This summer, explore science, writing or something else

By George Zuo, 16, Sierra Vista HS
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When you think of politicians, you probably think of rich liars who are trying to backstab each other. In movies, politicians are always the corrupt ones who are helping out their buddies and lying to the people. But in reality, that is not how politicians are. Sure, there are a couple of rotten apples in the bunch, but most politicians are honest, hard-working people.

George shows the certificates that, as an intern, he helped create for state Senator Gloria Romero.
Photos by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

How do I know? Usually teenagers are lucky to get a job at McDonald’s or some other fast-food place for the summer. But last summer, I interned with state Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat who represents an area east of downtown in the state Legislature. And it turns out that politicians aren’t cold-blooded back stabbers after all. It also turns out that politics is pretty interesting.

At the end of my sophomore year, I applied to the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Youth Internship Program, a summer program that pays high school students to intern for eight weeks at places such as law firms, banks, offices of public officials and even video game design companies. When I applied, I had hoped that I would be able to intern at a law firm because I love debating and always dreamed of being a lawyer. When I received my letter of acceptance, I was happy that I made it but sad that I was assigned to work for a politician. I thought, "Spending a summer in an office with a bunch of old people is not my idea of fun."

My first day got off to a horrible start. I got to work an hour late because I misread the directions and got off at the wrong bus stop. I was scared because I thought my supervisors would not understand and would deduct the missed hour from my paycheck. But luckily, that was not the case. Instead, I had the coolest and most understanding supervisors in the world. When I arrived they said, "It’s OK, don’t worry about it, it’s just your first day." I felt so relieved that I somersaulted for joy. Well, in my mind of course.

I had nine bosses

I was introduced to my nine supervisors, who are the people who inform the senator about what’s going on in the different cities she represents. Each of them was assigned to look over cities in her district, the 24th Senate District, which is mostly the area from East Los Angeles to Covina. They also were in charge of things from talking to the media to prison issues. The senator wasn’t in the office because she was busy in Sacramento going over the many bills that were in the process of getting passed. July to September is when the senators vote on bills. This is the busiest time of the year for them because September is the deadline for the bills to be passed.

The first assignment they gave me that day was to read prison letters. I did not expect my supervisors to give me such a responsible and confidential task. I asked, "Me? Read actual letters written by inmates?" Carol, one of my supervisors, answered, "Yes, I want you to read the letters and then summarize them on a Post-it."

George stands with state Senator Gloria Romero at the opening of her new East L.A. office. Working for the senator gave George a new respect for politicians.

Because Gloria Romero is the chairwoman of the prison committee and is known for advocating for prison reforms, the prisoners constantly wrote to her about their issues. As I read the letters, I began to realize that prison was literally hell—a place where you are not treated with respect and dignity, a place where you are known as just a number.

I was also surprised by the amount of mail the senator received from the inmates. Every day I would read at least 20 letters. Abuse by the guards, verbal and physical, was a common complaint. The prisoners would describe how they would get sent to "lockdown" for no particular reason except that the guards did not like them. Lockdown is when a prisoner is sent to a solitary cell for a couple days or weeks.

After reading dozens of letters during the first few days, I asked Carol, "How come the guards are so cruel to the prisoners?" She said the prisoners weren’t exactly on their best behavior and did many provocative things as well. She told me, "The prisoners mock the guards and spit at them." I found the prison letters interesting because I have always wondered what it is like to be locked up.

Though I wasn’t able to meet the senator the first day, I did meet her a week later and she turned out to be friendly, instead of an I-am-too-important-to-talk-to-you kind of person. When I asked her what she thought of prison abuse, she explained that she felt that the prisons are overcrowded and many prisoners should be in rehab instead of prison. She also would patiently explain to me what was going on in Sacramento and why she couldn’t be in the office. I only saw her three times, but each time she asked how I was doing and what I thought of the internship.

I helped out around the office

Most of the time during my internship, I would come into the office, read the prison letters, check the mail, make certificates (such as a certificate of congratulations to a new Starbucks) or input data, usually phone numbers of contacts such as a newspaper reporter or business cards left by constituents. As monotonous as it sounds, it wasn’t that bad. I heard about the issues going on around L.A. because my supervisors were constantly talking about problems in their cities.

For example, I learned how Wal-Mart planned to build a store next to an elementary school in Rosemead. Henry, one of my supervisors, was against it because he said the trucks that drop off merchandise would pollute the air, cause traffic and make it dangerous for kids crossing the road.

