Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘Prime time’: New NHC commission approved to bring Hispanic, Latino representation to the table

New Hanover County Commissioners establish the first Hispanic/Latino commission at Monday’s meeting. (Courtesy/NHC)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The Hispanic and Latino demographic is considered the second-fastest growing locally. As a result, the county’s diversity and equity department is creating a commission where their voices can be heard.

On Monday, New Hanover County commissioners unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of a Hispanic/Latino Commission, comprising 11 community members.

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The Hispanic/Latino Commission is the first government-backed board focused specifically on the Latino community. It will advocate for the community and act as a local resource, reporting to the county commissioners on needs.

“You’ve got it. Don’t waste it. Go make a difference,” commissioner Rob Zapple said at the meeting. 

The commission adds to the county’s growing list of cultural-specific committees. The Office of Diversity and Inclusion oversees the Commission on African American History, Heritage and Culture. It jointly appoints members to the Commission for Women and the Community Relations Advisory Committee, along with the City of Wilmington.

Between 2020 and 2021, the Hispanic/Latino community in New Hanover County has grown by 1.5%; the demographic comprises 7.7% of New Hanover County’s population of 229,018. This equals more than 17,000 residents without proper representation on the local level.

More than half the Latino population is U.S.-born, while others immigrate from Mexico, Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela and more. 

“It’s prime time,” said Dr. Edelmira Segovia, UNCW director of Centro Hispano and the office of diversity and inclusion. “The demographics speak for themselves. The voice needs to be at the table.”

According to NHC chief diversity and equity officer Linda Thompson, her office, established in June 2020, has received inquiries over the last two years from Hispanic and Latino leadership. Many, such as UNCW leadership and nonprofit Cape Fear Latinos, have requested a way to promote understanding and inclusiveness for the community.

“We also noticed when we began to do pandemic outreach work that there was a need to have a voice and a connection to many of the leaders in the Hispanic community,” Thompson said.

Segovia said language equity when it comes to basic needs falls short countywide.

“When vaccinations were originally released the information was getting to the Spanish community very late,” Segovia noted. “Vaccines were gone for that first round.”

Thompson acknowledged language access and cultural differences were missing in outreach work. The county’s 2020 diversity and inclusion assessment shows 30% of New Hanover County Hispanics live in poverty and 33% receive social services.

As far as health accessibility, Segovia advocated for representation of Latino and Hispanic practitioners, as well as bilingual medical professionals regardless of background.

She also noted emergency response services could benefit from more Spanish resources when it comes to hurricane preparedness and public safety, such as ensuring the population has forms of identification.

Some people have not been able to obtain government-issued identification, creating an issue when it comes to checking children out of school or being stopped by law enforcement, Segovia explained.

The Latino community met with the Wilmington Police Department, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies to express the need of accepting the Faith Action ID as valid. Last month, Wilmington adopted Faith Action, which provides a form of identification for individuals not able to access government-issued ones.

Cuban immigrant Dr. Tony Puente, UNCW professor of psychology and founder of the school’s Centro Hispano, is encouraged about the formal relationship-building with the county. Having lived in Wilmington since 1981, Puente said there has been little effort to interface with the demographic from government officials.

“The county historically has been friendly and interested in understanding and serving this community, but this represents a formal step to make sure it’s institutionalized well beyond any of our current lives,” he said.

Overcoming the cultural barrier is complex, Puente indicated. UNCW professor Dr. Boomershine agreed.

“It’s such a diverse community within the Hispanic community,” she said. “So the needs are varying. Having this group of 11 dedicated members will improve gaps in service, understanding, awareness and appreciation.”

According to Marimer Mckenzie, outreach coordinator for the county’s diversity and equity office, Latinos in New Hanover County face many challenges including “limited access to education, healthcare and employment opportunities.” Hispanic immigrants also struggle with discrimination.

“I think government agencies still have a ways to go working toward improved equity as far as access in Spanish,” Boomershine said. “I think more appreciation and recognition of that and how it adds to our community is sometimes lacking.”

Despite challenges, the Latino community has made “significant contributions to the state’s economy and cultural landscape.” As of 2020, the buying power for Hispanics statewide was $23.8 billion, according to the county.

The county has been working alongside Cape Fear Latinos, a grassroots nonprofit established in 2021 for providing social services — legal, rent and food assistance, work and housing resources. The nonprofit is developing education programs to support the Latino community.

Cape Fear Latinos partnered with the county in September during Hispanic Heritage Month. It launched its inaugural Cape Fear Latino Festival at the New Hanover County Arboretum featuring 40 vendors spotlighting Latino businesses and local nonprofits; more than 1,500 people attended.

Applications open in March for New Hanover County residents interested in joining. Living in the county is the only requirement for applying. The paperwork is available in English and Spanish; interested parties will be able to apply online or on paper, with documents available to be picked up at 230 Government Center Drive.

Once applications are received, commissioners will have the final say in announcing appointees. Members will serve three-year, staggered terms, with no more than two consecutive terms. A chair, vice-chair and secretary will be elected in July each year and hold meetings quarterly, at a minimum.

Thompson hopes commissioners will appoint members by April so the commission could meet for the first time in late April or May.

“Then it’s up to the [new Hispanic/Latino] commission to decide how to move forward,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to dictate that. We want to leave it up to the residents to tell us what their priorities are. We trust them with taking that role and moving forward with it.”

The commission will be charged with assessing needs of the Hispanic community, providing a status report to the board and making recommendations.

Puente said the new commission is simpatico: “Not just the county serving us, but us serving the county, too. We make the county richer and much more multicultural.”

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