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Q&A with Marlene Dotson

Q&A WITH MARLENE DOTSON
PRESIDENT & CEO OF INDIANA LATINO INSTITUTE

  1. You’ve been a keen advocate for leadership development in the Latino community. Why do you think it’s important that such programs like the Latino Leadership Circle program should exist?

The ILI Latino Leadership Circle exists to increase the number of Latino Hoosiers in leadership positions, to improve their leadership skills, and to connect them with private- and public-sector leaders. Although the Indiana Latino population is young and increasing rapidly in numbers, Latino voices are not proportionately found in positions as C-suites, corporate boards, publicly elected offices, and government commissions. In education, for example, Latino K-12 students comprise 14% of the student body, making them the largest minority group in our schools; but Latinos hold less than 25 of the 1,500 school board seats in our state, and no Latinos are serving on the Indiana State Board of Education or the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.  While ILI’s two-year leadership training program is a pipeline for more Latino voices to be present where decisions are being made, I call on Indiana’s private and public sector leaders to do their part—select Latinos to serve on boards and commissions and to promote more Latinos through leadership ranks.   

In Indiana Latinos Comprise 8% of the population. Companies and government should not underestimate the potential of this demographic. Their diverse leadership brings a wealth of perspectives, leading to innovative and holistic solutions for Indiana.  Recognizing and supporting Latino leaders is a step towards a more inclusive future. 

  1. Since the inception of the program, what has been a highlight or impactful success story you can share?

The ILI Latino Leadership Circle is five years old, and we are beginning to see the fruits of that investment. More than 60 Latinos have participated in the program. Although I can share that many are rising within their corporate structures and others have been asked to serve on boards, one alumna was elected to the Indiana General Assembly in 2022. She joined only three other legislators of Hispanic heritage in the Statehouse. When key issues and policy options are being discussed, the additional Latino voice at the table helps enact solutions important to the Latino community. 

In addition to amplifying the Latino community’s voice, Latino leaders in executive positions serve as role models for our younger Latinos. They can realistically aspire to fill those leadership positions. Latino Leadership Circle participants will inspire many younger Latino Hoosiers. 

  1. Tell us about the Indiana Latino Institute’s mission. 

ILI’s mission is to advance Latino educational attainment and workforce preparedness statewide through advocacy, leadership development, and culturally responsive programming. Since ILI’s inception more than two decades ago, its mission has evolved, placing more emphasis on attainment of college credentials and on pathways to good jobs. In Indiana today, Latinos have the lowest college attainment rate of any major racial/ethnic group. All of us know that raising the Latino community’s educational attainment will increase income and improve many other key indicators. Increasing the number of adults with postsecondary degrees will drive down poverty and unemployment, improve health outcomes, increase life expectancy, social cohesion, home ownership, and more. The Latino community’s potential cannot fully flourish unless we close educational gaps. That is why ILI’s statewide mission is focused on improving the pathways through college completion and good jobs.

  1. Tell us about Marlene – What would you say is the driving force that has led you to where you are today?

Without hesitation, the most influential force that has led me to where I am today are my parents. They supported me seeking an education and they taught me to serve my community. I am an immigrant, born in a small town in the Andes of Peru.  I come from a modest family of 6 children–five brothers and me. I am the youngest in the family. After finishing high school in Peru, women are expected to stay at home, learn to cook, marry young, and have children. The alternative is to move to a nearby city to further your education if you have the means to do so. With the support and blessings of my parents, I went to the capital, Lima, to pursue higher education. Despite the sacrifices and financial challenges, my parents began lighting a pathway for me, instilling in me the importance of a college education, of service to my community, and of dreaming big. I graduated from college in Peru, and, with my parent’s blessing, I came to the United States. Years later, I attended Indiana University and earned my master’s degree in nonprofit management. All my Indiana jobs and volunteer positions have been for the benefit of others. To this day, my parents continue to remind me to serve others. 

  1. Having first-hand experience of being an immigrant, what are the biggest challenges facing Latino communities across the country? 

From my personal experience as a female immigrant, I can say that learning fluent English and finding a professional job were tough. These are barriers that can prevent new immigrants from thriving. They will not thrive if they don’t grasp the language, other skills, and learn to navigate in a new world.  Immigrants are easily overlooked, and their talents are grossly underestimated.  Although I had an Indiana University master’s degree, it was tough for me—as a female with an accent—to establish credibility. With my education and experience working for two members of Congress, I was ready to discuss policy options and to supervise staff. 

