OLA of Eastern Long Island, a non-profit organization founded in 2002 that promotes the social, economic, cultural and educational development of the Latino community on the East End announced the hiring of Gabriela Cabrera this week as its civic engagement coordinator.
The goal is to “expand on important non-partisan work that will educate, energize and activate East End Latino voters,” said Minerva Perez, OLA’s executive director. She also said that they will focus on hyper-local elections, from school boards and village boards up to the congressional level.
The new civic engagement coordinator, whose main focus will be to motivate people to vote, will target the Latino community.
“Right now Latinos as a group is underrepresented,” said Cabrera. “We need to take the right steps so they can engage at the local level and learn how to vote,” she said.
Reaching already registered Latino Voters is one of the top immediate priorities, especially with the upcoming School Board Elections on May 16.
“I am not aware of any [local] organization out there that is focusing their attention on motivating and informing people about hyper local elections,” said Perez who in the past worked briefly on a Southampton Town Board campaign and knows from personal experience how difficult it is getting people to vote locally.
They will start by educating people through “How to Vote” posts in English and Spanish that will address all steps of the registration and voting process and provide a list of open seats in each district. The organization is also looking to enlist and mobilize volunteers that can help their efforts by calling and educating registered Latino voters.
In order to implement OLA’s goals, Cabrera has started to receive several specialized training courses through non-profit organizations such as the New York Civic Engagement Table and New York Immigration Coalition, that will help her strengthen her outreach capacities by teaching her the latest methodologies and techniques.
“There is a lot of work to do and I’m learning how to get in contact with Latino voters the right way. We have to empower people and we’re here to help,” Cabrera said.
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, the First Congressional District, which extends from Smithtown to the tips of the twin forks, has more than 40,000 Latinos who are U.S. citizens and eligible to vote. That represents more than 13 percent of total voters in the district — and about 44 percent of the total Latino population currently living in the First CD.
Despite the record number of eligible Latino voters throughout the country, Census Bureau data from the 2012 general election show that their impact in the electoral system has been modest due to the low turnout rate, a problem that is exacerbated during local elections, when low participation is generally the rule and not the exception across all groups.
OLA has sent questionnaires to all School Board candidates on the South Fork and will share what they learn, even if they don’t get any response from them so people voting have more information on the different candidates.
Perez explained that it is important not only to motivate Latinos to vote, but also understand who is a candidate and what they stand for. She said Latino voters have to make their voices heard and having them engage civically is the way to go.
The civic engagement coordinator is a part-time, privately funded position.
From the Bronx to the East End
Cabrera was born and raised in the South Bronx. The daughter of Ecuadorean immigrants, she was the first in her family to go to college. She graduated from Stony Brook University with a degree in Spanish Literature. In 2007 she moved to the East End when she met her husband. A proud mother of two children, Cabrera has always been active in her community.
“I’ve always tried to help people,” she said.
Currently a family advocate at Bridgehampton Head Start, Cabrera says that giving voice to the voiceless has always been her passion. And although her new position as OLA’s civic engagement coordinator will take her unto new and uncharted territory, she is confident and inspired to make it work.
“I was intimidated at first. I will go from working with individual families to reaching out to whole groups of people for school board elections, but the bottom line is that the community knows me and they know what I stand for,” she said.
Cabrera was referred to OLA by Leah Oppenheimer, the director of community outreach at The Children’s Museum of The East End.
“Gaby is a very engaging person and that’s exactly what we need,” Oppenheimer said.
“Her new job is going to help change the perception of this voting bloc. People think Latinos don’t vote. The reality is quite different,” she said.
“Latinos are a quiet partner out here and they need to have a voice,” Oppenheimer said.
Prior to being an advocate, Cabrera was a teaching assistant, where she says she saw the need of Latino parents.
“They couldn’t communicate properly with their children’s teachers and needed guidance. It is then that I decided to become an advocate,” Cabrera said.