Student Political Groups Remain Active Despite Pandemic Challenges

Photo+from+Sasha+Schoettler.+Top+row%2C+left+to+right%3A+Skylar+Ball%2C+Alexandra+Schoettler%2C+Adam+Amster%2C+Matthew+Rayos.+Second+row%2C++left+to+right%3A+Sophia+Venderone%2C+Bianca+Cherry%2C+Alexander+Wyss%2C+Brynn+Green.+Third+row%2C+left+to+right%3A+Gabrielle+Katz%2C+Joey+Chae%2C+Shawna+Ashley%2C+Amelia+Lessans.+Bottom+row%2C+left+to+right%3A+Micki+Porcaro%2C+David+Pickard+IV%2C+Abram+De+Los+Santos%2C+Maya+Millner.

Photo from Sasha Schoettler. Top row, left to right: Skylar Ball, Alexandra Schoettler, Adam Amster, Matthew Rayos. Second row, left to right: Sophia Venderone, Bianca Cherry, Alexander Wyss, Brynn Green. Third row, left to right: Gabrielle Katz, Joey Chae, Shawna Ashley, Amelia Lessans. Bottom row, left to right: Micki Porcaro, David Pickard IV, Abram De Los Santos, Maya Millner.

Elsa O'Donnell, Staff Writer

In a time when politics have grown more polarized and issues have become divisive, Pali High students continue to participate in clubs and organizations to get involved in politics. 

One such group is Junior State of America (JSA), a nation-wide organization that centers around political activism and advocacy. It is currently the largest student-run club in the United States, with about 400 students in Southern California alone. High school chapters come together multiple times a year at JSA conventions, where they discuss and debate current political issues as well as meet fellow members.

Junior Sasha Schoettler has been involved with JSA since her freshman year, and she became a co-president of the Pali chapter in April 2020. As a co-president, Schoettler said she helps “run weekly meetings, come up with debate topics and facilitate discussions.” 

COVID-19 has not stopped JSA and other groups from getting involved with the community in a number of ways, including participating in phone banking, drafting proposed legislation and attending virtual protests. Because of social distancing mandates, the JSA meetings are held on Zoom every Thursday after school.

“In a normal, non-COVID setting, meetings are at lunch and are about 25 minutes long,” Schoettler said. “We write a debate topic on the board and take volunteers to speak on pro or con sides… Recently, our chapter has held debates regarding education inequality, lowering the voting age … and the economic divide in America.”

The club also holds discussions in other forms, such as “thought talks,” which are “basically just discussions, not debates,” Schoettler explained. 

“The classroom is packed,” Schoettler added. “There are even some kids sitting on the floor.”

In addition to being a Pali High chapter co-president, Schoettler is also in the expansion department of the JSA state cabinet, meaning that she “contacts people to make new chapters in SoCal,” she said.

Another department in the state cabinet plans weekend-long conventions that often take place in Anaheim and other areas in Los Angeles. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, conventions are now held over Zoom.

“If we were in person, we would stay at hotels for the weekend, and there would be debates all day long and social events at night,” Schoettler described. “It would be really fun.”

One of JSA’s conventions imitates U.S. congressional procedures to teach members more about politics. Schoettler said that it has given her “a chance to experience the way our government works.”

Because JSA is entirely run by students, the main way parents, teachers and the community can help and get involved is by donating to the JSA scholarship fund. “All of that money goes directly to the students and to making sure that they have what they need to attend conventions,” Schoettler said.

“JSA is about learning how each individual student can enter the community and become an active voice for political change,” Schoettler said. “The political climate right now can make it scary to share your opinion, but I think that JSA is a really safe, judgement-free space.” 

Furthermore, JSA has helped Schoettler find topics that she is passionate about, such as voting rights and increasing voter participation. During the general election in 2020, Schoettler joined the Future Voters Los Angeles Outreach Committee, helped organize a voter registration drive at Pali High and wrote letters to unregistered voters to urge them to vote. Even though Schoettler is not old enough to vote, she “really wanted to help others find their voice and push them to become active participants in the American government,” she said.

Other Pali High students joined organizations outside of school to get involved in political activism. Senior Allen Schultz became an intern in June 2020 for the Jewish Center for Justice (JCJ), located in Brentwood. According to Schultz, the job consisted of “giving lobbying speeches on Zoom meetings and doing a ton of research on different bills.”

In the beginning of summer 2020, Schultz and JCJ lobbied the California Senate and Assembly to pass SB-1383, which expanded the California Family Rights Act to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected paid family leave. After social media campaigns, phone banking and talking to representatives, the bill passed. “It was an incredible experience,” Schultz said.

“We joined virtual BLM marches in June,” Schultz added. “We wanted to stay healthy and support the movement at the same time.” Starting in July, JCJ also had a three-week campaign to bring attention to racial justice. Schultz and other members of JCJ took daily actions such as sharing videos on social media and contacting senators to advocate for social justice. 

Additionally, JCJ hosted educational Zoom meetings with guest speakers for the summer interns. “I remember that one guest speaker was Eric Garcetti’s speech writer, who started the job the day before LA went into lockdown for COVID-19,” Schultz said. “He jumped right into the deep end, so hearing from him was super inspiring.” 

Both Schultz and Schoettler have greatly benefited from their political activism experiences. 

“I really enjoy working with JCJ because politics are super interesting to me,” said Schultz, who plans on majoring in political science. “My note-taking and research skills have definitely improved.” 

“Living in a predominantly liberal area, participating in JSA has given me the opportunity to learn about different perspectives on political, economic and social issues,” Schoettler added. “My confidence has risen and it’s also helped me find my voice.”