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The change agent

She's using her own experience to give Latinos a stronger voice in state politics

Giovanna Negretti takes a deep breath, puffs out her cheeks, then releases a long sigh. "OK," she murmurs comfortingly to herself as she stands in the back of a classroom at Suffolk University .

It's minutes before the first session of the four-month Initiative for Diversity in Civic Leadership begins, and Negretti feels the pressure. The organization Negretti leads, Oiste? (Spanish for "Have you heard?" ), joined with MassVOTE and Suffolk University to run this free program, which will train 30 people of color twice a year in subjects including leadership, public policy development, and fund-raising.

Negretti immediately lets the group know that expectations are high. Oiste?, Suffolk University, and MassVOTE will receive $275,000 a year for three years from the Boston Foundation, which in late 2005 began creating the nonpartisan outline for the program with a colloquium of local groups including the Commonwealth Seminar and The Partnership .

About 82 people applied to participate in the initiative; the first class has a waiting list of eight.

"A lot of people are investing a large amount of money in you," says Negretti, 36, "because of the potential you have to change the face of Boston."

The same words could be directed at Oiste? and Negretti. Oiste? was initially founded in 1999 to provide training for Latinos contemplating a run for office. Almost 125 people have taken Oiste?'s class, including Paul Hernandez , who's running for a school committee seat in Worcester; Claudia Chuber , the first Latina elected to Salem's school committee and city council, and Marcos Devers , a former city councilor in Lawrence, who took up Oiste?'s offer last spring to train up to 20 members of his staff as he embarked on a failed bid to unseat State Representative William Lantigua .

But candidates need voters to win elections, so early on Oiste? made a controversial name for itself in the area of voter registration. In 2001, Oiste? successfully sued the town of Lawrence, whose population is 60 percent Latino, to halt a policy that required identification to vote, which discouraged Latinos from going to the polls. Oiste? also battled former House Speaker Thomas Finneran 's push to redistrict political bound a ries in 2002.

"That's what she does quite well," says Angel Bermudez , Boston Foundation's senior director of grantmaking and special projects. "She's quite a strong advocate on those issues."

Last year, as a part of a push to move to a new phase, Oiste? went through a re-assessment. To bring in fresh ideas, it changed all but about three of its board members. A facilitator went to various parts of the state to ask politicians, foundations, and a diverse group of Latinos who were both fans and foes of Oiste?: "What do you think of our organization? Where should we go from here?"

The Latino community's desire to develop more political power inspired Oiste? to compete for the initiative contract. Many also pushed for more active advocacy. To that end, in January Oiste? hired a lobbyist, Willie Rodriguez , who currently works with Oiste?'s five regional offices in Boston, Brockton, Worcester, Lawrence, and Springfield to create local and statewide issues for its members to champion.

As Oiste? matures, so has Negretti as its executive director. In 2005, she earned her master's in public administration from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "She was looking for skills to enhance her effectiveness," says Xavier de Souza Briggs , who taught Negretti in his Negotiations and Collaborative Problem Solving course at Harvard. The education gave her the leadership and coalition - building skills needed to push Oiste?'s issues with more savvy.

"It's our role that we continue to fight the good fight, be in your face, and do the things that we did," Negretti says during an interview at Oiste?'s office in Downtown Crossing. "At the same time, you have to learn about strategy, and learn about how to do things effectively and through collaboration."

Oiste? was inspired by a leadership training event for Latinos that state Senator Jarrett Barrios organized with the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials in 1998. Some attendees wanted to continue the experience on a regular basis. They tapped Negretti to organize Oiste?'s first meeting the following February in Worcester. When Oiste?'s executive director position opened in 2000, Lucia Mayerson-David , a founding member of the group who remains a board member, encouraged Negretti to be among the five people who applied. "She knew how things get done in the state house," says Mayerson-David. "She knew lobbying. She had this knack for leadership."

Negretti also has an aptitude for acting -- she began working in theater at age 10. While visiting her brother, then a student at the University of Bridgeport, she decided to audition for Emerson College's acting program. She earned her degree in performing arts from Emerson in 1993. After graduating, she worked as a legal secretary and volunteered, teaching kids acting, and working as a fund-raiser and board member for Sociedad Latina in Roxbury. The activities brought her to the attention of state Senator Dianne Wilkerson , who hired Negretti as a legislative aide in 1995.

"Through Dianne, I realized the importance of getting people elected because . . . there was hardly any Latino legislative staff," says Negretti. " Or people of color for that matter. . . . That, to me, was quite disconcerting."

The goal of the initiative goes beyond creating future political candidates. The organizers want to develop a pool of people with the skills to work on campaigns, become legislative aides , or obtain political appointments in a state where people of color are underrepresented in government. A February report by University of Massachusetts, Boston's The Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy found that of 163 people holding statewide positions through gubernatorial appointments, including jobs as secretaries of executive offices or department commissioners, only 11 percent are held by people of color. The state's non-white population, the study says, is close to 20 percent.

"This is really a way of ensuring that people have opportunities," says Negretti, who lives in Jamaica Plain with her boyfriend, whose name she didn't wish to divulge. "Not only give them the skills but create the argument, 'Here they are.' So we can't hear . . . 'Oh, I didn't hire them because there weren't any.' "

Over the years, Negretti says, her declarations have made people perceive her as "liberal and very leftist." Oiste? supports progressive issues such as bilingual education and immigration that may not appeal to conservative Latinos.

"When it comes to defending issues or speaking out on those issues, she's very, very strong," says Mayerson-David. "So yes, there are people who probably disagree with her and would like her to disappear because she's so passionate."

To Barrios, Negretti's stance on redistricting showed character. "It would have been easier for her to nod, nod, wink, wink , and go along with the legislators that didn't want this," says Barrios, "to preserve her relationships [with] Boston legislators in communities that represent large numbers of Latinos. But . . . she was outspoken, she was clear , and she was critical of those legislators . . . which in the short term impaired relationships but in the long term shows she has both backbone and values that I have a lot of respect for." In January , Finneran pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges related to the redistricting lawsuit.

Negretti developed that backbone in Puerto Rico, where her great-grandfather moved to from Lake Como, Italy, to work on the commercial train system. She lived in Vieques until the age of 8, when her father, a doctor, divorced her mother. The breakup dramatically changed the fortunes of Negretti, her mother , and two younger brothers.

"We went from well - off to nothing," says Negretti. "That was quite harsh."

The family moved to the working - class neighborhood of Old San Juan in the capital. Their struggles there inspired Negretti's passion for social justice.

"There was such anger," says Negretti. "That motivated me in a good way, I guess. I don't want anybody to go through what we went through."