Photo: Dan Freeman/Hearst Newspapers Washington Bureau / Hearst Connecticut Media
WASHINGTON — In the 1980s, Carmen Nieves was a pregnant Stamford teenager in danger of becoming yet another statistic in the elusive struggle against poverty and despair.
Now 49, with three adult daughters and four grandchildren, she is committed to serving her Bridgeport community through workforce development — and thinking about running for state representative.
“Right now I feel like I can compete with anybody, and not because I think I’m any better than anyone else,’’ Nieves said during a visit of the Latino Leadership Academy to Washington. “I know I have a lot to learn, but I’ve also accomplished a lot. Win or lose, it won’t be because I didn’t give it everything I had.’’
Nieves and 17 other graduates of the first academy class were at a luncheon Tuesday at the Capitol to hear members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation extol the value of grass-roots community service and advocacy, while not sugar-coating the challenges ahead after Donald Trump becomes president next month.
“This country is great because of its people,” Rep. Elizabeth Esty, D-Conn., told the graduates, three of whom are from Bridgeport and one from Shelton. “If we don’t like it, it’s up to us to change it.’’
The path runs very much from the grass roots up to representatives in Washington, Esty said, adding that democracy works best when activists are “not just telling us ‘you’re doing a great job,’ but pushing us!’’
Sen. Chris Murphy and the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus created the academy this year to help participants learn more about government, politics, campaigns and advocacy. Students attended training sessions in Connecticut and capped off the program with a trip to D.C. to meet with leaders in government, advocacy, and the media.
Esty, Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told the graduates about having to play defense on Capitol Hill as the Republican policy agenda under Trump comes into sharper focus.
Repeal of the Affordable Care Act, an immigration plan that accentuates deportations and walls, changes in education — all these are potential threats to Latino communities, they said.
“If there is one lesson from this election, it is that citizen advocacy is more important than ever, not less’’ Blumenthal said.
Some in the academy class told the elected officials that local leaders bear the responsibility of getting voters engaged — something that didn’t happen in Bridgeport and other Connecticut inner cities in the 2016 election.
Election data showed less turnout in Bridgeport this year than in 2008 and 2012, Esty said.
“We were complacent,’’ said Jorge Cruz, a recovering heroin addict who works as a homeless-outreach case manager in Bridgeport. “We took our eyes off the prize. Bridgeport was asleep at the wheel.’’
Nieves, who works to help youth find construction jobs and serves as president of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone, said the training was invaluable for the nuts-and-bolts tactics learned, as well as the overarching lessons about democracy and advocacy.
For instance, if an elected representative is not sufficiently focused on community concerns, “you find them on Facebook or other social media,’’ she said. “It creates another level of connection.’’
And if they’re still too busy or distracted, “you find out who their aide is, how to get on their calendar.’’