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Jewish Latino Teen Coalition life-changing for local youth

At the United States Capitol on April 11, (L-R): Isabella Luna, Rebecca Dubin, Sophie Holtzman, Peris Lopez, Rachel Davenport, Senator Jeff Flake, Eric Brown, Yuval Barel, Jessica Hernandez, Rafi Zinman, Sophia Greenhill, and Manuel Barcelo (Courtesy Jewish Latino Teen Coalition)

“I don’t know what path I would be on right now without JLTC . . . everything has changed,” says Catalina Foothills High School junior and student body president Peris Lopez.

The Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition is life-changing for the sophomores and juniors it brings together annually from high schools across Tucson. JLTC’s 14th cohort of students, 11 including Lopez, spent months of intentional education and preparation that culminated in a legislative advocacy mission to Washington, D.C., April 9-13.

Competitive applications open each fall. After rigorous interviews, a selection committee builds a diverse, multi-gendered, multi-ethnic group that commits to months of education and weekly workshops, building knowledge and skills for advocacy and leadership, says local therapist Shari Gootter, the passionate volunteer leader for the coalition for the past 12 years.

“They learn to discuss, disagree, understand, work together and share openly and honestly. It’s an experience of self-reflection, exploration and learning more about themselves through the group. My favorite thing to watch is the kids start out one way and end up another,” she says of the process. “The kids are changed in so many different ways, sometimes you just don’t know how.”

Lopez now is considering a new career path in political science, she says, “something dealing with the public and legislation.” During the course of the program, Lopez organized the local March for Our Lives event against gun violence, held March 24, which drew 8,000 participants. “It’s strange to picture myself as that person,” she says.

University High School junior Sophie Holtzman also surprised herself this year, organizing student walkouts and sit-ins. “I was always interested in politics and minimally involved. JLTC showed me that even as a teenager, we can make a difference on the local and national level.”

As the teens explore, they select a compelling policy issue. Then, local leaders engage them in workshop dialogues “to educate them on that issue, along with how to advocate and lobby policymakers,” Gootter says. “This year’s focus was on women’s issues, but in the middle of it, national issues around gun violence arose.” The students divided into two groups to explore gun violence and domestic violence. In final workshop, every graduate from last year’s group participated. “What does that tell you about how they still want to give back?”

Gootter describes the experience as one that also changes the teens’ hopes, perspective and experience. “It’s an interesting blend of personalities that learns to work together, about honesty, give and take, respect and consideration. Kids that never would have met become lifelong friends.”

“The beauty of the program is that it brings people from so many backgrounds, devoted to their culture in varying degrees, and they bond,” adds Lew Hamburger, Ph.D., a mentor and chaperone for the program for eight years.

Lopez says, “At first, we were a bunch of Hispanic and Jewish kids who didn’t know each other. Now we are best friends and I can see some of them being friends for the rest of my life.”

Holtzman echoed that feeling. “It was like going into the trip I had 10 new super amazing best friends. Coming together to work on good brought out the best of all of us.”

In Washington, the group met with Rep. Grace Meng of New York, Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, along with chiefs of staff for a host of other members of Congress. Highlights were meetings with staff in Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s offices. They also visited advocacy groups including Giffords Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and met with former Tucson resident Josh Protas, vice president of public policy who heads Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger’s D.C. office. Site visits included the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Newseum, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with a joint workshop with a parallel group of black Jewish youth.

“This is not your garden variety high school trip to D.C. to sightsee,” says Hamburger, a retired former resident of the capital who spent his career helping at risk teens. “It’s a legislative trip, firsthand, about civics. They see the complicated legislative process of getting an idea from concept into legal form to a bill and on to the floor. The trip is the culmination of four months of study, with a meaningful purpose to make a change in the world, and to effectively narrow it down so they can accomplish something. It’s more about leadership, opening up, and wanting to learn.

“These kids are of exceptional character,” Hamburger says of participants. “What sets them apart is a combination of being bright, incisive, active, idealistic and humble with open minds and a sense of humor. That’s extremely unusual.” This group included eight females and three males; five Latinos and six Jews; and represent Flowing Wells, Sunnyside, Foothills, University, Saguaro, The Gregory, Marana and Tucson Magnet high schools.

JLTC is a joint effort fully funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona through the support of private donors and a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, to foster the importance of cultural awareness and political advocacy in youth today. “It’s a unique program—perhaps the only Jewish Latino teen program of its kind on a national level,” says JFSA President and CEO Stuart Mellan. “It’s been important in grooming a new generation of civic-minded activists; and it’s been a wonderful vehicle for fostering friendships and understanding in our local Jewish and Latino communities.” Two JLTC graduates will brief the JFSA board on their experience during the May 9 board meeting.

For more information on the JLTC, contact Gootter at 577-9393 or [email protected]