Although my journey was tough, many other immigrants have had more challenging journeys. Some flee their countries to find political freedom, to improve their dire economic situations, and for safety from lawlessness. Some have a very hard time learning English, earning credibility, and finding a job. Other than reforming immigration laws, one of the biggest obstacles faced by immigrants is access to higher education, employment opportunities, and learning English. 

  1. In your role, how do you address the unique challenges and opportunities that the Latino community faces particularly in areas like education, healthcare, and economic empowerment?

In my role as ILI’s president and CEO during the past 12 years I have led the transformation of our organization from a focus on mitigating tobacco use in the Latino community to one focused on improving postsecondary attainment, career development opportunities, public policy advocacy, and leadership. The unique challenges faced by Latinos require a multi-pronged strategy.  During my tenure, ILI has expanded its education, internship, advocacy, and leadership programs. For example, 

  • In the Advocacy area, we publish annually the Indiana Latino Legislative Agenda to amplify the Latino voice in policy making bodies. We raised grant funds to create a public policy advocate position and hold an annual event for General Assembly leaders to comment on issues important to Latino Hoosiers. In 2023 we were a key player in shaping the conversation around automatic enrollment for eligible low-income students in the state’s 21st Century Scholars Program.
  • In Education, we formed the Indiana Latino Higher Education Consortium to increase Latino enrollment and degree completion. More than 40 colleges signed the MOU promising to enroll and graduate more Latinos. We secured more than $17 million in scholarship commitments from those institutions for talented Indiana Latino students. 
  • In the area of Workforce Preparation, we expanded ILI’s internship program for Latino college students, with almost 100 Latinos expected to be placed this year in corporate, public, and non-profit sector positions.
  • In College Access, we expanded the ILI Indiana Latino Education Summit to motivate and provide college admissions and financial aid information to high school students. We now hold the summits in northern, central, and southern Indiana, with more than 5,000 Latino high schools participating in 2023. In addition, we expanded our College Coaching program for high school students in the three regions in Indiana.
  • And, we organized such commemoration events as the Hispanic Heritage Month Annual Luncheon, and the celebratory video presentation in Indianapolis’ Monument Circle. We celebrate the vibrant and diverse cultures and contributions of Latinos in America.
  1. Economic empowerment is a vital aspect of community development. How does ILI support entrepreneurship and economic initiatives within the Latino population in Indiana?

Economic empowerment is important for Indiana’s Latino community to thrive. It is a complex issue, with ILI focusing on increasing educational attainment, and on improving pathways to good jobs. ILI has a robust set of programs to improve the college going rates of Latino high school graduates, to help improve college graduation outcomes, and to place more Latinos on paths to good jobs. Other aspects of economic empowerment, such as small business development and home ownership, are addressed by other organizations. Latinos play a major role in fueling the economic growth of America.

  1. In advocating for the Latino community, what strategies has the Institute employed to raise awareness and foster understanding about the diverse needs and contributions of this community among the broader public?

Although the Latino population has grown exponentially in the past 20 years, the community lacks leaders in the policy, corporate, and non-profit sectors. ILI raises the community’s visibility and amplifies their voice by participating in policy making, building partnerships, organizing events, leveraging social and traditional media, and more. Reaching back to my Congressional office working experience, I recognize the importance of a vibrant voice to shape public policy and to foster cultural inclusion and understanding. ILI now has an Advocacy strategy to highlight issues and solutions important to the community and guide systemic change. I am often called by the media and elected officials to speak on the record and in legislative committees. Many corporate, government, and non-profit boards have asked me to serve or recommend other Latinos. We started a rigorous leadership training program for mid career Latinos—ILI Leadership Circle—to expand the pool of available candidates for all sectors. For example, to introduce the Leadership Circle participants and raise their visibility, ILI publishes a full-page ad in the Indianapolis Business Journal with their photos.  

To foster inclusion, ILI celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with several activities, including an awards luncheon recognizing the accomplishments and contributions of Latino Hoosiers. In addition to the awards that they receive at the event, we also publish their names and accomplishments in social and legacy media. If we raise the visibility of Latinos contributing to improvements in our state, our entire community wins.

  1. Do you think executives have a responsibility to pour back into the community? Why?

Yes, As many executives had their own paths paved by the sacrifices of others, I strongly believe that executives and corporations need to “give back” to the community. That can be done in many ways; financially of course, but also with their volunteer time. In addition to serving on several boards and commissions, mentor young people, especially those who are on tough pathways faced with obstacles.

  1. Collaboration is often key to achieving impactful results. Can you highlight some successful collaborations or partnerships that the Institute has engaged in to address the needs of the Latino community in Indiana?

