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The RGV Equal Voice Network held a Mesa Comunitaria at Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen on Friday, February, 19, 2016. Photo: Jazmin Francis.

HARLINGEN, RGV – The RGV Equal Voice Network says it has found a much better format for community members to interact with candidates at election time.

Rather than repeat the traditional candidate forum, whereby those seeking office sit on the podium and answer pre-selected questions from the non-profit group, Equal Voice is now hosting mesa comunitarias, or world cafés, as they are sometimes called.

Joseph Cantu
Joseph Cantu

The new format requires candidates to sit in small groups with community members. The chairs of Equal Voice’s various working groups then move around the tables, going through the various issues their committees have focused on.

Open dialogue then follows, with unscripted interaction between the candidates and community members. The protocol follows the ‘stacking’ method whereby a participant is allowed to speak once, but then everyone at the table must have a chance to respond before continuing on.

“I was super impressed with this format. It was much more interactive,” said Joseph Cantu, a candidate for Cameron County Commissioner, Precinct 1. “I am going to recommend it to other communities and other towns. I suggest we see more of these, not only in the Rio Grande Valley but across the United States.”

Cantu participated in Equal Voice’s Mesa Comunitaria at Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen on Friday. Amber Arriaga-Salinas, press officer for RGV Equal Voice, said it was a first-of its kind in the nation. Michael Seifert, network weaver for the group, said the new format is a big improvement on what went before.

Lupita Sanchez
Lupita Sanchez

“We have done candidate forums in the past and with each passing iteration of the forums there has been less and less contact with the candidates,” Seifert said. “At the end of the day it was a frustrating experience for community members who have children, who have jobs, who have things to do. To go to a forum and not have any interaction is dispiriting. The candidates’ responses were canned, there was no depth. It was just, trust me, I am honest, trust me, I am honest.”

RGV Equal Voice tried a similar format with school superintendents last year. That, too, was a great success, Seifert said.

“This format creates a space where you are literally face to face with the candidate. We can say, this is what our people are experiencing. For example, 9-1-1 is not working as it should, or there is no transportation between our neighborhood and the new UTRGV, or we are really worried about the mosquito infestation that is coming in and we do not have a lab to test it,” Seifert said.

“We are really concerned people are not voting and we have got to figure out how to make it easier. Whether you are running for sheriff or county commissioner you live here. It may not be your jurisdiction but we think you need to know about these issues.”

Seifert added: “If you look at the faces at the candidate forums it is, ‘when am I getting out of here.’ On both sides, the candidates and the people. Today it was engaged. It was great to see.”

Among the candidates to participate in Friday’s Mesa Comunitaria were Al Perez, who is running for Hidalgo County Sheriff, Maricela De León Leon, who is running for state Representative in District 40, along with Cantu.

Ramona Casas, a community organizer for ARISE, participated in the Equal Voice event. “With the Mesa Comunitaria we have found we can better educate the candidates on the issues we have in the community. We can tell them – we want you to be accountable if you are elected,” Casas said.

Lupita Sanchez, a community organizer for Proyecto Juan Diego, participated in the Equal Voice event. “Civic engagement is not just about going out to vote once every few years. It is about building communication between the community and those elected,” Sanchez said. “We achieved our goal today, which was to open lines of communication between the community and future leaders. We are empowering our community to go to their offices.”

Sidebar Story: Equal Voice tries to get public service announcements aired on R Communications

HARLINGEN, RGV – At a mesa comunitaria held at Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen on Friday, RGV Equal Voice Network leaders spoke about their frustration with R Communications.

The group said one of their members called a couple of times, emailed and went in person to the R Communications office in McAllen in an attempt to get the media outlet to run their public service announcements on their four Spanish language radio stations and one English language radio station.

Finally, they got an email back from Irene Gamboa saying R Communications would not be running the PSAs because another client is running similar PSAs.

Michael Seifert
Michael Seifert

“Our PSAs are encouraging people to vote in the primary elections. They are particularly directed towards the youth and teachers and colonia residents. Our message is Your Voice is Your Vote,” said Michael Seifert, network weaver for Equal Voice.

“Colonia residents are the invisible ones of the Rio Grande Valley. Because we do not vote we are invisible. You can see 1.5 million in the Valley and if only 100,000 vote that means absolutely nothing. If we increased that ten times then suddenly we are very, very visible.”

Seifert said Televisa and Univision are running Equal Voice’s video PSAs and that Univision AM and RGV Public Radio are running them on the radio. He said Clear Channel says they may put them out on 104.1. “The only ones that have said no for definite is R Communications. We got an email saying no from Irene Gamboa. She said another client was running similar PSAs.”

Ramona Casas, a community organizer for ARISE, said Equal Voice particularly wanted to get its Your Voice is Your Vote message out on La Ley 102.5 FM.

“Perhaps we are new to R Communications. I don’t think they have heard of RGV Equal Voice Network. But, it is their responsibility as a media company to learn about us, to learn about the colonias. We need to challenge them to do something for the community,” Casas said.

A call to R Communications market director Romeo Herrera was not returned at press time.