As far as we know, the nonpartisan Colorado Springs Black/Latino Leadership Coalition is the only group in the country whose main purpose is to enhance political, economic, and social cooperation between African Americans and Latinos. Willie Breazell Sr. and I sat down one day in 2006 and came up with the structure of this unique coalition. We mostly operate under the radar, but the Black/Latino Coalition has been an active force locally ever since.
Breazell is well-known in Colorado Springs. A retired Army chief warrant officer, he is a former president of the local NAACP chapter and a former D-11 school board member. With Dennis Moore, Jim Mason and other leaders, Willie has been very active in promoting the Buffalo Soldiers Memorial. The Buffalo Soldiers were black soldiers serving on the frontier during the Indian Wars in the justly famous 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments, among others. Over the years, we have involved other leaders in the coalition, among them June Waller, Carolyn Kalaskie, Dave Vasquez, JJ Frazier, Vic Tise, Mike Berniger, Albert and Dora Gonzalez, Carmen Abeyta, Yolanda Avila, Don Martinez, Longinos Gonzalez, Tom Strand, and others, including many Anglos. You do not have to be black or Latino to join the coalition, which we have recently formally incorporated.
In Colorado Springs this kind of interethnic cooperation seems to work well and it is the hallmark of the coalition. The rationale is that separately blacks and Latinos may accomplish some worthy goals, but together we have a much better chance of creating a community free of racism and discrimination. A black and Latino alliance is vital in creating a community that truly respects and actually practices that much-abused concept of "diversity." At the same time, we cannot forget the importance of bringing white allies into the effort. This is what The Black/Latino Coalition is all about.
I have been active in community organizing since I left the Army at Fort Carson in 1970. Fresh from the front lines of the Vietnam War and with vivid memories of the destruction I had seen, I was eager to assume a constructive role and contribute to building society. That motive led to the founding of the Black/Latino Coalition years later, a culmination of my work with the city of Colorado Springs Human Relations Commission. In the 1970s and '80s, we had a Human Relations Commission that was strong enough to actually be effective in terms of race relations and advocacy for poor people in this community.
Its existence sent a powerful message to the community that racism and discrimination were not tolerated, and that the rights of poor people, whether black, white or brown, were respected. We don't have a Human Relations Commission worthy of the name anymore. This force for good was destroyed in the '90s during the conflict over the anti-gay Amendment 2. The fallout was serious. The attitude now among our elected and unelected leaders, with a few exceptions, seems to be that if we ignore social problems long enough they will go away by themselves.
In the spring of 1970, Colorado College took a gamble and gave me a chance to make something of myself. At the same time I worked as a tutor and mentor at North Junior High School. I was young and optimistic, but I understood some hard realities that are still with us today. My early experiences led to a lifelong concern about the achievement gap that handicaps black and Latino students in the public schools.
There is still disproportionate poverty, high teen pregnancy rate, high unemployment and underemployment, minority over-representation in the criminal justice system with persistent conviction, incarceration and recidivism rates. Blacks and Latinos, along with poor whites, still have a difficult time finding decent affordable housing. And so on. These are issues that the black and Latino communities confront every day.
Along with working to resolve these perennial issues, the Black/Latino Coalition has focused on voter education and registration. In partnership with other groups, we have sponsored candidate forums and voter registration drives. We have worked closely with the County Clerk and Recorder's Office to make sure that voting rights are respected.
We are active with CONO in advocating for the neighborhoods that make Colorado Springs the great place to live that it is. We provide input into the City Council redistricting process. We meet regularly with the county commissioners and advocate for equitable delivery of vital services like TANF, WIC, and Health Education, Disease and Addiction Prevention and Treatment.
We are strong on affirmative action, which is defined not only as nondiscrimination in hiring, promotion and retention in both the public and private sectors, but also as the awareness that a truly diverse workforce is good for business. Our meetings are on the fourth Thursdays of the month.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Readers can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.