Hispanic Heritage Month Commemoration at ETS
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Debra Joy Pérez on the Importance of Equality and Opportunity

Four million babies are born in the United States each year. Of these, Latino infants comprise more than a quarter of the nation’s youngest residents. Each year, 638,000 of these children are served in foster care, most becoming victims of maltreatment. They’ll grow up to learn that youth of color are bearing the brunt of reliance on confinement due to the inherently unfair juvenile justice system. They’ll also learn that African-American youth are nearly five times as likely to be confined as their White peers, while Latino and American Indian youth are confined between two and three times more than their peers.

In response to these hardships, the Annie E. Casey Foundation was created with the belief that all children in the United States, regardless of race, social or economic circumstances, have the opportunity for a bright future.

Last Monday, Educational Testing Service (ETS) had the pleasure of hosting Debra Joy Pérez, Vice President of Research, Evaluation and Learning at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, as its Hispanic Heritage Month keynote speaker.

Debra Joy Pérez (left) photographed with Lenora Green.

Pérez spoke to the ETS community about elevating a positive Latino narrative in the political discourse. She discussed society’s negative and distorted views of the Latino community, particularly when it comes to topics including immigration and the economy.

“There’s a lot of ignorance out there about Latinos and other communities of color,” said Lenora Green, Senior Director for ETS’s Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy. “There’s just this lack of awareness and sadly, vitriol in the discourse. We see it every day. We need to keep working to dispel the stereotypes, dispel the myths.”

“Latinos contribute immensely to the country economically, socially and culturally,” Pérez said. She added that all people are the same, regardless of race or color. “We’re interconnected. We’re all connected to the American dream and the American culture.”

Of note is the correlation between Latino’s length of stay in the United States and their health. Research shows that as length of stay in the United States increases, so does infant and adult mortality, low birth weight, poor mental health, perceived discrimination and indicators of morbidity.

Residential segregation only contributes more to the problem. With little resources, Latinos are forced to live in very low opportunity neighborhoods, resulting in limited social mobility and learning challenges. With nearly one-third of Hispanic children living in poverty and 16 percent of Hispanic teens considered disconnected youth, Latinos are at risk of poor health, lower school performance, dependence on public assistance, unemployment or delinquent behavior.

Currently, in some states, more than half of children are Hispanic. By 2043, the majority of United States citizens will be non-White. Non-Hispanic Whites are projected to become a minority of the population (47 percent) by 2050. Additionally, by 2050, the share of African Americans and Latinos combined in the labor force will increase by 15 percent, while the share of Whites will decline by 19 percent.

This is our future, but what can be done to ensure that the population grows in unison? Pérez proposes that for starters, people can work on promoting the country’s diversity as an economic asset instead of a downfall. By adopting an equity driven growth model, people can focus on growing good jobs, building human capacity and removing barriers to increase opportunities.

According to a Pew study, 72 percent of Hispanics expect their lives to be better in 10 years. People can help make that happen. Pérez suggests engaging in civic participation, whether through voting or reaching out to local representatives. Becoming a mentor or volunteer is another option. Furthermore, citizens need to voice their causes and not allow them be sentenced to silence.

Overall, Pérez and Green encourage people to commit simple acts of kindness.

Pay it forward, and bring other people along with you

~ Lenora Green, Senior Director for ETS’s Center for Advocacy and Philanthropy

When asked if Pérez had any advice for disadvantaged children of color, she responded, “Too often, we sell ourselves short as people of color. We see people who are successful, and we don’t think of ourselves achieving the same success. I would say to any person who has come from an economically disadvantaged background that they are not their circumstances. You are not limited by your circumstances. If you can conceive it, you can achieve it.”