Somos el Futuro is a critical platform for legislators to gather, discuss timely issues that impact our community and develop plans for the future.

Last year, I had the honor of joining a women’s empowerment panel, moderated by Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, along with Mecca Santana, New York State’s chief diversity officer; Julissa Gutierrez, the northeast director of civic engagement at NALEO; and Monika Mantilla, CEO of Altura Capital. The forum allowed these women—all leaders in their own right—to share their life experiences climbing the career ladder.

One takeaway from this conversation was that, regardless of the diverse accomplishments of many in the audience and on the panel, Latinas and women of color, including myself, encountered similar social and financial obstacles throughout our lives. All of us found that Latinas are never handed opportunity; we must carve it out for ourselves. This includes not only pursuing our own personal dreams, but lending a hand to others in our community so they may also climb the ladder of opportunity.

Whether it is working to lift women and children out of poverty, ending violence against women, mentoring young women to attend college, or helping an entrepreneur finance her small business dream, women are on the forefront of positive change in the larger Hispanic community.

If more Latinas were politically engaged and elected to office, we could shoulder and push an equitable women’s agenda. Wage discrimination between the genders is well documented. Women still earn 77 cents on the dollar to men, while Latinas earn just 55 cents, compared to white, male workers. That is why increasing access to higher learning, economic opportunities and quality childcare and education for our children is vital. Career and workforce opportunities are essential to improve women’s living standards, the economy and the social fabric of communities. SOMOS is a platform to promote job creation, self-sufficiency and strengthen the economy.

Somos El Futuro is more than just a state-level discussion on Latino issues; it reconnects Boricuas living on the mainland to the issues affecting Puerto Rico residents. With its well-educated, bilingual population, strategic Caribbean location, and its significance as a gateway to the U.S. and neighboring countries, Puerto Rico has the ingredients to be an important part of the global economy. Yet, for decades, economic disinvestment hindered the island’s competitive edge.

For these reasons, I am encouraged there will be a presentation highlighting the island’s trade hub potential. Another panel will discuss the community and water channel of Caño Martín Peña, a community adjacent to San Juan’s main financial district. This area is home to approximately 25,000 people living in substandard housing conditions whose children are exposed to polluted waters and toxic environmental conditions. SOMOS is the right platform to discuss how to secure resources to execute the proposed remedial action plan.

As the Puerto Rican and Latino population grows, so does its potential to become one of the electorate’s most influential segments. With 28 million Latinos eligible to vote by the time of the 2016 presidential election, Hispanic voters are expected to be instrumental in future national elections. We must use this growing political strength to further empower our communities, create economic opportunity and continue the march toward equality and justice. If you feel the same commitment I do and are driven by the same sense of duty to advance this cause, then now is the time to make your voice heard. SOMOS is a powerful platform to express these passions, cultivate new leadership and exchange the ideas that will shape our future. I invite you to join the discussion.

Nydia Velázquez represents New York’s 7th congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives.