by Priscilla Vivio
The last several months have felt a bit like a roller coaster ride for a lot of us, particularly those of us who are involved in public service, or who work with marginalized populations, or who simply believe in social justice and human rights. However, despite all the tweets, Executive Orders, and cabinet appointees, there has been a gift – activism has become mainstream. This was especially apparent when I attended my first WACAC Legislative Conference in Sacramento last week. I have been a mentor with a nonprofit that serves first-generation college bound students for a number of years, and have worked in the Adult Education Department at the College of Marin for six months, but I am relatively new to the profession of college admissions counseling, so it was with trepidation that I registered to attend the WACAC Legislative Conference. But, I was intrigued by the agenda, which included training in advocating with legislators and, the following day, actual advocacy of our legislators, plus, the conference, and the hotel room (at the lovely Citizen Hotel) were free! So, wide-eyed and nervous, I entered the conference room, and, with relief, found a few former classmates. I needn’t have worried, however, as everyone in attendance was friendly, social, and empathetic to the plight of us “newbies.”
The event opened up with a brief introduction on the history of WACAC by the founder of the WACAC Legislative Conference, Esther Hugo, who informed us that this Legislative Conference was founded by her in 2004. Esther was followed by Mike Rose, of NACAC, who spoke about national issues of interest, and Delaine Eastin, former Superintendent of Public Instruction in California and California Gubernatorial Candidate, who was able to share her thoughts on both the negative and hopeful issues concerning public and higher education. Next, Craig Cheslog, VP for California Policy and Advocacy and Common Sense Kids Action, reminded us of the hurdles that students face long before they ever reach public school and speaking to the moral obligation of encouraging a Bill of Rights for All Children.
But, the most exciting speaker of the afternoon was Lee Angela Reid, WACAC Lobbyist with Capitol Advisors. Lee Angela’s passion and knowledge became apparent as soon as she started to speak. She gave us all a brief overview of the legislature and the legislative process, including how bills become laws, and how many bills don’t become laws, and how the budget process work. Iwas thrilled to find out that the January budget is the proposed budget and that under current Governor Brown, the May revision is likely to include more money, not less. She then went on to discuss the legislative priorities of 2017, including federal, state, and local elections, a brief description of the Local Control Funding Formula/Local Control Accountability Plan, and evaluation rubrics used in the Education Code – I still have to do my homework on some of these. About this time, the other “newbies” and I were starting to feel pretty overwhelmed, but Lee Angela encouraged us by letting us know that our job was to establish relationships with the staff and legislators, and we shouldn’t worry about not knowing answers to every question. She reminded us that the legislators and staff would likely be happy to know that we weren’t there to ask them for anything, and that we were likely to know more about some of the issues then they do (at least for those that aren’t on the Senate Education Committee). And, she told us the most important piece of information – the code to the women’s restroom in the Capitol (512)!
After this, we were educated briefly about the four bills currently of interest to WACAC (see below) and then we were treated to a better-than-expected dinner and wine, along with a chance to mingle, network, and figure out our advocacy “roles” with our teammates. After dinner, we returned to our hotel rooms, and, I, along with many of the other attendees, spent an hour or more reviewing the bills of interest, and the background and committees of the legislators we were scheduled to meet the next day. In the morning, we reviewed our notes with our team, and, after a quick cup of coffee, we were off to conquer the world – or at least the California State Capitol. The Capitol is a beautiful building with all the grandeur one would expect from a building where laws are made. The rotunda is gorgeous, the golden bear is larger than life, and the offices on the ground floor are stunning. But, alas, we were off to the offices of the legislators, and the opulence of the ground floor was replaced by the mundane halls and offices of people clearly “working for a living.” Our team had four appointments, though we didn’t have any meetings with actual legislators, but the aides we spoke with were friendly, poised, and seemed truly happy to be meeting with us, despite the fact that they were obviously very, very busy – there were other groups leaving just as we arrived, and others arriving just as we were leaving, with every appointment. In addition, there was at least one protest going on – a rally involving the recently introduced bill advocating for a California Single Payer Health Care Program. And, on top of this, as mentioned at the beginning, with the increased activism going on in this country, the aides were getting a plethora of phone calls. I asked the aides what they thought of the increase in phone calls from constituents and they responded that, although they were indeed very busy fielding phone calls, they appreciated the response from the public. l Although they did request that folks remember that there is a difference between our State Legislators and our Federal Legislators, so make sure that you are calling the appropriate Senator or Assembly/Congress Person. And, they also suggested that tweeting legislators with a descriptive hashtag is the most effective way to voice an opinion in support of or in opposition to a piece of legislation.
So, exhausted after just an afternoon of training and a morning of lobbying, I have a renewed appreciation for the work WACAC, lobbyists, aides, and legislators do for the rest of us every day, and a new enthusiasm for creating a relationship with my legislators and their aides. I want to make sure I have relationships before I make requests. I’ve sent thank you notes to the aides we met with, I’ve entered my legislator’s phone numbers into my cell phone, and I’ve reactivated my Twitter account.
I am honored to have been a part of the advocacy that WACAC provided last week in Sacramento and look forward to next year!
WACAC Bills of Interest
SB 68 (Lara, R) – Public Postsecondary Education: Exemption from Residential Tuition
This bill changes the AB540 legislation that currently exempts a student, other than a
nonimmigrant alien, from paying nonresident tuition at the CSU and California.
Community Colleges if the student meets certain requirements. This bill
allows for more students who have been in California schools to qualify for in-state tuition,
thereby allowing more students to have the opportunity to pursue higher education without
incurring unbearable student debt.
AB 34 (Nazarian, D.) Student Financial Aid: Children’s Savings Account Program
Although parents in California already have the option to create a 529 Savings Account for their
children in order to save for college expenses, this is neither well-known or well-used. This bill
will enact legislation that would establish a universal, at-birth, and statewide 529 children’s
savings account program. This will encourage families to practice education-related financial
planning and will foster a college-going culture for all children.
SB 12 (Beall, D.) Foster Youth: Postsecondary Education: Financial Assistance
This bill requires the Student Aid Commission to work cooperatively with the State Department
of Social Services to develop an automated system to verify a student’s status as a foster youth
to aid in the processing of applications for Federal Pell Grants, thereby providing support,
expanding eligibility, and simplifying the process for foster youth to apply for financial
assistance, making college more affordable, and thereby, more feasible for more young adults.
AB 504 (Medina, D.) Community Colleges: Student Success and Support Program Funding
This bill requires the Chancellor of the California Community Colleges to establish standard
definitions and measures of the terms “equity” and “significant underrepresentation” for use in
student equity plans of community college districts, and requires that Student Success and
Support Program funding be used to support the implementation of student equity plan goals
and coordination of services, thereby ensuring that funding is targeted to support those
students who are currently the most in need.
Clearly, the bills of interest to WACAC are those that enhance and expand access and equity to those students who are traditionally underrepresented and often underserved – immigrants, foster youth, and those living in poverty. Access to, and affordability of, higher education will allow for leveling of the playing field so that students from all backgrounds can change the trajectories of their lives.