Five questions for organizers of the East Texas Leadership Summit

Organizers of the East Texas Leadership Summit. From left: Elva Estrada, Octavio Tellez, Kim Carrillo, Ebb Torres, Nick Pesina, Marc Loredo, Laura Loya Cano, Matthew Carrillo

This Friday, a diverse group of local leaders will gather at Tyler Junior College for a day of conversations about health, education, economy, and leadership in our region. Leaders of public, private, and charter schools will talk how they can work together for a common cause. A Brookshire’s vice president will talk about how big companies can be more involved in the community. And a women’s panel will explore unique career challenges for women.

It’s called the East Texas Leadership Summit, a new event organized by the Hispanic Professionals Association of Tyler. HPAT launched in 2016 as a networking hub for local Latinos navigating all sorts of careers, from teachers and lawyers to doctors and salespeople. Interestingly, HPAT chose not to splash its name across the Summit’s marketing materials; if you heard about the event from a coffeeshop flyer or its website, you probably wouldn’t know it was being put on by a Latino group.

“We did not want to alienate any population from feeling like they would be welcome to participate,” said Marc Loredo, one of the organizers. “We wanted to bring as many players to the table as we possibly could.” (Full disclosure: I’m one of the keynote speakers at the Summit, which is now sold out.)

So what’s the significance of an event like this in East Texas right now? How will the organizers—who’ve been meeting every week for months to pull this off—know whether it was worth the effort? How would they grade themselves on speaker and panel diversity? I sat down with HPAT members to learn more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The Tyler Loop: So tell me where the idea for this conference came from.

Nick Pesina, attorney, Roberts & Roberts We surveyed the landscape [of similar local  events]. We saw that there was the Bright Ideas conference, which focuses on non-profits. There was Leadercast, where you show up to watch a Skype-style presentation with big names from around the country. That’s good, but we saw a void. We thought, why do so many [local leadership events] bring in lots of out-of-town speakers? Why can’t we focus on the talent that we have here locally?

Kim Carrillo, American Honors advisor, Kilgore College I moved back to East Texas five years ago after living in Dallas and Austin. At first, it felt hard to connect. Then we created HPAT, and it felt like, wow, there really are diverse leaders out here. We were able to find each other. The idea behind the Summit was to help other local leaders who are passionate about improving the community find each other, too.

Your mission statement talks about wanting to create “large-scale social change.” What kinds of changes are you hoping to see in Tyler?

Laura Cano, executive director of human resources, Tyler independent school district There’s a lot of exclusivity in a lot of places and not really any access to enter, just because of the way things have always been. So for me, change would be an intentional shift to where people are more inclusive and included, and we start to see more groups represented.

Octavio Tellez, industrial engineer, Hood Packaging When I moved to East Texas from a huge, very inclusive city ten years ago, it was a cultural shock. You had south Tyler, African-American Tyler, rural east Texas—all very separated. Now things are coming a little bit more together, but there’s a long way still.

Kim Carrillo When I first moved back to Tyler, I was immediately surprised to see that it was no longer the rural East Texas that I had left behind. Our school demographics mirrored those in big Dallas public schools. In big urban areas, you tend to have more programs to fill the gaps in services. So I thought, how can we get ahead of this growth here in Tyler? How can we learn from models in other cities? What outside grants or programs could we be bringing here? I hadn’t yet met other people here in Tyler who were looking for those same things. That’s what we want to see at the Summit: people finding those other people who want to bring new ideas and resources to our community.

Nick Pesina: We all want to see improvement, whether it’s upward mobility, access to higher education, or addressing the achievement gap in public schools. We’re all stakeholders—whether we want to be or not. So how do you challenge everyone to be more committed to improving things? Change is not some radical idea; it’s about creating buy-in from the community.

Elva Estrada, banking officer, Southside Bank Change is about leaving a footprint behind as well. I think about the little ones, the younger generation. I’m a single mother, and I want my little girl to look back and say, oh my gosh, my mom really did care about her community, my mom really did want to make a difference. I want to plant that seed for the younger generation through the success of events like this.

There’s a lot of conversation going on in our country right now about inclusion and diversity, and you often see it in conversations about who’s represented at events like this one. I’d like to hear about how you selected the speakers for this event.

Laura Cano, executive director of human resources, Tyler independent school district The initial thought was, we had these four tracks: health, education, economy, and leadership. We started looking at our networks as a group, figuring out who we knew who could be a good fit for each track. From there, we looked at where we needed more representation from different groups. It was digging into what we knew and what contacts we had to make the speaker panel as diverse as possible.

Nick Pesina We weren’t just looking at male and female, Anglo and Hispanic and African-American. We said, let’s get some people from Tyler, and let’s get some people that are not originally from here. Let’s get some emerging leadership and some seasoned leadership. The strength of diversity is the diversity of thought at the table. We want to harness that diversity of thought in the community to address complex issues.

How do you feel about your outreach to African-American Tyler? [Three of the event’s 18 speakers and panelists are black.]

Laura Cano That’s a good question. I think it came down to the networks that we had, a matter of who we had relationships with who would trust us, to say, yes, I am giving you my time, my talents for this event. Because it’s not a small thing we’re asking of people.

Nick Pesina I think we can do a better job. Part of our responsibility as HPAT is to reach out. That’s really what we want to do. We want to show that there’s a model to really make those inroads across cultures. However, I think that the presenters that we do have representing the African-American community are going to go advocate in the future if there’s a Summit 2019. It’s gotta start somewhere. The fact that we’re all cognizant of the need for more outreach in the African-American community—the fact that we all paused when you asked that question right now—tells me that our hearts are in the right place.

Kim Carrillo It’s been on my mind throughout the whole planning. I agree that we could have done better. With the time we had and what we’ve taken on, it’s not necessarily an excuse, but it does take effort to just develop good solid relationships that are built on trust. I think we’ll get there. 2019!

What does it mean that HPAT is putting on this event? What’s the significance of Latino professionals being behind this? 

Nick Pesina: If we all see the demographic shift [in Latino population growth in Tyler], then the leadership needs to reflect that. We didn’t want to be reactive; we wanted to be proactive. We all live here, we all love this place. So let’s max out what we can do out here. The significance of HPAT being behind this Summit is that we want to be the change that we want to see in the community.

Marc Loredo, business banker, BBVA Compass To me, it’s encouraging to see a younger group of leaders. For the longest time, Tyler’s had the perception of being led by the older establishment. When I heard about HPAT targeting a middle ground of emerging leaders, I thought it would be incredible to get all these great people and put us all in room together. I think this effort is a true testament to our generation here in Tyler, and a peek at the future we would like to see for Tyler.

The event is sold out, but you can subscribe to its newsletter on its website to stay tuned for future programs. More disclosures: I’ve hung out socially with several HPAT organizers, and Marc Loredo is a pro bono advisor to The Tyler Loop.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.
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