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By Elena Macias

Vivianne Esparza is the first in her family to be able to vote and the 18-year-old wants to make sure others in her generation have every opportunity to do the same.

“I knew I was going to be a voice for many people, including my parents,” said Esparza, a senior at Cajon High School in San Bernardino and a Civic Engagement Organizer for Inland Congregations United For Change (ICUC). “I was able to vote in this last primary election and it was an eye-opening experience because my parents are immigrants. They never had a say in any of the electoral processes so just being able to do that for my dad, especially, because he was so excited.”

Esparza is part of a group of Inland youth and young adults who took the unprecedented step this year of proposing a piece of state legislation that would make it mandatory for all public California high schools to offer voting pre-registration, registration, and voting education to all students. The effort is spearheaded by ICUC, a faith-based community organizing group that seeks to transform the Inland region by working in the civic arena to promote the common good. ICUC is active in many Catholic parishes in the Diocese.

The organization has long worked with young people to advocate on legislation that impacts them but Assembly Bill 2724 represents new ground for ICUC.

“It was the first time it occurred to us to help youth write their own bill,” said Tom Dolan, Executive Director of ICUC.

After drafting the bill, the group needed to find a state legislator who would agree to introduce it. State Assembly Member Eloise Reyes-Gomez, who represents the 50th Assembly District and has been a supporter of ICUC’s civic engagement efforts, introduced the bill, known as “High school pupils: voter registration,” on Feb. 14.

The next task was to generate support for the bill among state lawmakers, so in late March a group of over 40 ICUC youth traveled to Sacramento to lobby AB 2724. They rode buses up to Sacramento and spent the night there before conducting 6-8 legislative visits the next day. They also introduced the bill and testified before the State Assembly Education Committee on its behalf.

“I haven’t really gone out of the [Inland Empire] much, all I know is what’s close to home, so when [ICUC organizer Arturo Orozco] told us that we were able to go out and actually talk to people in higher positions of power, I felt like I needed to do it, it was my calling,” said Alexandra Arroyo, an 18-year-old student at the University of California, Riverside. “Once we actually got there, I felt like I belonged there, I wasn’t scared or nervous.”

Arroyo said she was also motivated by her previous experiences of visiting high schools and churches to help increase youth engagement, and finding that many young people did not recognize the importance of voting.

“To see how many youths and students aren’t aware of what it means to vote or how their vote affects people kind of took me by shock,” she said. “So, to be able to go and help them by making a change, I felt like it was something I had to do.”

In addition to having a major impact on all California public high school students, the ICUC youth feel that if the bill were to pass, it would also have a great impact for immigrant parents who may not be eligible to vote and the generations to come.

“It really did impact me because my mom is an immigrant and she can’t really vote,” said Mariana V., a Redlands High school student and parishioner of Our Lady of Hope in San Bernardino. “It felt nice to be able to learn how to vote and be there to help make a change in our generation and the others that come. When I got home, I was really emotional because I was really happy that I was a part of the change.”

On April 24, Esparza and others from ICUC traveled back to the Capital to advocate for the passage of AB 2724 at a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Elections. The bill was approved by the Elections Committee and will go next to the Assembly Appropriations Committee and then, if it passes, on to the Assembly floor.

“I think it would give everybody a voice,” Esparza says of AB 2724. “I know our community is very diverse and we have so many different backgrounds and I was even explaining this to one of my teachers. I feel like pre-registration will help so much with that. Also, [the bill would] keep youth accountable and make them take action, making them take more initiative.”

Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have regularly stressed the importance of Catholics’ active participation in ‘Faithful Citizenship,’ the political responsibility of Catholics. The pope and the USCCB emphasize that Catholics should advocate for the dignity of every human life and the common good by voting and participating in the civic process.

Elena Macias is the Managing Editor of the Inland Catholic BYTE and El Compás Católico.