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2013 George I. Sánchez Memorial Award


His father was a local union leader at the Houston Ship Channel and his mother the city's first Latina park center director. Both found time, however, to volunteer their services to youth in tough Latino neighborhoods of Houston. They instilled in their son Ernesto a vision of community service that guides him to this day.

Ernesto Nieto is the founder and president of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) in Maxwell, Texas. In the late 1970s, Nieto, who had been both a teacher and a community organizer, saw a need: While the Latino population was booming, the ranks of Latino community leaders was thinning as former civil rights activists from the 1960s chose other career paths or curtailed their energy-draining social activism. So he decided to do something to fill this leadership void.

He set out to train young Latino men and women to see life in the Latino community as a destination in their lives rather than a reason to exit. He sought to help young Latinos redefine themselves away from the traditional labels of "at-risk" and "disadvantaged" to being "culturally-confident and competent young people" with something positive to contribute to their communities. He also worked with classroom teacher to approach education as a vision-building experience rather than a means to create more workers.

To say that Ernesto Nieto and NHI have been successful would be an understatement. Since 1981, more than 75,000 youth have participated in NHI leadership programs. Approximately 98 percent of these young men and women enroll in college, with 90 percent graduating within 4-5 years. Sixty-five percent continue into advanced studies.

Each year, nearly 3,000 new participants attend NHI leadership programs along with more than 1,100 community participants. All of the Institute's current-day programs are managed and directed by former participants who as professionals in different fields give a "week of service" to NHI.

Perhaps the Institute's most unique feature is that it is a not-for-profit organization supported mainly by its participants and alumni; it does not rely on government, corporate or foundation funding. Nieto refers to NHI as "a social entrepreneurial entity."

Among the Institute's signature programs is the Lorenzo De Zavala Youth Legislative Session (LDZ). It enrolls 1,000 youth a year who attend different university host-sites in New York, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, and Panama. LDZ gives participants an opportunity to play numerous organizational roles that advance their understanding of policy and governance. There are also workshops on early college planning and evaluation.

Of Ernesto Nieto, NHI alumni and Board Chair Michelle. L. Saenz-Rodriguez says: "By far the best thing Ernesto has shown me is that we must continue to imagine and create. For without the ability to dream and create we are not truly living."