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María Teresa Kumar on COVID Misinformation In Latino Communities


In ELLE.com‘s monthly series Office Hours, we ask people in powerful positions to take us through their first jobs, worst jobs, and everything in between. This month we spoke with María Teresa Kumar, founder of Voto Latino, the largest Latinx voter registration organization in the country. Below, Kumar on her mother’s invaluable advice, COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and landing a book deal during the pandemic.

My very first job

I got my first job when I was 11 to help my mom and dad make ends meet. It was at a hospital for the disabled, where they both worked. My mother was a secretary, and my father was an aid worker. I sorted mail, answered the phone, made photocopies, and fixed paper jams. My salary was $3 a day. I’ll never forget the day I received my first check. Money was always tight growing up, so my mother asked me if I could contribute to help pay for utilities. I typed out a contract on our typewriter saying that she was welcome to my salary, but had to pay it back. I even gave it a line for her to sign. She laughed, but was not very pleased.

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My worst job

Straight out of college, I was offered a job as a legislative correspondent for my Congressman in Washington, D.C. I accepted, but didn’t have enough money to move. I called my boss and said, “I really want to go, but I have to work through the summer to save up.” I did some clerical work and also worked part-time at a local drug store putting security tags on products. I did that eight to 10 hours a day. It was excruciating, but it also motivated me. I knew that the more hours I put in, the closer I got to moving in D.C. to work my dream job.

The best career advice I received

As a first-generation immigrant woman, I have a tendency to close doors on my own opportunities. Before I applied to the Harvard Kennedy School, I was terrified. I dragged my feet, until my mom finally sat me down and said, “Don’t say no to yourself. Apply, and let someone else say no to you.” Sometimes the biggest naysayer is you, whether that’s out of fear of failure or expanding your horizons. My mom gave me the courage to have a sense of urgency to explore new things. She taught me that it is okay to fail and get rejected, because that’s all just part of the journey.

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How to ask for help when you need it

Don’t be afraid. There’s a vulnerability in asking for help or funding from someone, but in that vulnerability, you also provide people with a resource. In 2005, I became friendly with now Vice President Kamala Harris. Through her, I met her sister, Maya Harris, who was looking for interesting, innovative ways to enfranchise communities of color in democracy through her work at the Ford Foundation. Maya understood the importance of being revolutionary in how we coupled communities, specifically communities of color, by applying new methodologies. Until then, voter registration had often been done by door knocking. Maya saw a future in online voter registration. She gave us seed funding to do experiments, and we went from registering 51,000 folks to over half a million. We owe a lot of that to Maya seeing potential in us. She’s still a good friend, she’s amazing. If my vision had just stayed with me, Vote Latino wouldn’t have grown into the organization it is today.

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My biggest takeaway from the 2020 election

It was a multicultural America that beat Trump—and not just because of one group, but because of a multicultural America that is rising, and that will continue to rise.

My work with the Biden administration

We’re helping advise Biden’s team on disinformation that impacts the Latino community. For example, we did a research survey and found that close to 73 percent of Latinos knew someone who had COVID-19, and close to 30 percent knew someone who died of COVID-19. Despite knowing someone who had COVID-19 and despite knowing someone who fell to the illness, close to 47 percent of Latinos remain reticent about taking the vaccine. That’s a huge number. The root cause of that reticence is a disinformation campaign targeting older Latinos who receive messages on closed networks like WhatsApp telling them not to take the vaccine for a variety of reasons. We work with the Biden administration to create communication that combats that disinformation. We also make sure Latinos are part of the COVID-19 conversation when it comes to the relief packages. We will help track and provide input around immigration issues, too, because that is a top priority for our audience.

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How I wrote a book during the pandemic

The book doesn’t have a title yet. If you have any suggestions, let me know! It is about our emerging country and why a multicultural America is our greatest strength. I think that our future is bright when we know that a young growing population of Americans from all walks of life deeply believe that the constitution means something, and that voting means something. If we continue to nurture our country and our democracy, then we, as a collective population, will thrive.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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