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Kirk Whisler

Board President and Co-Founder, Latino Literacy Now

I founded Latino Literacy Now with my compadre actor Edward James Olmos in 1997, when I was 45. Our mission is to promote literacy in the (Latino/Hispanic) community in various forms, including reading, educational, financial, health and community awareness. We do this through partnerships with other organizations and our own programs, such as the International Latino Book Awards, the Latino Books Into Movies Awards, the Latino Book & Family Festivals, and Latino Reads, a weekly podcast series.

The problem I’m trying to solve

We’re trying to improve literacy on multiple levels in the Latino community. Many Latino children enter kindergarten with low reading comprehension. This may be partly because, while Hispanic families are aware that it’s important to read aloud to kids at an early age, only 49 percent of Hispanic families read to their kids ages 5 and under five to seven days per week, compared to 63 percent of non-Hispanic families, according to a 2017 report from Scholastic. At school, children want to see teachers who look like them and relate to their culture, but school systems aren’t adding ethnically diverse teachers in proportion to the increasing diversity of their student bodies. More Latinos attend college than 20 years ago, but the challenge now is to keep them there. This is partly because of insufficient financial resources but also because of a lack of appropriate counseling. Our Empowering Students Scholarship Database, which lists $920 million in resources, has impacted over 180,000 students in the U.S. 

The moment that sparked my passion

I’ve spent most of my adult life working for nonprofits serving the Latino community — first with social service organizations, then in publishing — with much of my career as a facilitator in making processes happen more effectively. In the 1980s there was a void in Hispanic publishing, and few publications were dealing with the needs and issues in the Latino community. After several people were killed at a music-oriented event in the Latino community in downtown L.A. in 1996, Eddie and I were talking about how it wasn’t the kind of event that would further the community. At that time the majority of Latino events were not family events. We decided to come up with an event that would focus on families.

Advice to those who want to make a difference

There are so many needs in the community; find one that resonates with you and that you have a passion for. The most important things I’ve learned are to never be afraid to ask questions and to work hard. By working hard, opportunities might arise — but when you ask questions starting with “why” or “how,” something significant can happen, or by asking as a “we,” not a “me,” more boats will rise.

How my life has shaped this pursuit

I grew up in San Bernardino, California, and I come from a family of teachers. They instilled in me a desire to give back to the community. My wife, Magdalena González, was born in Mexico City, and she’s a teacher in north San Diego County. She’s a great sounding board for my ideas because she sees these issues firsthand.

Why my  approach is unique

With everything we do, we look at our relationships with dozens of local and national organizations and how we can leverage what they offer with the needs that are in the community. There is nothing comparable to our Latino author events. What’s been the most meaningful for me is when an award-winning author comes to one of our events and says, often with tears in their eyes, that it’s one of the most important things that ever happened in their lives.