A contender for Southwest Washington’s 3rd District House seat in Congress surveyed a room full of Latino students Friday and described huge changes since his own youth in Clark County.
Loss of access to middle-class jobs is foremost among them, said Denny Heck, frontrunner on the Democratic Party side.
And yet the teens inside the Jim Parsley Community Center can have a big say in America’s economic future, he said. They’re among 158,000 Hispanic students in Washington schools today, about 15 percent of the state total.
“That is power,” Heck said. “That is power. But the only way to exercise that power is to get engaged, get involved and vote.”
About 30 Vancouver teens who joined a six-hour Latino student leadership forum took their first steps to do just that.
Led by a handful of state and local Latino mentors, they identified pressing issues they and their families face locally and nationally. Then, they zeroed in on America’s democratic process to better understand the levers and pulleys available to effect change.
There were easels, an overhead projector and small group break-outs.
But who to better illustrate grass-roots politics and engagement than three top challengers for Southwest Washington’s open U.S. House seat?
And so Heck made the short trip from Friday’s session of the state Democratic Party convention in downtown Vancouver. He was followed by state Rep. Jaime Herrera, R-Camas, and preceded by Olympia financial consultant David Castillo, both Republican candidates.
Fresh off their briefing, students heard each candidate make a personal, tailored pitch (Herrera, whose grandfather is Mexican, also grew up in Clark County), then fired pointed questions.
How should the government address the jobs picture, especially stark for Latinos and other minorities? Do you favor or oppose Arizona’s new immigration law? How should Congress address immigration reform?
What about the proposed federal “Dream Act” that would grant temporary, six-year residency to immigrant children who finish two years of college or military service?
“I’m going to vote for that, and I’m going to vote proudly for it,” Heck told the group.
Students liked that response. Castillo said he’s against the act, while Herrera said she hasn’t read it yet.
But students also graded the visitors’ answers on consistency, depth and relevance as much as any simple “yes” or “no” they might agree with.
“I just got a better understanding of politics, and their jobs,” said Daniel Santiago, 19, fresh graduate of Fort Vancouver High School. He said he’ll seek out social or political clubs when he starts classes at Clark College.
Students from Fort, Hudson’s Bay, Skyview and Vancouver School of Arts and Academics were invited to Friday’s huddle. The blend of backgrounds made for good discussion, said Gloria Pitkin, 17, a senior at VSAA.
“I’m really happy I (attended),” Pitkin said. Unlike most VSAA students, many Latinos worry about threats to financial means for college and their relatives’ legal status, she said.
Besides jobs, other top concerns students named Friday were drug use, school dropouts and lack of counseling support. Among resources are libraries, schools and school-based programs, mentors and activities such as Vancouver’s One-of-a-Kind Drumline, they said.
Ricardo Sanchez, Seattle-based leader of the Student Leadership and Public Policy Forum, has moderated similar meetings in Pasco, Mount Vernon, Brewster and Yakima. He said luring the three congressional foes was a boon in opening students’ eyes to grass-roots politics — both opportunities and responsibilities.
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he told students. If an office-seeker’s answer remains vague, ask again, he said.
Sanchez is with the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, supported by Sea Mar Community Health. Forum co-sponsors include the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs and Alianza, a coalition of student groups.
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.