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CURRENT ISSUE:  May 9, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 9Oakland, CA

Students learn lesson in lobbying

Ivan Cendejas believes undocumented immigrants should have drivers’ licenses. His classmate Erica Baires wants tougher enforcement of truancy laws.

The two eighth graders decided to bring these concerns to their lawmakers, so they recently got on the bus with 40 of their classmates from St. Martin De Porres Middle School in Oakland and travelled to Sacramento. Ivan, Erica and their friends were among 100 individuals from the Oakland Diocese who participated in Catholic Lobby Day, an annual event sponsored by the California Catholic Conference.

The large group included 19 high school students – 15 seniors from Holy Names High in Oakland, plus four students from Carondelet High in Concord — as well as adult parishioners, many from local Just Faith social justice study groups.

Now in its seventh year, Catholic Lobby Day drew over 800 California Catholics who converged upon the state capitol, April 26, to lobby against the passage of an assisted suicide bill and the elimination of programs for the poor and to speak out in favor of health care coverage for all California children, food safety, and streamlined immigration assistance.

St. Martin De Porres’ contingent had the distinction of being the youngest lobbyists in the Oakland group. It was the school’s second trip to Sacramento since February, said Gwen Watson, a Christ the King parishioner in Pleasant Hill. Last winter Watson, a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, was invited by the school’s fourth grade teachers, Franciscan Sister Mary Alice Aston and Mohammed Ali, to introduce kids to the workings of state government, as a part of their study of California history.

Watson boiled down the basics of Catholic social justice teachings for the nine-year olds and gave them their first lesson in effective lobbying. Be polite. Draw up a short list of important talking points in support or against a particular bill, and then make an appointment with your legislator.

Watson then accompanied the class to Sacramento where the kids had the opportunity to practice their new skills. They brought back rave reviews. Their experiences inspired Shondrel Slaughter, the school’s eighth grader teacher, to request a lobby day for the middle school students.

Sister Barbara Dawson, a Religious of the Sacred Heart who serves as school principal and president, liked Slaughter’s suggestion. So Watson returned to give more student trainings.

Lobby Day 2005 turned out to be a day of hands-on learning for the youthful lobbyists all the way around. Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Oakland) arranged for the students to attend a hearing on AB 772, her bill that would provide affordable health insurance for children from birth to age 21.

The class sat in the balcony of a fifth floor hearing room and watched as numerous people testified in favor of the bill. They listened as a Republican legislator asked a couple of tough questions about funding.
Then it was back to the first floor of the Capitol to meet with Chris Lehman, legislative director of research for Senate Pro-Tem leader Don Perata (D-Oakland).

“Just a few hours ago, the seats you are sitting in were filled with newspaper, TV and radio reporters,” Lehman told the students. “They came to talk to Senator Perata about education. Your Senator was telling them that we need to bring California’s education funding up to the national average.”

California presently allots $6,000 per student, but West Virginia gives $8,000, he said.

Lehman added that the Senator had spent so much time speaking with the press that he lost his voice. However, a raspy-voiced Perata dropped by to welcome the students

After his departure, Erica Baires, 13, told Lehman that President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” plan is not working in West Oakland. She told stories of students who roam the streets all day long instead of learning their lessons. She asked if stricter truancy laws could be added to the books. “We are the future, and all of us are going into it together,” she said, worriedly.

Lehman said there were already truancy laws in effect, but that the issue isn’t that simple: “Maybe being picked up by a cop will work. Maybe it won’t. Maybe there is no one to come pick up the kid from juvenile hall. Maybe the kid is in a bad foster care situation,” he said. But he agreed with Erica that keeping kids in class is important.

Darius Maxey spoke in favor of more after school programs like the Leo Center in Oakland. Asked by Lehman how they should be funded, Darius thought that having bake sales might be the way to go. But Lehman suggested that safe places for kids is too important an issue to be funded this way. “Statistics show that crime rates go down among kids between the hours of 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. if you keep them off the streets.”

“This is serious stuff,” he told them. “We should be spending tax dollars on homework centers.” A couple of kids suggested that a good way to pay for after school centers would be to “get more taxes from the rich.”
Ivan Cendejas, 13, expressed his support for drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants. “If they get pulled over now, their cars are impounded and it’s too expensive to get them out,” he said. “If they had licenses, it would help the economy because they’d have to pay for smog tests every two years and get license plates.”

Lehman added that the ability to drive to work also helps the economy. He told Ivan that until 1993, anyone could get a driver’s license. “It wasn’t a citizenship thing at all.” But several governors changed the law since then. Lehman pointed out that Senator Perata has voted in favor of giving licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Later, as Erica, Ivan and Darius boarded their bus they gave Lobby Day an A-plus rating. “Awesome,” exclaimed Ivan.

Their older counterparts at Holy Names and Carondelet also had good things to say.

Mercedes Martin, a 17-year-old senior at Holy Names, said the experience was “powerful. I didn’t know it was so open that people could just walk in and have a conversation with an aide or an assembly member.”

Before Lobby Day, Martin considered freedom of speech “a joke,” given the current Washington political scene. “But if you think of government at the local level, you do have a lot more power.”
Holy Names senior Kandis Stubblefield, 17, now feels inspired to maybe do something in politics after she graduates from college. “I’m okay with debating issues,” she said. But Stubblefield added that the prospect of fighting with fellow legislators on the other side of the aisle could be a bit scary.

Allison Dailey, 18, a Carondelet senior, said the Lobby Day experience was “informative and enlightening.” Trey Lawrence, a 15-year-old freshman, expressed excitement at seeing “how passionately people felt towards human rights and values.”

The day began with a liturgy in downtown Sacramento’s Crest Theater, presided over by Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, president of the California Catholic Conference.

Father Gene Boyle, a mentor of the late Cesar Chavez and long-time social activist, gave the homily. Father Boyle reminded the group that Jesus was a member of Palestine’s middle class who took up the cause of the poor out of compassion. “He identified with the wounded stranger… and his example awakened compassion among the disciples.” Today the wounded stranger includes the hungry, the discriminated against, those who thirst, the disenfranchised, the homeless, the imprisoned and the sick, he said.

Our contemporary society isn’t radically different from Jesus’ day, Father Boyle noted. Social sin was embedded in the structures then just as it is embedded into our structures today. Some of its contemporary forms are abortion, stem-cell research using human embryos, and xenophobia –“the dark side of the immigration issue,” he said.

The priest urged his listeners to emulate Jesus’ compassion for the needy. “Faith in Jesus without compassion for the poor is a fraud,” he said.

Andy Hodges, a teacher at Carondelet High School in Concord, walks with one of his students during a Lobby Day demonstration in Sacramento.

Sister Barbara Dawson, principal of Oakland’s St. Martin de Porres School, talks with eighth grader Ivan Cendejas, 13, before he spoke in favor of drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants with one of Sen. Don Perata’s aides.


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