When the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Office of Latino and Latin American Studies holds its Nov. 8-9 Cumbre event, it will mark 10 years for this center dedicated to community engagement, applied research and teaching inside and outside the classroom.

OLLAS convenes this periodic summit of scholars, policymakers, community organizers, workers and students to discuss issues critical to Latinos and migrants and to consider the Latino agenda for social change in the new millennium.

Cumbre kicks off with a Friday night opening reception at the Marriott Courtyard in Aksarben Village. The all-day Saturday program at the College of Public Affairs and Community Service building on the main UNO campus will feature panels and presentations by speakers from both coasts, Mexico, Uruguay and Omaha’s own backyard.

Award-winning educator, author and activist Pedro Noguera will deliver the Saturday luncheon keynote address on the topic of Education, Immigration and Civil Rights in the 21st Century. The luncheon keynote is $50 but the rest of the summit is free and open to the public.

Lourdes Gouveia, a UNO professor and the director of OLLAS, says Cumbre is a good reflection of what the 10-year-old organization is all about.

“The summit came to be defined from the start as a signature of who we are as a center. One of the main missions is that this is not a conventional academic unit but one that tears down walls of learning. We take high quality learning opportunities outside of the university to our communities, both grassroots and grass tops, in Spanish and in English, so that everyone is as privileged as we are to access the best research, analysis and minds. It’s all done to facilitate the conversations we need to have and to learn what we need to learn in order to address the urgent issues of our communities together.

“We think the democratization of the information is terribly important and Cumbre is one way to democratize quality information and to have the best tools available to understand our experiences and challenges as a community and a society. We try very hard to make the program inclusive. We ask, ‘Who’s missing from this conversation? Who should be at this table that’s not there?’”

She says Cumbre is a space “where we come to learn, where we take stock of what we’ve done and learned, of where we are, how we’re doing – as Latinos, as scholars in our field, as a community, as a state.” Far from being “a futile exercise in academia,” she says “it is a process to take us to the next questions. The first panel will set the context at the micro level with some of the large trends in Latin America. Then a follow-up panel will look at how these transformations are playing out in the U.S. and affecting Latino communities. Another panel will examine where Latinos are in terms of demographic shifts and socioeconomic conditions.”

The summit is not limited to academic types but includes grassroots organizers such as Omaha Heartland Workers Center director Sergio Sosa, whose organization helps develop leaders among working-class immigrant populations.

She says keynoter Noguera is one of several speakers talking at Cumbre who can offer informed perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing young Latinos in education.

“He’s a sociologist who can also speak about systemic forces and causes all the way down to the local school level,” says Gouveia. “He’s executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education in New York City and that is perfect because our world is increasingly urban and metropolitan. He’s a first-rate voice on ways to overcome educational barriers, including policy changes that are necessary.

“Most compelling to me is here is someone who can enrich the conversations by being an Afro-Latino, a scholar, an activist who has dealt personally with issues affecting African Americans and Latinos, especially their challenges and barriers to educational achievement. He can speak through various lenses and that’s very defining for us. That’s we look for.”

She says OLLAS itself formed in response to questions and issues that emerged in the wake of an influx of new immigrants and the need to provide hard data on Latino impact for policymakers. She says Cumbre helps determine “what are the questions we should be asking, what are the collaborative projects we should be engaging in in the next decade. We need to know what the next 10 years should look like, what should the work we’re doing be looking like. In many ways this is the context for that work. It always informs our work in the community. We hope to trigger as many of those conversations as possible and then through community meetings in which we’re involved with our partners, we have debriefings with workers and other community members.”

To help provide a template for discussions that happen after Cumbre she says, “I’m asking presenters and panels, to as much as possible at the end, arrive at policy recommendations or their own conclusions about the implications of whatever was discussed, where change needs to happen at any level. I’m asking them to suggest what kind of policies need to change or what kind of educational opportunities need to appear or what kind of barriers need to come down and how do we do that.”

For program details visit www.unomaha.edu/ollas/cumbre2013/.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

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