Whether working to improve nonprofit organizations or directing the Obama campaign in Texas, Juan Sepúlveda has learned the importance of what he calls “crowdsourcing,” or encouraging widespread input from diverse participants to develop better public policy.
“The more people you get involved, the more unique ideas you’ll receive,” he says.
Now Sepúlveda brings those ideas to Washington, D.C., in his new job as executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. Headquartered at the U.S. Education Department, the initiative is a high-profile perch through which Hispanic-serving colleges and Latino education leaders can provide input on issues from preschool through higher education.
Sepúlveda, 46, joined the department after directing President Barack Obama’s campaign in Texas in 2008. From 1995 through 2008, he was the founding president of The Common Enterprise, created by the Rockefeller Foundation as a full-service management consulting firm to help improve the operations of nonprofit organizations.
In his work for the previous 13 years, Sepúlveda saw the value of developing new ways to encourage public input. He has continued that with the White House initiative, embarking on visits this summer and fall to 18 states and Puerto Rico.
“A lot of people in education day in and day out didn’t know we existed,” he tells Diverse, even though this White House initiative dates to 1990. Too often, he says, “people assumed it was a new project.”
While longtime HSIs are familiar with the White House initiative, some new HSIs as well as K-12 urban school superintendents had little knowledge of the office.
“We realized we needed to create a network,” he says. “Our message to them is that you have an ally and a partner.”
Sepúlveda has conducted listening sessions in diverse settings, often at a community college but sometimes at a large K-12 school district. Rather than delivering a long speech, he encourages input using the “Kiva” process developed by Native Americans to promote analysis and reflection through structured group activities. Up to 300 people have attended these forums, and he says the sessions also help participants make new contacts within their communities. As a result, such “crowdsourcing” produces a win-win situation for the White House initiative as well as states and localities.
“We wanted these opportunities for input to be stronger than those that had been done in the past,” he says.
While Sepúlveda says his “first goal” is to introduce the initiative to a broader audience, other activities are also underway. He is assembling a staff of approximately 12 to conduct initiative activities. Also, since many HSIs want greater access to public funds across other government agencies, he says he hopes to obtain “chunks” of time from officials in other federal departments outside education. One particular goal is to link more closely with the Labor Department and its job-training programs.
He says interagency cooperation is essential to help Hispanic-serving colleges gain greater visibility across federal programs.
“We can’t stay in silos,” he says.
The White House Hispanic initiative also is unique in its focus on all aspects of education. While there are separate White House initiatives for historically Black colleges and tribal colleges, those organizations focus only on higher education. By comparison, the Hispanic initiative also encompasses preschool and K-12 programming.
“We’re going to have to be smart and strategic,” he says. “We can’t take on everything.”
Sepúlveda will use input from the listening sessions to help set an agenda and a formal executive order for the initiative’s work. At the same time, he wants to carve out a specific role for Hispanic-serving colleges. These college presidents will have representation on the advisory commission that helps oversee the initiative. But he also hopes to organize a council of college presidents to focus specifically on the needs of HSIs. His staff also is compiling information on programs across the federal government that may be of particular value to these colleges.
From the listening sessions and the initiative’s other work, Sepúlveda says he hopes to create a nationwide network of individuals and groups focused on Latinos’ education. In some cases, these links will grow on their own without federal involvement. But the initiative will play a significant role as a convener.
“Too often people are isolated from each other,” he says. “We will be a hub for bringing them together.”