Sindy Marisol Benavides is a Honduran American immigrant and public servant working to bring the American dream to other Latinos, women, and immigrants. She is the chief executive officer of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the oldest Hispanic civil rights organization in the country, founded in 1929. Benavides serves on numerous civic boards, is the former vice president of field and political operations for Voto Latino, and was named one of the top 20 Latina Women of Excellence in 2010 by Hispanic Business magazine. She was the valedictorian of her undergraduate class at Virginia State University and she’s working to finish her master’s degree at American University.
This is the 17th part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.
Sindy M. Benavides, Chief Executive Officer, League of United Latin American Citizens
Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?
A: This is distinctly different in its breadth and diversity of participation. Rather than civic unrest, we are witnessing civic distrust in our nation’s institutions and an unwillingness to wait for incremental change. Instead, this is a transformative moment in our modern history and a movement that will not be pacified nor appeased by promises without immediate and significant actions that deliver equity and equality for historically disenfranchised communities of color.
Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?
A: There is no turning back. Whether through actions in the Congress or actions on the streets or both, from the top down and bottom up, America’s power brokers must relinquish their stranglehold on the political reins that determine every other aspect of life in the United States: access to economic equity, the right for all to have quality education, healthcare and opportunities for employment. Also, criminal justice reform needs to move faster and more deliberately to plug up the pipeline to prison and replace it with a pipeline to prosperity for all communities working daily to achieve the American Dream. This isn’t about a handout; it is about eliminating the rigged rules that favor a few over the many.
Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?
A: Most people and some historians may compare this period to that of the civil rights movement. While there are similarities, this moment is unequaled in the sheer scope of potential impact both within the United States and globally. Either it will succeed and prepare the way for a more equitable America from here forward on a scale exceeding that which the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed. Or, if the momentum is somehow slowed or stopped again, the country could well slide back in its previous patterns of racially-based policies and legislation that will allow injustices of the past to re-emerge, this time with the full knowledge and consent of its leaders. The latter is simply unimaginable and unacceptable. As a Latino civil rights organization, we know now is the time for change because our community understands that silence and living in fear is no longer an option.
Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?
A: First, we must invest into our public education system to achieve world-class learning through measurable metrics as the foundation to more literate, trained and qualified electorate that recognizes the power of knowledge and recognizes how to leverage it for improving society. Lofty but achievable and the mark of nations making the most significant strides for all its citizenry.
Second, civic engagement must be championed in communities of color as the path to political empowerment from which all else depends: economics, health, quality of life and a spirit of self-determination.
Most importantly, racially-based hatred and the actions it fuels in the public space cannot and must not ever be accepted as normal. Stronger laws must be in place to prevent disinformation that targets communities of color and/or prevents fueling white supremacy. These laws must have accountability measures that hold individuals responsible, including elected officials, and even the President of the United States.
Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?
A: The ability of every person in this country to live freely, think freely and be able to have and achieve our goals no matter what zip code we grow up in should be a standard. If I am willing to do the work, no one has the right to say I cannot pursue the same opportunities or realize the same dreams of making the most of my life. Our country must dismantle an oppressive system that affords some people of a certain race or color the opportunity to achieve, but not others for that very same reason (or excuse).
We are reflected as a nation, in the faces and lives of those who make our country what it is. Just as we take pride in being associated with winners, we must be willing to shoulder some of the burden for our society’s failures that contribute to the greatest social challenges facing America. If we lose that which is in our human nature to care for fellow human beings, we will have lost part of ourselves. We must see social justice as impacting ‘us’ and not the ‘other.’ When we understand that social justice applies to all of us, then we will continue to see a steady surge of people acknowledging the role(s) that they must play to not be the oppressor or the individuals on the sidelines. Our motto, E pluribus unum, encompasses the notion that we are in this together as one nation.
Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?
A: First, stop the denial as a nation that there are no racial divisions and disparities. Without an acknowledgment of the wrongs, there can be no progress towards the right. Then, we must be willing to re-set the meaning of what it is to be an American into one that is truly inclusive of all who live in this country, not solely by words. We must see actions and have a say in defining those actions. The political and legal frameworks are central to the reforms needed for lasting institutional change. We must be unafraid and willing to expose our democracy to its pillars if we are to rebuild our home to be stronger and more enduring. No more, should the few rule over the many. Rather, the many must be allowed to speak out, rise up, engage and act without our nation being fearful of the consequences.
Q: How do you feel about the future?
A: I believe that Americans, for the most part, are hopeful, not hateful and that optimism triumphs over cynicism. I believe that we are capable of being greater as a whole, and weaker when those who seek to divide us succeed for their own political gain. Each and all of us must look within ourselves to rediscover our greatest strength, our willingness to work with one another in common purpose and for shared goals. Or if our views differ, we disagree with respect for each other, not seek gain selfishly at the expense of the “other” or blame the “other” to advance ourselves.
This is the future we have before us and I am confident that more of us seek a different kind of America than those who fear an America where more are included. Yes, we will see brighter days ahead, happier and more peaceful times where our country will again breathe the freedom to be all, the freedom to believe all and the freedom to achieve all. God Bless America.