During the 45 days that the Virginia General Assembly was in session, from January 9 through February 22, 2019, the Latino Leadership Institute of Sacred Heart Center in Richmond focused on advocacy on behalf of the needs of the Latino community of the Commonwealth. This year, as in the past, the community’s priorities were driver privilege cards for all Virginia residents and in-State tuition for DACA recipients.
Starting in November, the Institute’s weekly classes focused on recalling and sharing personal experiences about driving without a proper credential: the fear of being stopped for a minor violation like a non-functioning blinker light and the police report getting into the hands of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). One student recounted the trauma experienced by her children when stopped by local police. The incident has led to panic and fear every time a police vehicle draws near. Several spoke of how they had to drive a spouse or child to the hospital or school event without a license. Lack of public transportation in the Richmond area was a recurring topic. Each student selected the most impactful personal experience and refined it to a 3 minute talk. Simulated meetings followed in which classmates critiqued each other’s presentation.
Finally, Advocacy Day arrived on January 21, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In collaboration with New Virginia Majority, a state-wide advocacy organization focused on creating a Virginia that is democratic, just and sustainable, Leadership students marched with placards and chants, on one of the coldest days of the year, along snow-covered streets to the General Assembly in downtown Richmond. There they visited various legislators to request support for the bills granting Driver Privilege Cards and in-state Tuition to DACA Recipients. They experienced various kinds of receptions; everything from legislative aides half-hearing their stories in the hallway rather than in the office to attentive and supportive legislators taking photographs with the advocates for their Facebook page. At the end of the day, many were surprised at their own ability to communicate with legislators, tell their story, and make “the ask.” Their self-confidence soared. Their feeling of having accomplished something for the common good of the community brought smiles and tears.
Several were able to return to the General Assembly on other days to observe committee hearings, listen to testimonies and witness the debates and voting. Again this year, the bills they so passionately supported, were defeated on purely party lines. Afterword, in a debriefing session, disappointment was strong but also a determination to return again next year: Sí, se puede. There was a realization that what they chanted while marching on those raw, cold days was true: This is what democracy looks like.