Sunday, March 30, 2008

Valley students embrace Equal Voice for America's Families campaign

By Steve Taylor and Joey Gomez | Rio Grande Guardian
March 29, 2008

EDINBURG, March 29 - Why is that the Rio Grande Valley, with over one million residents, lacks an interstate highway, a veterans’ hospital, and offers far fewer doctoral programs at its universities than other areas of the state that have far fewer people?

Some of the 300 or so students who assembled for Youth Town Hall Meeting at the Abundant Grace Community Church in Edinburg on Friday said it was because the Valley does not punch its weight at the ballot box.

Because, historically, turnout at general elections is much lower than in other parts of the state and nation, the region can be ignored by politicians in Austin and Washington, D.C., the students told the Guardian.

“We want to change that. Our youth does not want to live in poverty, having problems getting jobs and getting an education, like our parents had. They want to vote and get their voice heard by the president,” said Stephanie Leal, a 17-year-old student at Mercedes High School.

“In the Valley, we try the most to get educated. Because they (politicians) ignore the Valley, we try harder to be heard. We want people to know where the Valley is.”

Friday's town hall meeting was the first of two focusing on young people that are being organized in the Valley this spring by the Marguerite Casey Foundation and its grantee non-profit groups. The meetings are laying the groundwork for the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, a yearlong effort to create and build support for a national agenda of family values. The second Youth Town Hall meeting takes place at South Texas College’s Pecan Campus in McAllen on April 10.

Students from across the Valley participated in Friday’s event. They were asked to debate and list the issues that matter to them, and to focus on national and local policies that affect their families’ ability to prosper. Those issues will be collated and presented at regional town hall meetings later in the year. They will then be presented to the presidential candidates before the November election.

Jessica Oioque, another 17-year-old Mercedes High School student, said her top issue was improving communication between children and parents. “The way you communicate within families is crucial. If you have communication with your family, you have far less problems,” Oioque said.

Oioque said the town hall meeting was fun, informative, and challenging.

“We have to voice our opinions, especially us kids. Not everybody, like parents, listen to us. This was our chance to speak out loudly. We did not argue about anything, we came up with reasonable answers,” Oioque said.

Oioque said young people in the Valley were striving to get a good education because they have seen first hand the struggles their parents and grandparents have gone through.

“We care tremendously, for that reason. We have seen how our parents were raised and seen how they did not have the benefit of a college education. It was very hard. Many parents dropped out of high school and struggled. You want to be better than that. You want to change things, especially here in the Valley. Hardly anybody outside of the Valley knows where we are,” Oioque said.

Leal, like Oioque a member of the U.S. Army’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, said the town hall meeting was fun because she got to meet students from across the Valley.

“We were all talking about our future and the values we have with our families. Everybody was pumped up, happy to be here. We want to change today for our future, when we are adults,” she said.

Armando Garza, Equal Voice for America’s Families’ regional coordinator for South Texas, told the students that they have a key role to play in the development of their community.

“You are about to turn 18. You are about to have the right to vote. A lot of people have fought and a lot of people have died to get that right. You need to really start thinking about voting because that is one of the ways in which you can affect your community and your society,” Garza told the audience.

Between now and being able to vote, students should try to get their parents to vote, Garza said. They can do this by helping them get registered to vote and helping them get informed on the candidates and their platforms, he said.

Garza then told the audience about his own upbringing, citing it as an example of how civic engagement can help an individual grow.

“I grew up very poor. I was a migrant farm worker and at a very young age I got involved with the United Farm Workers Union. That was the first time, when I was 12 years old, that I realized that I was important,” Garza explained.

“As a farm worker, many times we were held at a very low standard. Many people felt very little of us and I didn’t think I was important. That was until an organizer from the Farm Workers came up to me and said, ‘What do you think? What’s important to you?’”

Garza told the students that putting pen to paper on the issues that matter to them was just the start of an intricate national campaign. In a month or so those issues would be tabulated and given back to the students so they can start sharing them with their friends.

The Edinburg event was the second town hall meeting in the Valley organized under the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign. The first took place amid freezing temperatures inside a large tent in San Juan in January. More than 300 families participated, making it one of the biggest town hall meetings in the nation. Another Equal Voice town hall meeting that could attract up to 1,000 families is being planned for late spring in Brownsville.

Garza told the Guardian that the enthusiasm being shown in the Valley for the Equal Voice campaign would help spark a national dialogue “about the policies and attitudes that negatively impact working families.”

The local non-profit in charge of the Edinburg event was AVANCE-Rio Grande Valley, a group that believes that strong families produce strong communities.

Hilario Rincones, executive director of AVANCE-RGV, said his group was pleased to partner with the Marguerite Casey Foundation because the foundation supports the premise that a community’ well-being is dependent on the opportunities families have to become self-reliant.

“In the year 2008, it is surprising to see that there are still so many disenfranchised people in our society,” Rincones said.

“The young, the illiterate, the single-parent family and the ‘working poor’ remain virtually invisible on the political landscape. Who speaks for them? The Marguerite Casey Foundation believes no family should live in poverty, and has created the Equal Voice campaign to provide these citizens a forum for speaking out.”

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