Civil Society for the 21st Century
Civil Society for the 21st Century
This article series, presented in partnership with Independent Sector, explores important issues of civil society in the 21st century: its origins and evolution, its boundaries and blind spots, its values and variety, its obstacles and opportunities.

As I think about the role, self-identity, and ties that will bind together civil society in the future, I’m compelled to place these concepts in historical context—perhaps because UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Our organization’s founders had a strong belief in and a deep commitment to civil society as the principal vehicle for opening doors of opportunity that had long been closed to the Latino community.

When Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the energy and vitality of our nation’s civil sector in Democracy in America in 1835, he was of course referencing only a part of what our society was or would become. It wasn’t until 1848, after the Mexican-American War, that today’s states of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Colorado, and a piece of Wyoming became part of the United States, through conquest. The Emancipation Proclamation, in which Abraham Lincoln freed all slaves in the South, wasn’t signed until 1863, around the time that the first Asians began to enter. Puerto Ricans and Cubans became subject to US jurisdiction after the Spanish-American War in 1898. Like the indigenous peoples of North America, in different ways and to varying degrees, all of these people and their descendants were largely excluded from civil society, because they were excluded from mainstream society itself.

This was a result of rampant discrimination and segregation. It was also because, despite gaping needs, these communities were neglected and ignored by the government and by private philanthropy. As a result, these communities ended up having to establish parallel civic societies.

For example, Latino communities prior to World War II created hundreds of “mutual aid” societies, known as “mutualistas,” that provided a gathering place for the community, in addition to insurance, loans, and legal aid. In the early 20th century, there were an estimated 100 mutualistas in Texas alone. In Tampa, Florida’s Ybor City neighborhood, mutual aid societies helped primarily Cuban workers in the cigar industry obtain life insurance and unemployment benefits. They also built hospitals and pharmacies to serve the community. La Liga Puertorriqueña e Hispana in New York City was a city-wide aid society that both focused on protecting the economic interests of the community and helped Puerto Ricans' entry into the political process.

Yet, a little over 50 years ago, community activist Hermán Gallegos and academics Dr. Ernesto Galarza and Dr. Julián Samora, the founders of UnidosUS, recognized that this parallel Latino civil society not only was deeply inadequate and unsustainable, but also ran contrary to the values and promise of what American civil society should and could be. In short, a civil society that excludes will ultimately undermine that society. For a civil society to be effective, sustainable, and worthy, it must include all who reside in that society. That is what binds the many organizations that make up the nonprofit sector, with its plethora of missions and constituencies: a belief that civil society should be a force for unity and serve all those who need it. 

Galarza, Gallegos, and Samora urged the creation of an organization rooted in the Latino community but able to work within mainstream civil society. The Southwest Council of La Raza, then the National Council of La Raza, and now UnidosUS, served as a catalyst for the hundreds of other organizations that served the Latino community across the country, and an important part of that work was helping them connect with institutions in mainstream civil society.

But it is important to keep in mind that the renaissance of Latino community-based organizations that came out of the Hispanic civil rights movement of the 1960s would not have been possible without three major factors:

  • Civil rights activism. The activism of farmworkers in California and other states in the Southwest, and the movement among Puerto Ricans to organize against inadequate schools, housing, and economic opportunity in Chicago and in the Northeast, created cadres of activists across the country. And rising interest in self-empowerment led these groups to build organizations to institutionalize and sustain their work.
  • Government engagement. For the first time in American history, the federal government proactively engaged the Latino community. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s experience teaching in a “Mexican school” in Cotulla, Texas, shaped his perspectives on poverty and inequality, and led to the first presidential administration to recognize and invest in the Latino community through efforts such as the War on Poverty. Government funding was crucial in the creation and sustenance of Latino community-based organizations.
  • Philanthropic investment. For the first time during this era, major philanthropic foundations began focusing and investing in the Latino community. The Ford Foundation, for example, was instrumental in the creation of UnidosUS, as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now Latino Justice).

Unfortunately, in the 50 years since, neither the government nor the philanthropic sector has sustained this level of engagement. Hispanics therefore have had to rely on nonprofits that are doing the work that government, corporations, and foundations are not. The Latino community has grown sixfold since 1968, now representing 17 percent of the nation's population and half of all poor children of color. Yet foundation support for the community is less than 2 percent of total funding, according to the most recent data, and it is unlikely that unregulated market forces will automatically close opportunity gaps.

Latino nonprofits have played an important role in closing educational and health gaps that exist between the Latino community and others, and they are on the frontlines in providing access to employment opportunities, housing counseling, and financial education. They’re also the most important engine of immigrant integration today; more than 75 percent of UnidosUS’s affiliates provide English classes, legal help with the naturalization process, and/or voter registration. The question is, as it was last century, whether once again an overreliance on what is now a de facto parallel Latino civil society is sustainable or desirable, especially for American civil society at large.

Nonetheless, there are signs that American civil society is ready to fully integrate all communities under its umbrella. The selection of my predecessor Raúl Yzaguirre two decades ago as the first Latino chair of Independent Sector—an organization charged with maintaining the health of American civil society—was an important milestone of inclusion. I was honored to serve on the Independent Sector board a decade ago, where I saw firsthand how organizations and foundations with diverse missions and perspectives come together to protect the vitality of our sector. Everything in my experience suggests that civil society has the tools, institutions, and goodwill to successfully address the shared challenges Dan Cardinali outlined in his introductory essay for this series—but only if we reflect the interests, perspectives, expertise, and clout of all of those whose interests our sector purports to represent.

As my organization’s story exemplifies, civil society will play an important role—perhaps the most important role—in shaping our community's and our country's future. In a nation increasingly polarized along geographic, partisan, religious, class, and racial lines, there is no more urgent mission for our sector to promote stronger ties among all Americans, across all of the largely artificial barriers that threaten to divide us. But it must be said that, overall, the sector's record of inclusion of Latinos and other racial and ethnic minorities is disappointing at best. We cannot lead our country toward a more inclusive future if our own sector reflects the vestiges of an exclusionary past.

Latinos and other people of color have always believed in civil society’s ability to take “private action for the public good.” It is now time for American civil society to fully believe in them.

This series aims to spark a conversation and provide a place where diverse thinkers can propose, discuss, and iterate their understanding of the role that civil society plays in 21st century America. We encourage all readers to actively participate in discussion in the comments areas. SSIR and Independent Sector will also be accepting a limited number of crowdsourced articles to include in the series. These articles should be standalone pieces that add new perspective to the topics presented, rather than direct responses to published articles. If you are interested in submitting, please refer to the SSIR Online section of our submission guidelines here.

Listen to Independent Sector's Civil Renewal podcast. In the third episode, Independent Sector CEO Dan Cardinali speaks with Marc Freedman, president and CEO of, to reflect on Murguía’s piece.