Whitman First-Years Compete in Debating for Democracy: Hope to Lobby Bill

Rylee Neville, Staff Reporter

In late March, an organization called Project Pericles hosted the national Debating for Democracy in New York. Two Whitman students, Ameliz Price-Dominguez ’22 and Salma Anguiano ’22, competed in the annual Letters to an Elected Official Contest.

For the first time in the history of the convention, the judges allowed two winners. Price-Dominguez and Anguiano were part of a team which tied for first place, taking home $2,000 in funds to assist with their project.  

The director of Project Pericles, Jan Liss, gave a little insight into the purpose of the program, noting how it is not exactly a project.

I think first thing is we’re not a project, we are a nonprofit organization that works to incorporate civic engage into the curriculum and to develop socially responsible citizens. It just happens that we are called a project. We have a number of programs,” Liss said.

One of the programs under Project Pericles is Debating for Democracy. It is a national conference where each college campus selects delegates to bring to New York for for a series of workshops, panel discussions, and tours of nonprofit organizations. Liss developed Debating for Democracy. She was also a member of the team that picked the finalists.  

One of the contestants in Whitman’s team who won first place, Ameliz Price-Dominguez, talked about the letter they submitted to the judges. “Debate for Democracy involved writing a letter to an elected official to convince them to introduce or support the legislation that you propose. We wrote a letter to Senator Ron Wyden and submitted it to Project Pericles as well. We were selected to be one of the top finalists to travel to New York, with two other students of our choice, and debate for the top prize,” Price-Dominguez said.

Price-Dominguez, along with Salma Anguiano, received $2,000 to fund their project. “I believe the program allows young people to address issues and feel like their voices are being heard. Perhaps the most important part is that students can learn how to use their democracy in order to initiate change,” Anguiano said.

Price-Dominguez is passionate about the issues presented at Debating for Democracy, and want to induce change in her work. “I competed in the conference because I am passionate about this human rights issue that is seldom addressed or given much media attention, but is extremely prevalent in the region surrounding Whitman, back home in AZ, and all across the U.S. This was an opportunity to make real, widespread change. I would never have passed this up,” Price-Dominguez said.

Anguiano has a personal motivation for participating in Debating for Democracy. Her step-father was injured on the job and their family had to go through the process of claiming workers compensation.

“I first-hand saw the discrimination toward my father because he was undocumented and learned that the system was truly flawed. The system currently set in place is very unequitable, and I decided I wanted to do something that affected my community. As a first-generation student, I think it’s very important to take the opportunities given to me, such as receiving an education, and use it to initiate change,” Anguiano said.

Anguiano grew up in a migrant working community where she endured the harsh conditions and saw the exploitation of workers.

“Oftentimes, we think about exploitation of workers in other countries, but we never stop to consider that this is going on in our own country. As students here at Whitman, we often live in bubbles and fail to recognize that a few miles off campus workers are being exploited and used for cheap labor,” she said.

Anguiano’s background serves as her sense of purpose to induce change, and this change starts with her proposal in Debating for Democracy.

The letter Anguiano and Price-Dominguez wrote was based on an idea of providing disability insurance to immigrants. Companies, most of the time, are not required to take care of injured workers on the job. So, these two students wanted to do something about it.

According to the Director of Project Pericles, Jan Liss, the letter was compelling both in terms of how well written and how strategically thought out it was.

“The fact is, it is incredible. This is an amazing competition and they are freshmen. I thought their letter was brilliant and their presentation was incredibly powerful,” Liss said.

Liss expects big things from these two individuals, both on this particular issue and going forward.

“I hope they are also very confident about how impressive they are.  A year ago these students were in high school. It gives us significant hope for the future. It is incredibly impressive,” Liss said.

This is the first time Whitman has participated in Debating for Democracy. The Whitman campus is the newest member of Project Pericles. Liss is thoroughly impressed by Whitman’s participation as she talks about the goals of Anguiano and Price-Dominguez.

“If they can create a model for the rest of the US, it is an accomplishment that most people spend a lifetime of work to achieve, let alone 2 college freshmen. If people are making a big deal of this, they are 100 percent right,” Liss said.

It doesn’t stop there. Both students have plans to continue their work. With the $2,000 in prize money, they each intend to gather more support, spread awareness and work with legislators to introduce a new bill.

“We are going to lobby the bill in OR and WA senates. We will also be allocating a portion of the money to work with local immigrant’s rights groups in Walla Walla and across the region, gather support, momentum, spreading awareness and gathering the experiences of the people that are working without access to worker’s compensation and would be impacted by this new legislation,” Price-Dominguez said.

Anguiano notes how they are planning on teaming up with Borders as Methods (BAM) on campus. BAM is a club committed to educating communities about immigration issues and challenging traditional notions through a focus on intersectionality.

“We are planning on holding events to inform our communities about their rights as workers. Our team is also planning on advocating in Washington D.C. to bring attention to our issue. We have the opportunity to work with a lobbyist company and expert public policy law makers to introduce a new bill into Congress that addresses our issue,” Anguiano said.