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Don't Count Them Out Just Because They Can't Cast A Ballot

Frederic J. Brown
AFP/Getty Images

Ain't no party like a Ready 2 Vote party

How do you engage high schoolers in the voting process? Start by having a dance battle to 'Kiki Do You Love Me' by Drake. Add carnival games, a photo booth and a mobile video game theater. Bring in artists with stencils, silkscreens and a sketched community mural ready to be painted by the students. Oh, and of course, voting booths.

Three groups teamed up to throw the 'Ready 2 Vote' party on October 24 — the Los Angeles County Registrar, Los Angeles Unified School District (the second largest school district in the country,) and . A total of 12 high schools from the East region of LAUSD were bussed out to Norwalk to get registered, fill out their first mock election ballot and vote early. A drumline was standing by, waiting for first time voters to slip their ballot into the box. Celebratory cheers would erupt from across the park, and the chants would change from, "Go Vote!" to "You Voted!"

But not all of students at the Ready 2 Vote party will be voting come Tuesday. Many of the high schoolers there were undocumented or DACAmented students, who are not eligible. And while the students participating in the mock elections weren't met with the same excitement as those who were casting real ballots, their participation still served as an important symbol of political engagement.

"For young people, elections provide an entry way into having a voice on decisions that impact their daily lives," says Luis Sánchez. He is the co-executive director of Power California — a group that tries to get young people of color involved in voting. Sánchez says that in many ways, undocumented youth are leading political battles: "Even if you are a young person that is 16-years-old or undocumented, you have the ability to organize 10 other young people to vote and shape the future."

Citali Ruiz is one of those young people. She says that while parties and candidates may not view undocumented and DACAmented youth as a "win now" group, they are still a crucial part of the democratic process. Young people can register voters, attend city council meetings, call their representatives, and organize political rallies and protests — regardless of their citizenship status.

Ruiz serves as a youth organizer with Power California in Orange County. She believes that undocumented and DACAmented youth are the ones that hold society accountable.

"The power that we have is that we are making ourselves be present and heard," she says. "The people that say they are forus, like allies — we need to make sure that we are also pushing them to vote. That is our power — accountability of others."

Engagement begins in the classroom

For LAUSD, teaching students about civic engagement started long before the Ready 2 Vote party. In 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB-113, a bill allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. That bill prompted a surge of high school initiatives across California. On the local level, it inspired Brenda Barragan, a high school teacher in LA's East district, to start a complicated discussion.

She asked her students, "What makes someone a good or bad citizen?"

Barragan knows that there are students in her classroom who are undocumented, DACAmented or part of mixed-status families. Many of them think of citizenship as being related to birthplace, or obeying the law. And she says that this understanding has posed some difficulty when teaching about civic engagement.

"I think the biggest hurdle was trying to get them to see the gray instead of the black and white," Barragan says. So she has students discuss figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara — people who broke laws and disrupted the status quo while trying to improve their respective communities. Barragan says people like these challenge our definition of "good" and "bad citizen."

"To me, being a citizen means being a global citizen," she says. "We can't just think about our country; we have to think about the planet."

Barragan now serves as the Magnet School Coordinator in charge of student engagement. Before that, she taught government and economics classes while supporting Student Learning Projects (SLP), an LAUSD graduation requirement. In both roles, she crafted a curriculum that would give students hands-on experience in exploring what it means to be a global citizen.

Thanks in part to her work, all South East High School government teachers incorporate voter registration workshops, discussion of local and national elections, and mock elections in the classroom. And this year, LAUSD passed a resolution to broaden civic engagement outside of the classroom. At South East, students now have the option of completing 10 of their 40 required community service hours by registering eligible voters.

Barragan says that on November 6, only the votes of U.S. citizens will be counted. But some of those voters will have been influenced by a canvasser, phone banker, friend or relative who is unable to cast their own ballot.

"Just because you can't vote, because of the laws that are made in this country thus far, doesn't mean that you can't make a difference," she says.

Not a single story

Being civically engaged as an undocumented or DACAmented youth doesn't always feel exciting or inspirational. Jazzany Discua, a senior at South East High School, says for her, it "really sucks."

Discua took part in the mock elections at the Ready 2 Vote party, and said she was excited as speakers galvanized the crowd of students to vote. Then, she remembered she couldn't. "I was looking at all the propositions, and when the [Ready 2 Vote Party] host was talking I would say 'Oh yeah!' And then I realized, 'Oh wait, I can't vote.'"

Seo Yun Son empathizes with Discua. Son is an organizer at (KIWA) and a member of — an advocacy group run by undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander youth. She says there are challenges to being part of a political process that excludes undocumented people. Nationally, debates about immigration continue to flare up. President Trump's recent announcement that he is considering ending birthright citizenship has further intensified discussions about the status of undocumented and DACAmented youth in the country.

"It's incredibly difficult to speak out at this time," Son says. "And I think it's also very taboo. I see that in the Asian Pacific Islander community, as well. [Being undocumented is] still not largely talked about, and within the mainstream media, the dominant narrative is about Latinx undocumented people. So I see a lot of that in my own community.

And I think I was also detached from [the] civic engagement processes [from] just not knowing where to begin and also, out of my own frustration. I would just kind of tune it out. I just felt like I didn't have any power. But when I started working for [KIWA], I realized there [are] still many ways to get involved."

And getting involved can mean different things to different people. For Discua, voter engagement did not go beyond the Ready 2 Vote party — but that doesn't mean she's staying quiet about other issues. At school, she chose to focus her Student Learning Project on climate change, because she is passionate about the environment, her community and animal rights.

"I really don't like when people can't be themselves because they feel ... threatened," Discua says. She says for her, that means supporting all movements that allow people to live freely.

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Isabeth Mendoza