GCU’s Latino Student Union Leaders Making ‘Awesome’ Community Impact
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
To become the first Latino elected to Phoenix City Council’s District 5 seat, Daniel Valenzuela relied on a group of volunteers that included 20 Grand Canyon University student activists.
Their model of door-to-door visits to drive more west Phoenix voters to the polls during November’s council election than ever before is detailed in this week’s Time magazine cover story titled, “Yo Decido: Why Latinos Will Pick the Next President.”
Viridiana Hernandez, 20, and Aldo Gonzalez, 25, the leaders of the Grand Canyon Latino Student Union, were among the most active young people with the unpaid “Team Awesome” volunteers from Valenzuela’s campaign. Both students joined others to canvass more than 70,000 homes in the largely immigrant and low-income neighborhoods west and north of GCU’s campus.
The Time story by reporter Michael Scherer, which hits newsstands today, says Team Awesome “increased off-year turnout among the Latino community by 480 percent.” Valenzuela defeated businesswoman Brenda Sperduti by earning more than 57.8 percent of 13,888 votes, according to Phoenix election results. Team Awesome’s model could be scalable on a national level as soon as this year’s general election, according to the magazine.
Hernandez, a junior secondary education major, has worked as a neighborhood activist since she was in high school and has taught free English classes to Maryvale residents.
During the campaign, she found a common ground with residents about their fears over increased immigration enforcement through Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, their struggles to secure affordable health insurance, and the quality of schools in the area.
“All these things I’m going through with my family, I found myself talking to them about,” said Hernandez, who serves as president of the Grand Canyon University Latino Student Union.
“For me, it’s just been really exciting, but especially exciting that students are involved.”
Gonzalez is also involved with organizing the Grand Canyon Latino Student Union, which has more than 30 members. He and Hernandez were among the first students recruited from GCU by Valenzuela’s campaign.
The junior physical therapy major said he was emotionally jarred by seeing the story in Time, complete with a compelling multimedia presentation at time.com. Both he and Hernandez said they found themselves coaching residents on the basics of voter registration and civic involvement, helping them to better understand the city resources available to their families.
“It was a huge sacrifice,” said Gonzalez, who grew up in Mesa after moving from Mexico when he was 5 years old.
“Seeing all this attention, if everyone did just a little bit of what we did, we could do anything. We want people to recognize that they have the power to change things.”
Valenzuela, a Glendale firefighter who won his first-ever run for public office, said he appreciated GCU students’ passion for civic involvement and community outreach. The University’s location in west Phoenix puts students in a unique position to make a difference in the neighborhoods many grew up in.
The councilman added that the west Phoenix movement to educate voters and empower residents was merely the beginning. Now he and Team Awesome will work together about fulfilling their promises to the community.
“From the very beginning I told everyone that this campaign was not for Phoenix City Council,” Valenzuela said. “Winning my seat was a byproduct of the overall picture.
“What I love about it is that this is not a theory anymore. It’s what happened. It’s what’s continuing to happen.”
Contact Michael Ferraresi at firstname.lastname@example.org.