Even though some of them may not be old enough to vote, the students in Isaac Farhadian’s AP U.S. Government and Politics course at Pitman High School are as civically engaged as they come.
Earlier this month, the class wrote personalized letters to Congressman Josh Harder on a myriad of topics important to them like healthcare, internet privacy and the rising cost of college, to name a few. On Tuesday, Harder joined the class via video conference to answer questions about the topics and to share insight on potential solutions students had proposed.
Farhadian said he wanted to provide the opportunity for his students to write to their elected official so that they could take part in a time-honored tradition that stretches back to the foundation of the U.S. and gives them a say in their surroundings.
“Regardless of their political affiliation, it gives our students a voice for them to express themselves on matters and topics that are important to them as constituents. It allows them to voice their concerns, inquire on elected officials’ positions on major issues and make recommendations on policy matters that could affect future legislation,” Farhadian said.
Harder told the class he was struck by how personal and well-written the letters were, and took pride in the fact that each student had included a plan of action to tackle the issues they were concerned about.
Many of the letters focused on problems the students are facing in their own lives, like Kamaldeep Kaur, who lost her job as an immigration consultant’s office assistant due to the pandemic. She used her time with the Congressman to ask how youth unemployment can be addressed, which has been amplified by the pandemic due to the closure of some retail, restaurant and hospitality services.
“I wanted to speak about how you could try to open more businesses and provide more jobs for our youth, because we need to transition to college,” Kaur said.
Unemployment has affected not only youth, but the entire nation during the pandemic, Harder said, and noted that efforts to fight coronavirus need to be taken seriously in order to revive the economy in Turlock and beyond — the most recent step being distribution of the vaccine.
“(The vaccine) is safe, it’s effective. We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting it out there, because that’s the best way that our economy could start,” Harder said. “It’s hard for the government to prop up businesses...the best way to do it is to make sure that our economy’s getting back on track.”
Social concerns were important to students and issues surrounding criminal justice reform, racial profiling and police brutality were included in several letters.
Student Abel Medina asked Harder how the narrative surrounding police officers in the country could be improved or changed.
“I wrote about how recently the media, especially with the BLM movement and actions of the police recently, has a stigma of police officers being perceived as the enemies in the community,” Medina said, adding that while many of his friends respect the police, they’re taught to avoid them as much as possible.
The distrust between officers and the public is not exclusive to the local region, Harder said, but is a nationwide struggle.
“I think, frankly, we all want the same thing,” Harder said. “We all want to feel safe...you want to feel like if you call 911 and the police officer is dispatched to your home or your location, then that police officer is going to do his or her job regardless of the color of your skin and regardless of the color of the skin of the person who perpetuated the crime.”
One solution to this, Harder said, is a uniform use of force policy throughout the U.S. so that each police department is held to the same standards. In his letter, Medina suggested increased training so that officers can better handle hostile situations.
The environment was an important topic to Sara Cisneros, who wrote to Harder and asked what could be done to reduce wildfires in California. Recent smoke from devastating fires kept her from going outside — an activity she frequently enjoys when the air is clear.
“...When we had a lot of fires, we couldn’t go outside and I think a lot of it was due to the forest management that was in place,” Cisneros said.
Harder agreed with Cisneros, noting that his office is putting forward an initiative to better clear vegetation in the wake of recent fires.
“With the forces of climate change, we have warmer and warmer summers. That dries up vegetation, and less rain means more fire risk,” Harder said. “You end up in these situations where one match, or in this case what we had in Stanislaus County was a lightning strike, that leads to an out-of-control wildfire.
“We need to reduce the impact that one flame or one lightning strike could have.”
While Harder was unable to answer every student’s question, he noted that they should keep their eye out for any future bills which include their suggestions.
“It’s really incredible,” Harder said. “I sent (the letters) to my legislative team and we’ll be going through them all looking for any bright ideas.”
Farhadian hopes that Tuesday’s class and the letters will serve as a catalyst for his students to remain involved in the legislative process as they move forward in life.
“It is civic engagement at its best because it promotes communication, transparency and accountability between elected officials and their constituents,” he said.