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High School Students Do Their Part to Make a Difference

April 21, 1988|ANN SEAMAN | Seaman is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Their budding political activism may have been sparked by a dedicated teacher, a passionate parent or a personal brush with adversity. Whatever the catalyst, these four teen-age activists share the same conviction--that they can make a difference in the world.

Elizabeth Tobias, 18, is never without her battered Daytimer calendar.

On a recent day at Chatsworth High School, the busy senior and her nine Thespian Troupe colleagues sit down to business with brown bag lunches. Between bites of cold chicken, broccoli and fruit, Tobias dispatches 19 projects in which the club is involved.

Petite, with brown hair and level hazel eyes, she is businesslike and extremely articulate, especially about AIDS Project Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that provides support to victims of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

During the meeting of the Thespian Troupe, of which she is president, she tries to organize a volunteer day to do the sort of never-ending work of groups such as AIDS Project Los Angeles: stuffing envelopes, drafting appeals for money, writing legislators.

Tobias has been involved in AIDS Project Los Angeles for more than a year. She also works for Amnesty International, Vietnam Veterans of America, Child Help USA and the Spastic Children's Foundation.

"There's nothing altruistic or philosophical about it," she says. "I'm Jewish by culture, but . . . there are no religious motivations at all. I just have a really big mouth, and I like to express my opinions."

Last summer, Tobias was galvanized into a more intense commitment to one of her causes. Her best friend was gravely injured in an auto accident and spent two months in a coma. The friend, who is now recovering, had been deeply involved in AIDS Project Los Angeles.

"Before the accident, I was always saying it was something I wanted to do. After, it was 'No, I'm going to do it.' I was sort of doing it for both of us."

Tobias' activism was further stimulated by her social studies teacher, Ed Burke, a 22-year veteran of Chatsworth High, who believes in exposing students to the political process and sends them to school board and City Council meetings.

"He forces you to get involved, and that's good," says Tobias. "But it'll still go on for me after classes are over."

Each time an AIDS-related bill goes before the state Legislature, she helps AIDS Project Los Angeles members deluge the Assembly with supportive letters.

"It's really a small thing writing letters, but I hope to write enough letters to get a bill passed to make people aware enough to stop AIDS. It's almost like buying time for science . . . to find a cure."

Tobias might have turned out shy like her sister or absorbed like her "workaholic" father, whose small business keeps him under tight rein. "My family is liberal-minded . . . but they're not involved. My mother works, and she's very home-oriented, very family-oriented."

But Tobias always sought an outlet in activism. At one time, she tried debating and didn't like it, and her opposition to year-round schools withered. When she became active in the AIDS battle, she knew she would stay with it until progress was made.

"You have to give people the tools" to deal with AIDS, she said. "It is a preventable disease. People have to know.

"But, first, you have to convert yourself. You have to believe in what you're saying and you have to get involved for the right reason: You've got to want to change something."

Even though he must spend several hours each day riding a bus from Chinatown to Granada Hills High School, 17-year-old Joe Pan still finds time to participate in a staggering range of activities.

The Canton native is active in Students Against Drunk Driving, his school's Peer Assistance Center and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He is also a member of the Mayor's Youth Advisory Council, a group of 35 high school and college students who serve as liaisons between City Hall and young people in each of the 15 council districts.

"I'm not a typical immigrant," says Pan. "I don't see a lot of Chinese immigrants who can be here two or three years and go out into the community and do something. When they come here, they have culture shock, they have language problems and family problems. . . ." Chinese immigrants often "don't get involved in the community. They just hang around with other Asians."

Pan, who has been in the United States two years, credits the Permission With Transportation program for his rapid assimilation. "Granada Hills is in the San Fernando Valley, and most of the students are white. . . . If I went to Belmont, I would hang around with other Chinese immigrants." Located downtown, Belmont High has a large population of Asian students.

"When I came here," he recalls, "I didn't speak well enough, they couldn't understand me, so they put me in low classes." He now has a 3.5 grade point average.

Pan speaks intensely of the desolation and anxiety of new Chinese immigrants.

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