Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, candidate for West Hartford Board of Education
By Brian Woodman Jr.
A Latino candidate in one Connecticut suburb is working to make the political scene in his town more inclusive, by reaching out to Latino voters, perhaps signaling new Latino political influence outside of the traditional urban areas.
“Given that there has never been an elected town official of Latino descent I think part of the challenge is ensuring our Latino and other minority populations that they are critical partners in the town and its future,” said Mark Overmyer-Velazquez, the first Hispanic to serve in public office in West Hartford history.
Overmyer-Velazquez, a professor at the University of Connecticut and director of the Institute of Latino and Latin American Studies, is the first to lead a political campaign in West Hartford that specifically targets the Latino community, according to members of his campaign. Overmyer-Velazquez, who has a doctorate in history from Yale and is a Fulbright Scholar was appointed to the town’s Board of Education board in 2011 to fill Clare Kindall’s term and is now campaigning with running mates Tammy Exum and Jillian Gilchrest to retain his seat.
“Always striving for that more perfect union, I hope that my efforts at outreach to the Latino community will build into a more inclusive, democratic involvement of the changing demographics of West Hartford,” he said.
Supporters add Overmyer-Velazquez who is running as a Democrat, is using various outreach strategies to reach Latino voters. .
“It’s not just a token step, but an outgrowth of Mark’s work on the board,” said Keith Griffin, a West Hartford resident who supports Velazquez’s campaign and added that the town’s student population is about 15 percent Hispanic.
Velasquez discussed his efforts to reach out to West Hartford’s Latino community during a conversation with CTLatinoNews.com, describing his efforts as integrated and simultaneous.
“First, as a Latino I am part of the community I am working to more deeply connect with,” he said. “My efforts with the Latino community are part of a larger commitment to all the residents of West Hartford: to best represent the town as a whole, in all its growing diversity, I want to listen to and better understand the concerns and aspirations of as many people as possible. This means working to actively create opportunities for all our non-English-dominant communities (e.g. the top seven non-English languages in West Hartford: Spanish, Mandarin/Cantonese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Russian, Urdu and Nepalese).
He said that Manuela Canales, a volunteer appointed as his Latino Community Outreach Coordinator, helped achieve that.
“Manuela is a highly creative and motivated individual who has worked for years helping to connect families in the town to important issues,” he said. “A graduate of the Parent Leadership Training Institute she is committed to building leaders in the community.”
He said that her work has made the campaign’s material, website and Facebook page bilingual.
“We will be hosting Spanish language events in people’s homes,” he said. “Cafecito con los candidatos,” door knocking to Spanish-speaking homes, among other efforts.”
He said his campaign is in many respects an extension of his work in the community, which includes working on political campaigns and serving as co-president of the Smith Elementary School PTO.
“On the board I’ve worked closely with the administration to review the district’s efforts at promoting and sustaining diversity in our schools at all levels,” he said.
“Most importantly, I have visited and continue to regularly talk with parents and teachers. I meet separately with students as well. I’m working with the community to help design the new Charter OakInternationalAcademy and was asked by Marcia Lewis, head librarian at the Faxon Branch (Library) to serve on the committee to assess community priorities among West Hartford’s top seven non-English-speaking groups of residents.”
He said that he has met with the administrators, toured the town’s 17 facilities, visited classrooms and spoken with people throughout the system to determine how to involve minority students and families more directly with local education.
“Currently, approximately 5.5 percent of our teachers in West Hartford belong to a minority while our minority students make up almost 37 percent of our school population,” he said, referring to the town‘s minority recruitment plan. “The state average for minority teachers is approximately 7.2 percent. Nationally, recent estimates indicate that this number is between 8 percent and 9 percent. While acknowledging the numerous challenges in minority recruitment, the distressing fact that we are behind state and national averages does not square with our district’s position as an educational leader. The overwhelmingly homogenous racial make-up of our teachers is an obstacle to the creation of an optimal learning environment for our students.”
He is working with the district’s human resources department to seek minority candidates, he said.
“Looking to Latino and Black/African American teacher associations is a start,” he said. “Professional development is also critical, especially considering that diversity is also importantly about diversity of thought, understanding diverse cultural context. In other words, hiring more black and brown teachers is important, but the district also needs to help educate all of its staff in the importance and value of diversity in the educational enterprise.”
Overmyer-Velazquez is married with three children and a member of Kehilat Chaverim.