A hearing—and a civics lesson, too
September 27, 2011
Hilda Placencia got a lesson in the complexities of political representation. Jesse Almaraz learned that government isn’t necessarily dull. Christopher Trujillo discovered that, when it comes to civic engagement, it helps to be a morning person.
“We were the first ones into the building,” the 18-year-old El Monte student noted, planting himself in a choice seat in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration. “But we had to be ready to go at 5:45 a.m.”
Tuesday’s public hearing on redistricting was many things to many people—a referendum on social justice, a call for a geographic balance of power, a refresher course on Los Angeles County’s shifting demography.
But for hundreds of adolescents packed into the audience—some bused in by community organizers, some carpooled in with their high school teachers—the marathon meeting was a daylong civics lesson.
“My teacher explained it to us, but this is explaining it better,” said Placencia, a 16-year-old senior (“Class of 2012!”) who was part of a contingent from Schurr High School in Montebello. “I learned more today here at this meeting than I did all day yesterday.”
More than 900 people showed up in the early morning to applaud, testify and otherwise weigh in on three rival plans for redrawing the county’s supervisorial boundaries. By the time the Board of Supervisors voted to adopt an amended version of plan A3, which mostly follows the current boundaries, it was dinner time.
But one of the most striking aspects of the crowd was its youth.
One section was packed with row upon row of students bused in from job training programs in Supervisor Don Knabe’s Fourth District. Another was filled with 50 blue-shirted teenagers and young adults who came from the San Gabriel Valley Conservation Corps in Supervisor Gloria Molina’s First District in a convoy of vans.
A classroom of students from Bell Gardens High School, escorted by Molina staff members, shuttled in and out, politely observing until mid-afternoon, when their school day ended; later, the supervisor—whose own Latino-majority district had been created as the result of a redistricting lawsuit—clambered onto a Roosevelt High School bus to thank still more young people for coming.
Teenagers being teenagers, of course, few could name their supervisors—a problem that afflicts some adults as well. But that didn’t dampen their interest. At one point, Placencia and a group of friends from Schurr High found themselves in a tutorial on how redistricting can affect environmental policies as well as ethnic power—a conversation that started when they found themselves seated next to Rosie Dagit, senior conservation biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.
At Dagit’s suggestion, the students began examining wall maps delineating the proposals. Soon they were talking to Topanga environmentalist Ken Wheeland, who was sitting nearby. They listened attentively as Wheeland—his denim work shirt decorated with a small sage-green ribbon to demonstrate his concern for mountain preservation—explained that he feared the environment would take a backseat to commercial interests if the mountains were placed in the same district as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
As their conversation wound down, Wheeland also shared some adult political perspective, saying that no matter what map won, “there’ll probably be a lawsuit and a judge will decide.”
The students then returned to their seats, periodically peppering Wheeland’s fellow environmentalist, Dagit, with questions as the surrounding crowd waved signs for the redistricting plan backed by Molina.
“I told them, ‘I’m not here to tell you what to think—you should make your own decisions, think about what’s important to you, look at the maps, listen to the testimony’,” Dagit reported. “About halfway through, three of them asked us for green ribbons.”
Elsewhere in the audience, 18-year-old art student Jesse Almaraz of Long Beach sketched as he listened to the proceedings. A student at Urban Arts Crew, a South Bay job training program supported by Knabe, Almaraz said he wanted his supervisor to remain the same.
“If our district were to change,” he said, “we might lose our funding. I’m all for equal representation or whatever, but I don’t feel that only Latinos can represent Latinos.”
What surprised him and his friends most, he said, was the vigor with which all the groups defended their positions.
“I thought this would be kind of a quiet thing but people keep making noise and shaking signs,” he marveled. “I wish we had some signs, man. That would be cool.”
Across the aisle,Trujillo and the Conservation Corps contingent stayed almost to the end of the proceedings.
“It’s a lot of information,” the teenager said. “But I’m learning a lot about what’s fair and what’s not fair. Some of it sounds right and some sound wrong, but I’m just gonna support Molina. I’m listening so I can prepare for the next time this comes around.”
And one bit of preparation he’d repeat, he said, was fortification for a long siege.
“Burritos and fruit snacks,” he recommended. “Stayin’ strong.”