I also learned many things about the California Department of Corrections from reading prisoner letters and talking to Lucy, my supervisor who was in charge of prison-related stuff. From Lucy I found out that it costs about $30,000 per year to house a prisoner. That’s more than what it costs to attend a UC for two years! Also, more than one-third of California prisoners are in jail for nonviolent crimes, such as theft or possession of drugs. I feel it is outrageous for the government to spend so much money to house inmates when there are less costly options, such as rehab for drug offenders.

I asked Lucy why so many nonviolent offenders are in prison. She told me that one reason was the three-strikes law, which says that if a person has been convicted of two serious or violent felonies, then they are sent to prison for 25 years to life on their third felony conviction, even if it is a nonviolent crime. I thought that was wrong. The severity of a crime like stealing is different from murder. Stealing is a bad thing and if you get caught you should be punished, but I don’t think prisons should be wasted on thieves. There should be better ways to punish nonviolent criminals than paying $30,000 a year for their rent and food.

Before my internship I wasn’t aware of these issues. I had more important things to be concerned with, such as video games and playing water polo and tennis. But after last summer I’m more interested in the things going on around my life. When I watch the news and I hear about politics, I actually stay on the channel to see what they are talking about, such as the recent cuts in California’s education budget because Arnold the "Governator" wants to cut down the debt. This is affecting schools in my city, Baldwin Park, where recently 200 elementary school teachers were worried they could be laid off.

The best part of the internship was attending meetings with my supervisors. Each of my supervisors was also a field representative, meaning they represented the senator and met with various companies, clubs and constituents about their complaints and ideas. Meetings were fun because I got to get out of the office and do some "field work," as I liked to call it. It was exciting to be introduced by my supervisors to important adults, such as managers of businesses and government agencies. It made me feel like I was important.

I went along with Henry to a meeting of the Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar. After the meeting I was in for a treat because we were given a tour of the department, which is actually a large complex composed of a huge chemistry lab and a couple stories of offices. I was amazed by the huge computers, which were the size of library bookshelves, that they used to test the air quality. They looked like they were from some sci-fi movie set in 2150.

I learned about issues in East L.A.

I also attended three Greater East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce meetings with Angelo, another field representative. These meetings mainly dealt with a plan to incorporate East Los Angeles. To incorporate means to make an area its own city. An incorporated city, such as Los Angeles, has a municipal government that can collect taxes from its citizens to raise funds for public projects such as libraries. East Los Angeles is unincorporated.

I was told that this is one reason why it has a weaker economy. Just think of an unincorporated area as a city without a Vons, Starbucks, Best Buy and all the usual stores you would expect to find around the block. On my bus rides to work around East L.A., I saw one McDonald’s and there weren’t any Starbucks. The people at the meeting said that incorporating East L.A. would make it better and richer because it would encourage entrepreneurs to start new businesses.

An incorporated city has a city council that can get businesses to open there. The council also can make it easier for banks to loan money to low-income business people so they can start their own businesses, and by doing so create more jobs. By creating more jobs, there will be more people with money and more people with money equals more spending. Now hopefully more spending will attract the big businesses such as Starbucks and Vons. It’s a hard concept to understand. At the first meeting I was like "Huh?" It wasn’t until I asked Angelo a ton of questions that I finally understood.

By the end of my internship, I had earned $892 and bought an iPod. But I didn’t just earn money. I learned things that you can never learn in school because an internship is a hands-on experience. I basically had a sneak peak at what the career of a politician is like.

I realized that politicians are actually responsible leaders who got to where they are because of their good leadership. It is hard to be a politician because they are responsible for coming up with the best solution to satisfy all parties. Every decision you make is liked by one group and hated by another. I mean, just think of how hard it is to please all 33 million people living in California. Politicians and their staff are the hardworking people who help resolve your everyday issues. Henry, for example, organized a forum advocating against the proposed Wal-Mart, and Angelo is trying to incorporate East L.A. to make it a better place.

Before this internship I had planned to major in law and become a lawyer. But now I am also considering being a politician. I like to talk to others and I never give up on a challenge, so a career in politics fits me perfectly. I would be more than happy to become a senator or even governor someday.

How to apply

For more information on the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Youth Internship
Program and to find out if you are eligible, go to
or call (213) 316-2109. The program places students as paid interns in law firms,
businesses, government offices and non-profit organizations. Open to sophomores and juniors during their out-of-school months, the program is offered three times a year to accommodate students in Los Angeles’ year-round school systems. Each paid internship program lasts eight weeks.