SAN DIEGO -- Professor Alberto Pulido and community organizer Kendell Tylee walked up the stairs on the campus of the University of San Diego, headed to their Thursday afternoon class. The college-level course, called Race, Religion and Social Justice, brings together eight students, all of them women.
The main focus of the class is political redistricting, something that Pulido himself knew very little about before deciding to focus on it for this semester.
"Every vote of every citizen in our nation should count regardless of your status, regardless of your class, regardless of where you live, so I was intrigued by that," Pulido said. "But I had no idea that this issue was as important as it was, and I never understood how complex it was."
As complex as redistricting is, it is also a perfect hands-on lesson for the students in his class.
Later this April, the group of young women will take the politics out of the classroom and into a single community—the nearby city of Chula Vista. With an ethnically-diverse population of over 250,000 people, Chula Vista is one of the many communities in the Southwest that will redraw political boundaries this year because of its changing population. And the USD students will host a forum in the city to explain the importance of district mapping for residents.
"You think it's just like a line, it doesn't mean anything," said history major Ariana Benhoff, a native of Chula Vista. "But if you're not able to elect a representative that represents your community, then you are going to be represented unequally or incorrectly."
Community organizer Kendell Tylee is coaching the students ahead of the forum. Getting Chula Vista residents to speak up about their needs to the redistricting commission, she said, will be an important goal for this class.
"Whoever comes in, gives strong testimony, and has the best representation is going to get their voice heard," Tylee said. "The squeaky wheel is going to get the grease when it comes to redistricting."
Mateo Camarillo is a longtime squeaky wheel in California politics, in particular, the redistricting process. Sitting at a public park in San Diego, Camarillo reminisced about his long battle for Latino representation in local and state offices.
"First time I got involved was three cycles ago, or 30 years ago, when the State of California, which has a large Latino population, had zero Latinos either in the State Assembly or the State Senate," Camarillo said.
Back then, Camarillo and a statewide group of activists challenged the state over redistricting boundaries.
"Participation in terms of voter registration, in terms of electing someone of your choice - it wasn't happening,” he said.
Camarillo said today's model for a citizens' redistricting commission is a result of those efforts in the 1980s. But today, the increasing diversity of Southern California means the redistricting process will have to include a growing variety of voices.
Camarillo is hopeful that the citizens' redistricting commission - and efforts like the Chula Vista forum - will become a model for other states.