When I was accepted into the Jewish Latino Teen Coalition (JLTC) in December of last year, I didn’t really know what I was in for. I knew it was going to be somewhat related to politics, culture, and advocacy, but at the time I saw it as a minor commitment and something that would look good on my resume. When I attended the first meeting and met my fellow members, I started getting the idea that this would be something more than just a weekly meeting I would attend. The other students were incredibly well-spoken and passionate, and I started to feel truly excited for the times we would spend together in the coming semester.
Our weekly meetings became a place where I could easily express my opinions, expand my knowledge, and become a more well-rounded person. I had never been involved in anything related to politics, though it had always been an interest of mine, and now I felt like I had an alley to actually get involved in my community and my country.
Throughout the semester, the world changed so much. A war broke out, causing our perspective on everything we discussed to be different. Our country was more ideologically polarized than it had ever been, and, though we felt powerless, we knew that we weren’t.
We left for our lobbying trip to Washington, DC, at the end of April. The program hadn’t taken the trip in three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so though our leaders had experienced it many times, it felt fresh for all of us. Ours was the first trip to our nation’s capital since the insurrection on January 6, 2021, and even though it was over a year later, the effects were still palpable.
Our first day was a whirlwind sightseeing adventure. We visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as many national monuments, meeting an alum of the program and some amazing friends of our leaders who helped us understand the importance of what we were there to do. But it didn’t really sink in for many of us that we were truly there to fight for our beliefs and to discourse with congress members until the next morning when we were finally rested and able to wake up to a new day in the capital city. That day was truly incredible. We met some awe-inspiring people and prepared for our conversations on Capitol Hill the following day. That night, we used the knowledge we had gained over the course of the program and the trip to create presentations that would help us engage with the House and Senate members we were set to meet.
We felt prepared, but also nervous and giddy as we entered the House of Representatives offices near the Capitol the next morning and approached our first meeting. We met with three congressional offices on our first Hill Day, and they all went incredibly well. We were amazed when House members beckoned their staff into the room after speaking with us and instructed them to prioritize what we had discussed with them. They were so kind and accommodating, asking us about our travel and even telling us about their children and grandchildren.
By the end of the day, we were excited and preparing for more meetings the next day, when our trip coordinators, Shari, Lew, and Lisa gathered us into one of their hotel rooms to tell us something. Lisa had worked some magic and had been able to get us invited to a private event at the White House the following day. We were all shocked and overwhelmed by the prospect of attending an event to celebrate the national Teachers of the Year, where the President and Dr. Biden would both be speaking. There we spoke to a staff member of Senator Cory Booker, who was so impressed with our presentations that she managed to arrange for us to meet the Senator. We waited for him in the hallway outside his Judiciary meeting, and when he came out the door, he looked at us, smiled, graciously answered our questions, and took selfies with us.
My friend, Yuritza Velazquez, asked him what inspired him to get involved in politics, and he answered that life is about purpose, not position. He said that he discovered his purpose in life was to help people, to serve, not necessarily to govern or make policy, but just to serve. He told us that no matter what his position was, be it a Senator or anything else, he would feel fulfilled just as long as he serves his purpose, and hearing that made my whole group think more deeply about why we were there and about all the incredible people we had met over the course of the trip and the program. They all were working to fulfill their purpose, but at all different levels. All the people we’d met and would meet, a county supervisor, a pastor, a rabbi, a mayor, a congressional staffer, a philanthropist, a state delegate candidate, a senator, the national teachers of the year, even the President of the United States and the First Lady; they were all working to fulfill their purpose. Simply to help and serve people. And though they were all doing so at different levels and in different positions, they were all doing so nonetheless.
I thought about this at the White House the next day when First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Biden made their speeches about the importance of teachers. I was so in awe of my surroundings and the weight of the history that accompanied them that I had a hard time staying present, but I also felt a deep sense of connection. Something we had talked about at our weekly JLTC meetings throughout the semester was what Jews and Latinos have in common in America, which is a history of discrimination, but the will to succeed nonetheless. I thought about how incredible it was that a group of young Jewish and Latino teenagers from Tucson, Arizona were able to be sitting in the White House, surrounded by the best teachers in the country, celebrating the national teacher of the year, a Black man, and all the barriers that had been overcome for any of that to happen.
One of my fellow JLTC members, Mikey Barrios, told me that what he found most compelling about the trip “was how it shifted my perspective on what I thought was possible as a teenager to impact change, not only in my community, but in my country.” I agree completely.
I will forever be grateful to have been accepted into this wonderful group and to have been able to take the trip of a lifetime with them. I may not be in a position of authority now, but I now know that I can work toward my purpose regardless, and I’ve been equipped with the skills to do so because of the JLTC and the people who make it possible.