Solutions in Education

High Schoolers Learn to Shape Policy

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By Lillian Mongeau

Brian Gonzalez (far right), his students and the American Heart Association team gather on the steps of the Capitol Building in Sacramento after their Legislative Day of Action. Photo: Lillian Mongeau

It’s a hot afternoon in March in South Central Los Angeles. Luckily, there’s air conditioning inside Ánimo Ralph Bunche Charter High School where the honors history class has a guest speaker: Jacqueline Hernandez works on government relations for the American Heart Association. She’s here as part of the Association’s Youth In Action program. Her goal is to teach kids how to push for changes in their communities by speaking directly to politicians. She uses health issues as her example.

“They don’t really think about tobacco prevention and policy work and how it’s really implemented and how that affects them,” she says.

History teacher Brian Gonzalez says his students can take that lesson and apply it to other issues.

“For them to feel that they can not only formulate and develop a plan for change, but go through all the different steps, it gives them that sense of empowerment… That they can say wow, I’ve been there, I can do it again and it’s not that hard,” Gonzalez says.

The Heart Association offers Youth In Action to students at two California high schools. Those students are about to travel to Sacramento to explain to elected officials why it’s important to support “heart healthy” legislation. Student Alex Venosa says he is excited to promote Proposition 29, which would levy a new tax on cigarettes meant to fund programs that would help people quit smoking.

“My uncle is a smoker. And I told him, ‘what if you were to get free help?’” Alex says.  “And he’s like,  ‘I guess I would take it.’ And that’s what I really wanted because a lot of my uncles are very heavy smokers and I just don’t want to see them pass away due to smoking.”

Kids go to Sacramento to talk with lawmakers
Alex is a big kid with a bright smile. He says he’s more nervous about getting on a plane for the first time than he is about talking to lawmakers.

“I’m pretty excited. I want to let them get my message, you know? I want them to go ahead and be on our side and support us so it can be able to pass. ”

A week later Alex and his team, one other student, two volunteers, a team leader and teacher Gonzalez, are on the third floor of the Capitol Building looking for Senator Tom Berryhill’s office. Alex has two meetings under his belt and his optimism hasn’t flagged. The group leader is Ray Durazo of the American Heart Association. He starts explaining Senator Berryhill’s politics as the group dodges the crowds in the hallway. Amidst capitol crowds, Durazo explains Berryhill’s politics mean that he might not be sympathetic to Proposition 29.

“Now I’m scared,” Alex says. “I don’t know. I’m scared now. I did so good in the first one. Right now, he goes against it…it’s going to hurt.”

Presenting their case on health related legislation
There are three pieces of health related legislation the group is presents to Berryhill. They take turns telling the senator about the different topics. Arlene Zargoza, the other student in the group, is in charge of talking about a bill that would require hospitals to check infants for heart defects.

She looks nervous. She glances at the group leader and he takes up where she left off. Alex does not look nervous. He’s presenting Prop 29 and when it’s his turn, he launches in full force.

“Okay, so Prop 29 is basically something where we want to raise the taxes on tobacco from $0.87 where it sits at currently to $1.87,” he says. “Now a dollar may not seem much, but if you think about it, every time you add a pack of tobacco that’s $1 you’re adding that you wouldn’t normally waste.”

Alex’s spiel goes on for a good four minutes. He cites dollar amounts and health statistics from memory. Then he wraps it up with the story about his uncle.
Berryhill listens politely, but he says: “As far as Prop 29, I’m not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole in here because it is a campaign issue and with my profile, we can’t talk about that in these offices. ”

A dose of reality
Despite his blunt refusal to discuss Prop 29, Berryhill encourages the students to come back.

” I would like to say that what you kids are doing is important, because education of all these legislators up here, that’s how you get things done up here,” Berryhill says.

Learning how things “get done” in Sacramento is exactly what the program’s leaders are hoping for. At the end of the day, Alex and Arlene’s teacher asks them if the want to talk to the assembly member from their district. They do. Especially Arlene.

“All the, like, littering around our school?” she says. “Because even like around our block, there’s a whole bunch of mattresses and just junk that really needs to go because it’s not a good image for our school.”

” Graffiti?” Alex says. “Because it just continues on to the stereotype of South Central being a bad place to live in.”

A staffer named Luis Quinonez is happy to sit with them. To everyone’s surprise, it is Arlene who starts off the conversation.

” Good afternoon. My name is Arlene Zargoza,” she says. “I’m from South Central Los Angeles. There’s a lot of littering around our school and there’s more than like minor trash, there’s mattresses and used sofas.”

Arlene and Alex also explain that they’ve held several clean-up days, only to have the junk show up again. Quinonez promises to be in touch and he takes down their emails. He also gives each of them a business card. Later, outside the Capitol Building, Arlene and Alex are glowing.

“If you have something that you want to change about your city or wherever you’re from, you should try to make a change for it,” Alex says. “Go ahead and talk to your senators, to your legislators.”

Arlene adds: “And I know that if you need to advocate for something than you should advocate for it because people will hear you out.” And, she says she learned, “that I’m not so shy as I thought I was. ”

I ask the kids if they think they’ll here back about their complaints about junk in their neighborhood. They think so.

” I’m hoping he might actually contact me before I get tired of waiting and actually do something about it and contact him myself,” Alex says.

That persistence may turn out to be the most important lesson of all. It’s been over a month and no one has contacted Alex or Arlene yet. And the junk is still there. And Prop 29 is currently behind in a preliminary vote count.

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