During my tenure, ILI has established new and cultivated deeper partnerships with key organizations to address systemic issues. In education, for example, Latino high-school graduates during the past ten years are attending college at the lowest rate of any racial and ethnic group. ILI is collaborating with Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education (ICHE) and more than 40 Indiana colleges. ICHE Commissioner Lowery named me to coordinate the Commission’s community organizations council, leading to a major change in the state’s largest college financial aid program. ILI formed the Latino Higher Education Consortium with more than 40 Indiana institutions signing memoranda of understanding aspiring to recruit and graduate more Latinos. As a Central Indiana Corporate Partnership report found that Latinos are disproportionately the most underemployed racial/ethnic group in the state, ILI has been building relationships with employers and has strengthened pathways to good jobs. In 2023, for example, ILI placed more than 100 talented Latino college students in paid internships.  

  1. Health disparities have been a significant concern, especially post-pandemic. How does the ILI address healthcare challenges within the Latino community and promote overall well-being?

Health disparities remain in post-pandemic Indiana, and ILI is now addressing those by increasing educational attainment. ILI was very active during the pandemic, directly reaching Latino Hoosiers with critical prevention and treatment information and working with health providers to reach the community. Originally founded to mitigate Latino tobacco use, ILI is now also focusing on raising educational attainment, training the workforce, guiding policy, and developing leaders. We know that college graduates are more likely to live longer, have better health, and qualify for health insurance offered by an employer. By improving the Latino community’s educational attainment, the health disparities will begin to close.

  1. As a woman of color who has worked in various positions, what lessons have you learned that have helped you excel in all the positions you’ve held?

As a Latina immigrant, I have worked hard and learned many lessons from the challenges I have encountered. “Work hard”, “Pursue your passion” and “persevere” (GRIT) are three pieces of advice that I give. One important lesson that also helped me excel is recognizing that most people share basic values. I believe that most people are compassionate, but sometimes it takes more than one conversation to bring out their compassionate spirit.  Earlier this year, for example, a leading Indianapolis foundation offered ILI a grant to address education gaps. Although Latino Hoosiers are the largest population of color in our K-12 schools, the grant’s size was proportionally smaller than the grants to other organizations providing services to other populations. I was grateful for the grant, but I contacted the foundation with more data and a request to increase the grant size. The foundation staff members have compassion and will help our community succeed. Although I was nervous that my ask for more money may sever the relationship, I was pleasantly surprised that the additional amount was approved by the foundation’s board. We work hard, and we don’t give up; but sometimes it takes multiple interactions to get additional assistance.      

  1. Who has been a role model or mentor to you?

Complementing my parents’ influence, I have had several role models and mentors that helped me in my journey. If I have to select one person who influenced my career at a critical point, that person is the late Congresswoman Julia Carson. Two decades ago, I was an inexperienced young woman, an immigrant with a heavy accent, who had a business undergraduate degree. I was working in a local hospital but eager to work in a financial institution. I applied for a job at a financial institution, but I was not hired. When I was down, Congresswoman Julia Carson took a chance on me by offering me a job. As a mentor, she showed me that women can lead an important office and take on national, state, and local policy issues. When Congresswoman Carson hired me, I was the first Latina in Indiana’s Congressional delegation staff. I will never forget her help, and her example has led me to take a chance on many other young people looking for opportunities. We have a responsibility to bring up others behind us.

  1. What book can always be found on your bookshelf?

The bible. Especially during stressful moments, I can find a passage that will give me strength.  “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart.”

  1. What song can be found on your playlist at any given time? 

“You raise me up” – 

  1. Outside of leading an impactful organization, where do you enjoy spending time?

Although I really enjoy working at ILI, my priorities are God and my family. God has blessed me in many ways and lights my way each day. Sunday services always recharge my strength. I am so grateful for my supportive husband, Jesse, and our daughter, Bridget, who works for the United Nations Foundation in Washington, DC. I enjoyed spending time with them and my brother’s family. Zoom calls with my family in Peru.  During my free time, I enjoy volunteering, walking, and visiting special bookstores. 

Marlene Dotson
President & CEO at ILI

Marlene joined ILI in 2011 as President & CEO, and has since rebranded the organization, led the expansion of existing health and education programming, and added leadership and advocacy as focus areas.  Prior to this work, Marlene served as President & CEO of the National Latino Tobacco Control Network (NLTCN) and spent more than a decade as the Immigrant Affairs Liaison for Indiana’s Seventh Congressional District.

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