Marco Davis represents a new generation of Latino leadership in the country, running one of the premier groups in the nation’s capital as president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). The institute is the nonprofit arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and dedicated to leadership development, primarily among young Latinos. While CHCI was founded in 1978 by members of Congress, the groups collaborate but are separate entities.
“Our mission is to develop the next generation of Latino leaders, and we bring together thought leaders from the public, private, and non-profit sector to discuss issues of concern to the Hispanic community in the U.S., most notably focusing on solutions to those issues and challenges. (And) we place interns and fellows in congressional offices,” as part of the organization’s mission to actually build a pipeline of people who are working on Capitol Hill,” Marco Davis said, adding, “We’ve now grown over the 43 years to where now we’re a full-fledged nonprofit organization separate from the (Congressional Hispanic) caucus, although we do have members of Congress who sit on our board of directors, and on our advisory councils, and we still work closely with the members of the caucus and other members of Congress.”
Davis, a former Obama administration official, grew up in the New York City area as the son of a Jamaican father and Mexican mother, and is a graduate of Yale University. He brings more than two decades of public policy and community service experience as CHCI’s sixth president and describes how he felt when he was first approached for the top CHCI job.
Marco Davis is one of the few Afro Latinos in a national leadership role and not only considers the topic of race and equity — including discrimination within the community — personally important, but also one that requires greater attention.
“I wasn’t familiar with the concept of Afro Latino until I was an adult. I grew up considering myself black and Latino but those were separate. Afro Latino was something I was so unaware of that I thought my blackness was completely different and separate from my Latino-ness. No one acknowledged that segment of the community. It was here in D.C. when I encountered people who talked about Afro Latinos and that there was a large population and that it was invisible within the Latino community. Folks now reach out to ask to share my perspective and thoughts on race relations in the Latino community and on the Afro Latino segment in our society. And (CHCI) programs include discussions on race relations – when we look at panels we have to look at the makeup of our panels and make every effort to make sure the panels are not just of people who look like of European descent,” he said.
At first he wasn’t interested in the job.
“A group of friends reached out to me and I actually said no, that I wasn’t interested,” he chuckled. I was happy with my job at the time; the (CHCI) organization seemed very daunting and complex; I also thought I wouldn’t get the role – I wasn’t a CEO before and I thought the organization, given its history and prestige, would want someone with more executive experience. My focus has been on working with the Latino community, or first generation, or young people, or people of color, or low-income people. Leadership development was a key theme going back to my earliest jobs. My friends persuaded me. We think you should go for it. We’ll advocate for you and support you. I agreed to apply and even then I honestly and sincerely believed that I would apply for this position but I will not be selected,” Marco Davis said. “But in the course of the conversations in the selection process, I noticed that I wouldn’t get stuck. I found that I had answers to what a CEO would do. And I found myself becoming more interested and excited about the role and motivated to take on the challenge.”
What does he tell young Latinos and Latinas about aspiring — and actually applying to positions they, like him, may at first be hesitant to take on? Just go for it, he said.
“It’s self-restriction and holding back thinking we’re not ready until we are more than ready. We might as well jump in and take a chance. It’s not a level playing field and we’re only going for things when other people have already attempted it,” he said.
Marco Davis became CEO and president just eight months before the COVID pandemic.
“Everything was turned upside down (because of the pandemic),” he said.
One of CHCI’s key gatherings is its annual conference held every September in Washington, D.C., during Hispanic Heritage Month, and CHCI learned to pivot, switching their annual in-person conference to remote during the height of the pandemic. The silver lining there was that more than 4,000 signed on to the virtual conference in 2020, a number that was surpassed in subsequent conferences. While the gathering has gone back to in-person, panels are available online for those who aren’t able to travel to the nation’s capital, and Davis said CHCI will continue with this type of hybrid model going forward after observing that a significant group of people have been interested in participating but unable to do so in person.
He added that one of the biggest surprises in taking the CHCI helm was a whole new meaning to the word “access.”
“By simply getting the role and the title afforded me access to meetings, to information, to relationships that hadn’t been available to me before. I was welcomed into the community of leaders and conversations such as how best to run our organizations and other issues CEOs discuss,” he said.
CHCI is part of Proyecto 20%, a coalition of Latino groups advocating for a greater number of Latinos and Latinos in senior-level positions in the Biden administration. The 20% comes from advocating for having the same percentage of Latino hires as its percentage in the U.S. population.
“They’re (the Biden administration) is not hiring as many people as we would like but they’re making a concerted effort. I hadn’t heard of that level of access before and they’re doing better than previous administrations. We’re not where we need to be but compared to previous administrations, we’re doing better,” he said.
Davis emphasized that there is absolutely no way that he would be able to do any of the work CHCI does all alone, and lauds his staff.
“I have the easiest job because all I have to do is find good people and they do the hard work and do the heavy lifting. There is so much to do and they do all of it. Any success I have is a result of the amazing team I have,” he said.
Since CHCI is a completely separate entity from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, it is not embroiled in a current controversy surrounding the caucus and its recently elected leader, Rep. Nannette Barragán. The California Democrat has a reputation for being a difficult boss (her office ranks third for highest office turnover), and recently fired the CHC’s executive director – this after an exodus of employees that had left the caucus without a staff for the first time ever and only a month since Barragán took over for a two-year term. Caucus members recently held a virtual meeting to talk about possibly replacing Barragán but ended up deciding to keep her in the role with some saying “it wouldn’t look good” to replace a Latina since so few have been caucus chairs and the next likely in line is a Latino. The last time a Latina was caucus chair was in 2017, with then-New Mexico congresswoman Michelle Luján Grisham. On the caucus call was the House’s top Latino Democrat, Pete Aguilar of California, who observers say was there to “help calm tensions.” The whole brouhaha of the firing and staff exodus first came to light on an Instagram account popular with congressional staffers, Dear White Staffers. The caucus has not commented on the matter.