On July 15, more than 80 California Latino leaders — from the fields of government, education and philanthropy — took part in a unique Zoom meeting. Their discussion focused on issues facing U.S. Latinos amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their mission was to provide policy guidance on these issues to candidates in the November elections — and to policymakers and civic leaders for years to come.  

Most of the meeting’s participants, like Gary Segura, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, have decades of experience in advocacy and public policy. But for eight UCLA students and recent graduates, the online gathering was a unique opportunity to help make history.

The meeting, hosted by the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, was billed as “Shaping a 21st Century Latino Agenda,” and it yielded policy recommendations covering eight issues, including climate change, education, immigrant rights and political representation.

One of the UCLA participants was Adriana Bernal, 20, who’s entering her third year at UCLA and is a student fellow at the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative. Bernal comes from a Mexican American and Salvadoran family — her grandfather was one of millions of Mexicans who were brought to the United States to work in agriculture beginning in the 1940s.

The group’s policy recommendations have already been disseminated to politicians, philanthropists and business leaders, and Bernal said she hopes the policy transformations will be considered by elected officials state- and nationwide. “It’s important to have our voices and our needs represented by local and national elected officials,” she said.

Another participant was Maria Morales, 27, who earned a master’s in public policy from the School of Public Affairs in June and recently began a job as a policy manager at the Politics and Policy Initiative. Born in Mexico, Morales moved with her family to Texas when she was 9. She has worked at a hospital as an interpreter, as well as at nonprofits involved in combating racism and building civic engagement among the Latino community.

“As a first-generation student, immigrant and a non-native English speaker, it was important for me to be a part of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative, a space that was willing to nurture the skills I hadn’t explored before,” Morales said.

Discussion at the meeting was shaped not only by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by the nation’s increased attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The Latino community continues to get excluded from critical decisions — the California Redistricting Commission and COVID-19 relief efforts, for example — despite our driving the state’s economy,” Morales said. “With the Black Lives Matter movement paving a path for change, we hoped to recognize the work they have done and ask policymakers to take Black and brown communities into account.”

Morales said the event gave her an invaluable chance to learn from some of the state’s Latino leaders, including state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and state Sen. María Elena Durazo, the chair and vice chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus; Cástulo de la Rocha, president and CEO of AltaMed Health Services; and Kevin de León, the former president pro tempore of the California State Senate.

“I had the opportunity to engage in conversations with leaders from across the state with plans to directly impact the lives of Latinos,” said Morales.

For both Morales and Bernal, being a part of the meeting was squarely in line with the reasons they joined the policy initiative as student fellows: collaborating with civil rights organizations and elected officials to develop data-based policy recommendations that can improve lives for communities of color.

Morales said those efforts have taken on new meaning in this election year.

“This year is the most imperative, and it is through advocacy and continuing conversations with policymakers that I can be a changemaker,” she said. “We need to make an effort to have a prosperous Latino community and in turn, a prosperous nation.”

Read the full policy agenda here (PDF); those who are interested may register their support of the agenda here.