Chancellor’s Colloquium: Speaking Voters’ Language

Alumna María Teresa Kumar Discusses the Issues that Motivate Latinx Voters and How She Reaches Them

Grassroots organizations such as Voto Latino played a large role in getting young Latino voters to participate in the 2020 election, founding president and CEO María Teresa Kumar ’96 told a Zoom audience at a Chancellor’s Colloquium Feb. 18, noting that the secret was shifting from the traditional voter registration approach to an online one.

In addition to her work with Voto Latino, which has registered more than a million voters since 2012, Kumar is an Emmy-nominated MSNBC contributor.

“We don’t go door-to-door to sell democracy. We meet our young people where they are and we speak their language,” she said, pointing out that regardless of what language they speak, younger generations have an entirely different way of communicating online. She and May agreed they weren’t well versed in that “cool talk,” prompting them to share a laugh.

In conversation with the chancellor, she discussed her upbringing in California and how her experiences eventually led her to become the founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, the country’s leading Latinx voter registration and advocacy organization. Coming to UC Davis was one of the formative experiences that shaped her career, she said, and she specifically recalls watching then-Gov. Pete Wilson and realizing that voting was a way to combat injustices.

Wilson was a Republican who, for his second term as governor, endorsed Proposition 187. This proposition denied undocumented immigrants social services such as public education and health care. It became a hot-button issue, especially in the Latino community. Kumar said that she came up with Voto Latino partly because of Wilson, who, “by all intents and purposes, gave [Latinos] the blueprint that if you attack the Latino community, you talk to young Latinos who will move earth and mountains to make sure that their parents and families are protected.”

Time at UC Davis

Kumar graduated from UC Davis in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations — something she identified as a passion early on. At the time, Bruce Jentleson was head of the department, and Kumar had the opportunity to be one of the first students to participate in the UC Davis Washington program, which still exists today. Kumar was also involved in the Cross Cultural Center when it had just started, and she also studied abroad in France. “I basically said, ‘UC Davis is my passport to go visit the world.’”

The impact of events in 2020

Kumar briefly touched upon events in 2020 that led Voto Latino to register 612,000 Latinos in the most recent presidential election.

“When we actually profiled our audience and asked them what was motivating them in June, we found for the very first time, it was health care related to COVID-19, it was jobs, but for young people, race equity among Black and Latinos was No.1, chancellor,” Kumar said to May.

 “I believe it,” he responded.

Kumar said that the death of George Floyd was a turning point for many people. Voto Latino had a goal to register 11,000 Latinos in June and by June 3 they had registered 21,000.

 “We knew that that issue was something that was going to personally resonate with the Latino youth,” she said.

Moving forward

Kumar said while the pandemic has exposed the inequities facing the country, she has great hope for the future. “February of 2020 will mark how we navigate the 21st century,” she said. “We have an incredible opportunity in this country to recognize inequities that hold us back, but our multiculturalism is what sets us apart and that's what makes us exceptional.”

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