“We work to improve the quality of life of Latino/a immigrant workers by promoting leadership development, workers’ rights, and civic engagement through information sharing, training, and organizing,” said Sergio Sosa, Executive Director of Heartland Workers Center.
Sosa, a native of Guatemala, founded the Heartland Workers Center (HWC) in January 2009, along with Latino/a workers, social and religious institutions, and hometown associations. Growing up in the war-torn country with a mother who was a “very busy” nurse to the community, Sosa became involved in organizing youth in nonviolent protests against the war and working with the Roman Catholic Church in its outreach to indigenous communities. When the politics made it too dangerous to stay, he came to his wife’s hometown, Omaha, and saw an immediate need for community organizing here.
According to Sosa, HWC has three main purposes: promoting civic engagement, protecting and defending voters’ rights and training individuals to be leaders or agents of change.
“We want to get Latinos and Latinas to participate in public life. In order to do that, we have a campaign called ‘Vote for your Family,’ because we know how connected Latino/a voters are to their families,” he explained.
Sosa said he is committed to collaboration.
“Many years ago we realized that the Latino/a population was growing and changing rapidly in south Omaha and in the state. We knew of many Latino/a led organizations and associations and thought it was a good idea to try to connect them with one another,” said Sosa.
From that idea, 22 new organizations attempted to build an alliance in Omaha and connect. The group that formed was called the Latino American Organization Alliance.
Heartland Workers is also part of the DREAMers Coalition, along with Catholic Charities, the ACLU, Justice for Our Neighbors and the Latino Center for the Midlands. Sosa explained the coalition was formed a year ago when President Obama announced he extended the terms of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. The organizations joined forces to start advocating for youth in the community. Ultimately, the coalition hired a youth coordinator to start organizing youth across south Omaha and the Omaha metro.
“In the past, we were part of the Nebraska coalition as well. That was comprised of south, north and west Omaha. It was us, Black Men United, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League,” Sosa said.
The organizations pulled together to put political pressure on Douglas County Commissioner Dave Phipps to reopen polling places that had been closed in south Omaha. Because of their efforts, 28 polling centers were reopened as well as two new ones.
Additionally, the group was able to expand the number of bilingual workers across precincts from two to 32.
For Sosa, there are several key ingredients to a successful collaboration.
“You have to be honest about the amount of time and resources you can actually bring to a project or collaboration. And you have to have the will to do it.”
He said you also have to have a clear objective, regardless of what you’re working on. Sosa mentioned a quote from Warren Buffett, “The more power I share, the more I have.” This is an idea that Sosa takes to heart.
“We need to develop leaders but it’s crucial to understand the difference between providing services versus giving power. In other words, we need to be clear about our self-interests and learn to act in a collective way,” explained Sosa.
He also believes that it is not necessarily a political leaders’ job to create community collaboration or integration. According to Sosa, from the community, the ones who are bringing the issues or complaints, need to learn to create their own collaborations and become active protagonists of their own lives.
Because of both political and financial resources, Sosa said the only way to build collective power and empower people to act is by bringing organizations together. Taken a step further, he said non-profits cannot just become complacent teaming up with one another. They have to open their minds.
“We need to come up with political and tactical alliances with unions, schools, churches and other organizations as well. We need to start thinking seriously about how we can support and raise money to sustain ourselves,” he said.
If Heartland Workers expects to be around 5-10 years from now, Sosa believes they need to become an organization that connects with voters and understands their issues. This becomes even more important as the population of Latino/a voters grows in the state.
By 2050, Latinos and Latinas will represent 34% of the total population of Nebraska. “If we join forces with other minorities, then you will see another kind of power to really act and get changes made,” said Sosa.
Additionally, he said Heartland Workers will need to go beyond south Omaha because Latinos and Latinas are located around the state. There are about 6,000 Latino/a citizens who are eligible to vote in Sarpy County and 3,000 eligible voters in west Omaha as well.
Sosa encourages building a coalition of leaders with political vision who will engage voters.
Heartland Workers wants to expand beyond the Omaha metro and start addressing rural areas as well, not to build another center but to teach people in those areas what the organization has learned and empower them to be active.
“We need to start talking in those places about how we can find, train and teach leaders to do what we are doing here but for their own places. Even so, we do want to ensure that we are inter-connected with all of the different community organizations and leaders. If you do this in Nebraska, it is something that can go beyond our own state,” Sosa said.