In D.C., Tucson’s unique Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition advocates for the poor

Members of Tucson’s Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition with Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) in her office on April 13, 2016. (L-R): Samantha Ybarra, Sayanna Molino (chaperone), Emma Galligan, Slaughter, Zoe Holtzman, Michael Artzi, Sophie Gootter, Joshua Cohen, Aaron Gomez, Shari Gootter (program coordinator), Alexander Senti, Daniel Vogel, David Bracamonte (Courtesy Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona)

“For me, it all came together when we were sitting in Sen. Cruz’s office, speaking to his chief of staff, and I realize that it’s this clash of strong opinions, this is why solutions to our most pressing social problems are so hard to find.”

Strong words coming from a teenager.

Joshua Cohen is describing one of his “light bulb” moments during the annual Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition trip to Washington, D.C., where Tucson-area high school students met with legislators to discuss anti-poverty measures. Cohen, age 15, was one of 10 students who participated this year in the coalition, a program of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

Each year, the program invites a handful of rising high school sophomores and juniors to apply. Through a rigorous interview process, the selection committee builds a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered group of teenagers committed to working together to educate themselves on a compelling policy issue, engage in workshop-style dialogues with local leaders, then travel to Washington D.C. for a five-day experience advocating their policy position.

This year’s group of teens opted to focus on anti-poverty measures, specifically as they relate to early childhood education and nutrition. They honed in on the Pathways Out of Poverty Act of 2015, H.R. 2721, which was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee of California in June and assigned to a congressional subcommittee in November.

Shari Gootter, a local therapist, has coordinated the coalition for 10 years, the last six in collaboration with Lew Hamburger, a retired social worker. She’s proud of the program’s longevity and uniqueness.

“This coalition is so worthwhile, so life changing, it’s a social, emotional, political, holistic community building program,” says Gootter. Many teen alumni have gone on to university majors in political science, economics and law as a result of the program’s lasting impact. Alumnae Lisa Kondrat and Sayanna Molino now help to organize and facilitate the program.

Coalition teens start their experience together in January with icebreakers and a multi-ethnic family style potluck. Afterward, they meet weekly on Sunday afternoons for workshops. This year’s topics included diversity, team building, leadership, social justice, political advocacy, nonviolent communication and poverty education. Workshops featured guest speakers from the University of Arizona, a Holocaust survivor and City of Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

During this year’s D.C. travel experience,  which took place April 10-14, the teens’ packed itinerary included meetings with White House liaisons; the Associated Press; Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger; and the offices of Sens. Cruz, Feinstein, Flake, Kirk, Rubio and Schumer and Reps. Grijalva, McSally and Slaughter. They even managed to squeeze in time for the Smithsonian and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Operation Understanding’s black, Jewish pre-Passover seder.

Coalition member Alexander Senti, age 17, says the meetings on Capitol Hill had a profound impact on him. “Meeting in the vicinity of the White House and meeting with these powerful administrative representatives, experiencing the real deal, it really hit home to me that these are the people who can make it happen,” he says. Born and raised in Tucson, Senti is president of Tucson’s BBYO Jewish youth group and a student council member and actor at Catalina Foothills High School. Now he’s considering a college major in political science.

Chaperone Hamburger concurs. “Our program really stands apart from other multi-ethnic teen programs by focusing on political advocacy and arming [the teens] with a masterful knowledge of the system,” he explains. “I’ve come to expect unique trips each year. Our inclusive, multi-ethnic group really accepts each other.”

The Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition relies on funding from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona; the office of Rep. Raul Grijalva, which helped found the coalition; grants from the Jewish Community Foundation; and direct gifts from private donors. Travel costs average $1,800 per student, making fundraising an enduring concern.

For more information on the Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition, contact Gootter at 577-9393 or sharigootter@comcast.net.

Sarah Chen is a freelance writer and assistant director of the Jewish Federation’s Northwest Division.