HARLINGEN, Texas – Grassroots organizations in South Texas, known as the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, say they have 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 nonprofit groups, the network organization is now hosting mesa comunitarias, or world cafés, as they are sometimes called.
The new format requires candidates to sit in small groups with community members. The chairs of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network’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.
“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 on Feb. 19 in the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network’s Mesa Comunitaria at Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen. Amber Arriaga-Salinas, the press officer for the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said it was a first-of-its kind in the nation. Michael Seifert, a community organizer for the group, said the new format is a big improvement on what went before.
“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.’”
The Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network 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 [The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley], 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 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 who participated in the Feb. 19 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 Support Center, participated in the 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, also participated in the 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.”
Steve Taylor is editor and publisher of the Rio Grande Guardian, where this article first appeared. The news outlet is based in McAllen, Texas. The article is reprinted with permission. Taylor can be reached at email@example.com. Michael Seifert also writes opinion essays for Equal Voice News. About the top image: Members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network hold a world cafe on Feb. 19 with candidates at the Spirit of Praise Church in Harlingen, Texas. Photo by Jazmin Francis.