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Students Tackling 3 State Ballot Measures : Immigration, Crime and Smoking Initiatives Spur Youths to Lobby, Rally


With his hands shaking and heart racing, Tony Zepeda stood nervously at the microphone before a dozen Los Angeles City Council members and implored them to oppose Proposition 184.

"We want you to vote for your people, not for the seats you sit in now," the 18-year-old South-Central youth told the council.

After 40 minutes of deliberation and 10 minutes of voting, the council last week approved a resolution, which Zepeda and several other youths worked on for months, opposing the "three strikes" initiative. The measure would bolster the state's "three strikes" law, which would render a life sentence for anyone with three felony convictions.

A week earlier, 16 of Zepeda's peers and a cluster of supporters rallied in an after-school protest against Proposition 188, a tobacco industry-sponsored initiative on smoking regulations.

With four of their faces covered in the white-and-black visage of the Grim Reaper, the students marched briefly at the corner of Florence and Vermont avenues, carrying signs and chanting against both the initiative and smoking. "We are sick of the proliferation of tobacco products in our community," Katynja McCory, 16, shouted to onlookers. "As teens we are vulnerable to secondhand smoke. . . . Our lives, your lives are not for sale."

Zepeda and two dozen other South-Central youths are tackling some of the hottest issues to hit California in years--immigration, crime and smoking measures--in a campaign that has taken them to the streets, to the state Capitol and to communities throughout the county.

Proposition 187, which would bar illegal immigrants from schools and other public services, has galvanized student protests across Los Angeles, frequently sparking impromptu school walkouts. Zepeda and his peers, however, are involved in a more organized effort. They work under the umbrella of the South-Central based Community Coalition Against Substance Abuse, a nonprofit organization that has campaigned against the rebuilding of liquor stores destroyed in the 1992 riots.

"This is something that we can tell our grandchildren, that we made a difference here," Zepeda said.

Their experience on the streets and problems entangling friends, neighbors and family are the primary inspiration for many of the kids, who spend hours of their free time organizing, rallying and speaking to groups. Zepeda himself was a gang member for 1 1/2 years in high school and watched friends die at the hands of their peers.

"Some of us are reformed youth trying to make a difference," he said. "We were caught up in the whole crime situation, in drugs, drinking, but we changed ourselves around and now are trying to help change things for other people."

The youths have been ignited with a fervor that carried them to Sacramento in August to lobby elected officials about Proposition 187, and to City Hall to fight Proposition 184.

"A lot of people say youth don't care about what's going on, but that's not true," said Anita Wells, 15, a worker at the Community Coalition and a member of its South-Central Youth Empowered Thru Action, which organized events against the "three strikes" measure.

Like several of the students, Wells discovered the Community Coalition's youth groups after reading newspaper advertisements targeting youths interested in getting involved in their South-Central communities.

In youth groups such as South-Central Youth Empowered Thru Action, Teen Tobacco Awareness Project and the Graffiti Erasing Team, Latino and African American teens have been working together on ballot issues since March. The 25 students work at paid after-school jobs with the Community Coalition.

"I think if people were just given the opportunity to say what's on their mind or to learn about things that are going on, you'd find that there really are more kids who are interested in doing something," said Wells.

The students' determination impressed Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who introduced the motion for the resolution against the "three strikes" initiative. "It's not often that a group of young people . . . sink their teeth into a legislative issue and try to sway elected officials," Ridley-Thomas said.

The Community Coalition's work with the youth is "a very deliberate attempt to raise awareness of the next generation," said Karen Bass, executive director of the organization, which relies on government grants and private contributions for funding and which has more than 500 members.

Though guided and assisted by adult Community Coalition employees, the passion and frustration the students display over these issues is their own.

At a community meeting in West Hollywood recently, Zepeda, 18, and Jabari Bettes, 16, urged a group of middle-class voters to look for better ways to curb crime than Proposition 184.

"Building state prisons is not the way to stop crime," Bettes told the audience. "Before you stop any crime you have to deal with some of the problems that lead to that: health care, housing, educational improvement."

On Saturday, the students made a final "Get Out the Vote" walk through the Chesterfield Square neighborhood.

"I never felt like I could make a difference, but just . . . getting support from (the Community Coalition) has helped me see some progress that we've made," said Odell Wells, 16.

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