Future Changemakers on the Hill: Learning lessons head on
We gathered young Latino advocates to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill and make their voices heard for their communities.
By Beatriz Paniego-Béjar, Content Specialist, UnidosUS
It was a cold morning, depending on who you asked: the people from up north were fine with the DC low of 36 and high of 54; but for some out-of-towners from warmer places, those temperatures were a bit much. However, it was a sunny and exciting day, and that brought enough warmth to the air: the culmination of the UnidosUS 2019 Changemaker Summit was on Capitol Hill, where our Affiliates headed on March 27 to meet with their representatives and express the issues they are concerned about in their communities.
The Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church community room, where we gathered before heading to the meetings, was filling up little by little. The smell of coffee, tea, bagels, and pastries received the eager Summit participants who seemed ready to take on the world. And one wouldn’t have expected less after the fully packed day of learning they enjoyed at the Kellogg Conference Hotel on Tuesday:
- Our Affiliates became well-versed in the 2020 Census in a session led by NALEO with the participation of the Census Bureau, as well as the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation.
- Our future Changemakers—the youth who attended the Summit—felt empowered after the storytelling workshop lead by El Pueblo, Inc.
- Many others learned to network “the Samurai Way” in a workshop with the teachings of Minué Yoshida.
- At the Voice + Action Plenary Luncheon, attendees felt empowered hearing from UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía, Mayor Alexis Hermosillo, and UnidosUS’s policy advisors.
- And finishing the day with policy briefings, best practices for effective meetings with members of Congress, and the state breakouts, was what participants needed to arrive ready for their Wednesday visits.
Coffee drank, and breakfast eaten, it was now time to organize by groups and practice. UnidosUS’s Affiliate El Pueblo, Inc. brought more than 50 attendees to the 2019 Changemakers Summit, and all of them were visiting their representatives on the Hill. They divided in groups, to have the greatest impact, and a lead in each group guided the preparation session they had that morning before heading to their representatives’ offices.
Many future changemakers were present in every group, excited for the opportunity to be meeting with their representatives, to make their voices heard in Washington DC, to express their concerns for our community. They felt empowered practicing the stories they were going to share with senators and congresspeople. They felt they could change the trajectory of what our community is going through.
I joined the group that was visiting the office of Senator Richard Burr with four youth leaders Melvin Rubi, Cristian Rubi, Coral Mendoza Lopez, and Alma Sosa Bautista; two adult leaders, María Victoria Gomez, and Olga Romero; and El Pueblo’s Youth Program Coordinator, Mike Figueras. He guided the role play at the church, preparing the team to talk about the raids that have been happening in North Carolina and ask the senator about his position on this issue.
The youth leaders were ready, they had their talking points prepared, and a series of questions they were going to ask. Unlike the rest of the group, this wasn’t Figueras’s first time meeting with Senator Burr’s office, and you could tell: he was confident.
First time on the Hill
Although they had plenty of time, the group was enthusiastic to get to the Hill, and they left the church right after their role play. Strolling down Independence Avenue, the group talked about their experience at the Holocaust Museum the previous evening. The numbered tattoos stayed with Coral, remembering the story her brother had told her about the time he spent on a detention center: “They are given a number to dehumanize them. [The agents] don’t know their stories, they just see a number.”
Passing by the Library of Congress and stopping in front of the Capitol to take a picture, Mike was making sure it was a memorable experience for the whole group he was leading. This is what he does, encourage the youth and the community to be engaged, to feel empowered. He kept on taking pictures of the group, so they would remember this important day: the day they first went to the Hill to advocate for their community.
He guided Melvin, Cristian, Coral, Alma, María, and Olga to the office of Senator Burr in the Russell Senate Office Building, and there, at 11 a.m., we were met by a staffer, who took us to a conference room in the basement of the building. We walked through the long, bare hallways that characterize this building, crossing paths with rushed people with badges, as well as many other concerned citizens also visiting their representatives.
After a quick introduction, and during half an hour, El Pueblo expressed their fears of what is happening in North Carolina, starting with their worries about the raids and the separation of families. They wanted to know what the senator´s position on this issue was. The staffer said the senator doesn´t have one. Jobs, education, and health were also brought up, and the staffer took notes, and said she would take El Pueblo´s comments to the senator. They asked if a meeting with him would be possible, even if it is a conference call. The staffer said she doesn´t take care of his schedule, but that he is very busy.
Disappointed, but driven
“I was disappointed that we didn’t meet with Senator Burr,” Alma’s face showed disillusion, but she also felt empowered: in a debrief over lunch with the whole group, she also said that “Esto nos motiva más para seguir luchando;” this motivates us more to continue fighting. The rest of the group expressed the same feelings:
“It is a bit disappointing. She was avoiding the questions, the bigger picture of the situation,” said Melvin.
“If you really cared about the wellness of people, you would make time to listen, to sit down with them,” Coral said.
“Come what may, they saw our faces, they listened to us, which is important,” María added.
“We are not going away. We have to continue fighting, persisting. Don’t get discouraged, this should give you more drive. We shouldn’t be defeated but think about which other tactics to use. We need to get more people, more young people, registered to vote, and to vote so that change can happen,” Mike said.
And just like that, the lesson was learned head on: the Changemakers found their own voice, and the power it has when it’s shared. The time to get involved, to advocate, to vote, is now.