Bowling for Hispanic Voters: Juan Sepulveda (Kansas & Queens '85)

Fawn Johnson
National Journal Daily
Washington, D.C.

It all started with bowling.

Juan Sepulveda has a long title—director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics—but his job hasn’t changed much from what it was 20 years ago. Now, as then, he wants people to bowl together for the good of the country.

“More Americans are bowling today than ever, and they all bowl alone. They don’t bowl with a work team or a union team,” said Sepulveda, echoing research from Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who went on to write a national bestseller, Bowling Alone, on the country’s social structures (or lack thereof).

In the early 1990s, Sepulveda was part of a group that was inspired by Putnam’s observations and banded together to form a national coalition dedicated to “building social capital.” The group housed some heavy hitters, including Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, all-around political handsome-man George Stephanopoulos, and “a really tall, skinny guy from Chicago named Barack Obama,” Sepulveda said.

When Sepulveda met Obama, he was working on a project to pull young black men into civic activity, starting them with the simple act of voting. That goal hasn’t changed in two decades. Spurring disenfranchised groups to act arguably earned Obama the presidency, and Sepulveda is charged with doing the same thing for the White House office he now runs.

The Hispanic education initiative, created in the Bush administration, was a sleepy operation when Sepulveda took it over. “It was pretty obvious that only a handful of folks really knew this office existed,” he said. Both Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan charged Sepulveda with turning it upside down. “They said, ‘Look, Juan, we’re really trying to figure out what this office has done in the past.’ … They were very clear about saying, ‘We don’t want to do symbolic stuff. Let’s just shut it down, or let’s do it right.’ ”

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