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Ryan Lopez is not the kind of politician who makes empty promises. He’s more interested in seeing real needs and building a coalition of partners to meet them. This set him apart from his opponents, who promised that, if elected, everyone would get a lot of candy.
Not metaphorical, political candy. Actual candy.
Lopez is in fifth grade at Price Elementary in South San Antonio ISD. Now, he’s the student body president, and he’s already getting down to business.
Barely three weeks into his presidency, Lopez took on a critical infrastructure project: an ADA-compliant ramp at the entrance to Price Park.
In 2013 and 2014 the City of San Antonio partnered with local school districts to create a number of Spark Parks, playgrounds and basketball courts used by schools during the day, and by the community at night. The entrance to Price Park sits less than 100 feet from Gloria Galvan’s classroom, where Lopez is a student. The park was easily accessible to the class until a new student joined their classroom in September.
The new classmate has muscular dystrophy, and uses a wheelchair. Not a motorized wheelchair, either. The manual chair provided by a local nonprofit is difficult to maneuver, so Lopez and his classmates often help out by pushing it down hallways and outside. Without a ramp, however, the students had a hard time helping their friend get into Price Park for recess. They tried lifting him, but that was not safe, Lopez said, “The only way to get in the playground was to go all the way around to the street.”
At some point, the school put out a plywood ramp, that was still wobbly and doomed to fail, Lopez said. He was frustrated by the multiple layers of inequity stacking up against his classmate, who was not only new to the class, but new to the country. The student had come recently from Mexico, and now he was here in a cumbersome wheelchair not suited to his disability, trying to get up a makeshift ramp. All together, “It probably made him feel like people don’t care about him,” Lopez said.
But they did, and Lopez had promised students that he would hear their voice.
The class was incensed on behalf of their classmate, Galvan said. “The kids were all saying, ‘It’s not fair!'”
She was proud of her class, not only for using their voice, but for picking something that matters. They picked the ramp, and Lopez took up the charge.
Fortunately for him, he knew who to call. As a community park, Price Park falls under the purview of Lopez’s uncle, Councilman Rey Saldaña.
“I don’t have a cell phone, so my mom let me use the phone at home,” Lopez said. He made contact, and once the weather complied, Saldaña’s office got the ramp installed. It was loud in Galvan’s classroom during the construction, but every time she complained, her students reminded her that it was worth it.
Because Price Park is also a community park, Galvan and Lopez pointed out, the ramp will benefit more people. Already, more people from the school—a reading buddy and some of the kids with severe physical handicaps—have already expressed appreciation.
Lopez seems to takes the achievement in stride, perhaps not yet realizing how rare it is for people to be so happy with their elected representatives.
In 14 years of teaching, Galvan said, Lopez stands out. His realistic, empathetic voice is unique, she said, but he also cleverly deploys a sense of humor. While his campaign did not feature a lot of empty promises, he did whip out some puns.
Lopez said he ran the kind of campaign he wanted to see from adult politicians.
“I expect them to think about things we’re concerned about,” Lopez said, like healthcare, safety, and functional park restrooms. He didn’t make hollow promises, and he doesn’t think that adults should either.
“I want them to make a promise they can actually do,” he said. “Not like promising a 1,000 acre park or something.”
Parks feature a lot in Lopez’s politics. While cute, yes, that’s actually a valuable place for civics to start. Kids care about parks, and connecting that to the elected representatives who make parks possible is a great tool for getting them civically engaged.
The approach is solid with adults as well, as evidenced by another recent improvement to Price Elementary. One of few bills to become law during the 2017 Legislature was Rep. Diego Bernal’s food-sharing bill. (Actually the Senate version was signed into law). It allows schools to save unopened food left over from lunch, and create “share tables” where food-insecure kids could grab food to take home with them. So the Price Elementary share table and the Price Park ramp were born of the same political philosophy: listen to people, focus on real problems.
As his career in politics continues, Lopez will have plenty of chances to practice listening. Later that afternoon, Galvan reminded him, he needed to meet with one of the clubs. They had some concerns they wanted to bring before the student council.
“I’m ready for them,” Lopez said, referring to his infamous note-taking device. “I’m gonna break out the kitty cat notepad.”
Originally published as “Fifth grade student body president ramps up empathy, civic engagement,” Hall Monitor, October 26, 2018
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