In the late summer of 2000, Roberto Suro of The Washington Post took a call that changed his life – and perhaps the lives of many Hispanics across the nation.
The Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts was calling to propose the foundation of a Hispanic-focused think tank. The discussion centered on a prevailing sense that there was a vacuum with regard to timely, nonpartisan information on the Latino population, Mr. Suro recalls. "We had a perception that a lot of good work was done by academics, but was slow to reach the public and was in a form not designed for easy use by policy-makers or the public. Also, a lot of good work came from policy groups," he says. "But there was space for the kind of work produced by nonpartisan think tanks in Washington for more enlightened policy-making and media coverage."
When Mr. Suro offered to head the think tank, Don Kimelman signed him up. Mr. Kimelman, director of the Venture Fund at Pew Charitable Trusts, oversees new and experimental projects by funding established nonprofit organizations. "At some point, we asked who would be an appropriate nonprofit to handle this," Mr. Kimelman says. "We wanted one that would add value, not just an operational partner. Also, we thought it would be great to have an academic partner, and one based in Los Angeles." Eventually, Pew gave the project to the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communication.
Today, the Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) works "to improve understanding of the diverse Hispanic population in the United States and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the nation." Specifically, the PHC produces nonpartisan research on U.S. Hispanic issues. Mr. Suro serves as PHC's director.
The organization's research agenda blends analyses of government data with original opinion surveys and data compilation (see accompanying article, "A Year in the Life of a Think Tank"). Mr. Suro works with an advisory board of distinguished academics and former federal officials. He also tracks incoming calls from his major audiences – policy-makers and journalists – who request research.
PHC, which is based in Washington, D.C., also monitors the congressional calendar to anticipate information needs for public policy discussion. For instance, in advance of a bill to re-fund minority outreach programs in higher education last year, the PHC undertook a study on how Hispanics have fared in college. The September 2002 report revealed that although many Hispanics enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, a large percentage didn't graduate.
"Until then, the focus was on recruiting and admissions," Mr. Suro says. "But the research showed retention was a significant issue. It caused a lot of discussion, and it's an example of how research can put an issue on the table. How [the issue] is resolved is what policy-makers and advocacy groups debate. Our job is to present it."
Already PHC has established its nonpartisan role in think-tank circles. "Roberto Suro has reached out to all the Hispanic organizations, saying PHC is not a Hispanic organization and he's not a Hispanic [advocacy] leader," says Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza. "They only do research, but their research is excellent." Ms. Navarette also compliments PHC for soliciting input from organizations and the community when selecting research topics.
Sergio Bendixen, CEO of the Florida-based polling firm Bendixen & Associates and a member of the PHC advisory committee, likens the current state of opinion data in the Hispanic market to a desert. "You have my firm, the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, and a couple major universities – the University of Texas at Austin and Notre Dame – with large Hispanic studies departments," he says. "But they have limited budgets and produce limited results. Pew Hispanic Center has had tremendous success at getting information in a timely manner and giving it national media coverage."
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