart of what we have to do in Sonoma County,” he said.

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