Rachel Lester elected to SoRo neighborhood panel

By Leila Miller, Arts Editor

In her black Shalhevet jacket with its blazing red letters, sophomore Rachel Lester assertively approached one of the desk clerks inside the Robertson Recreation Center, where the South Robertson Neighborhood Council (SoRo) election was in progress. Peering at papers on the table, she looked over the list of people who had voted so far and smiled incredulously.
“I know these people,” Rachel softly exclaimed. Then louder, “This is so cool!”
Her mother Sherri, behind her, scanned the voting booths. “Almost every person in here voted for Rachel,” she said.
And apparently, that was true. With the final tally at 150-13, on April 11 Rachel clinched a two-year seat as a representative on the council, at age 15 becoming its youngest-ever elected member. In so doing she became a celebrity not only in the neighborhood, but also in news sources (see box).
None of this, she said, was even remotely expected.
Often seen gliding around Beverly Wood on her ribstick, Rachel is a soprano in the Shalhevet choir as well as the Chief Layout Editor and Features Editor of The Boiling Point. She’s very environmentally conscious, eating her school-supplied cereal out of a pink eco-friendly reusable bowl instead of the usual throw-away styrophone.
As representative of SoRo’s Zone 1, a seat that’s been empty for a bit under a year, Rachel will represent a 50-block area from Roxbury Drive to Robertson Boulevard and from Cashio to Whitworth — in other words, the main center of the Pico-Robertson neighborhood in which she and more than half of Shalhevet students live.
In her new role, Rachel must attend two SoRo meetings every month – one a forum for the full council and the other for a committee in which she’s active. Rachel is particularly interested in environmental issues, and plans to work on initiatives to improve the neighborhood and address concern raised by residents of her district. (See sidebar.)
SoRo was established in 2004 and is overseen by the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, and is one of the 91 certified government-funded neighborhood councils created under the Los Angeles City Charter.   In past years, the council has sponsored a job fair at Hamilton High School, a mentoring program at Shenandoah Elementary School, and an annual street fair. Each of the elected members of SoRo votes on issues before the board and must join at least one of the council’s official “action committees.”
In her election, Rachel’s received overwhelming support from her friends and family in the local Jewish community. From the time the polls opened at 10 am that Sunday to even after they officially closed at 4 pm, they disrupted their day to come out and vote for her.
“I’m really proud of her,” said classmate Laura Melamed, walking back across the Robertson park with her mom at midday, who had also come to vote. “She’s making her ideas become heard. That’s the motto of Shalhevet – make your voice be heard.”
Rachel’s opponent, Kenneth R. Hooper Jr., was quite a good sport about losing to her.  A father of two who has served in the U.S military, he has a Bachelors degree in architecture and experience in real estate, and was hoping to use his skills in SoRo’s Land Use and Economic Development committee.
But he was glad Rachel got a shot at the job, and will try to be as much involved in SoRo as he can.
“I looked at the results I thought that everything looked as I had anticipated,” Mr. Hooper said. “My opponent got so many votes, which I was really happy about…so happy for her, the results were awesome.”
On Election Day, rectangular “Voters!” signs at Robertson Park and in its main building directed voters toward the polling room.
Complete with a Farsi interpreter, the polling place was similar to what you’d see in a typical Los Angeles municipal election, except that the minimum age for voting was just 15. Staff from the Office of the City Clerk greeted voters as they arrived, then had them complete a registration form and identify their home on a map.
After voting themselves around 11 a.m. — right after her Firehawk softball game — Rachel and her mom made a final effort to rally support.
“At two on Sunday we literally went up and down Robertson from my house to Baskin Robbins,” Rachel said.
Among her supporters were two of her Shalhevet math teachers.
“She has guts,” said Mrs. Tamara Gidanian, who teaches Algebra II Honors. “It’s a big responsibility. I’m proud of her, as her teacher.”
Mr. Jonathan Gilbert, Rachel’s middle school Algebra I teacher, drove up to vote from his home in Marina Del Rey.  City rules say anyone who lives, works, shops, worships or has other interests in a neighborhood is eligible to vote for neighborhood council.
“It’s not just the math,” Mr. G. said. “She’s steered by her heart and not by her mind.”
“We’ve had some great conversations,” he added. “Rachel’s in the right direction… Amazing person; passionate, very community-conscious.”
The consensus was that a teenager would bring needed energy to the council.
“Most adults are tired and bored,” said Theo Brandt-Sarif, father of two Shalhevet students, while playing with his daughter in the park’s playground. “I think she would take it more seriously. She’s got the fire inside her that even most kids don’t have.”
People at the polls who were not connected with Rachel said that they were there to vote for candidates for other positions whom they knew personally. But upon hearing that a teenager was running, they voted for Rachel as well.
“You could be 15 years old, but smarter than a man or women of 60,” said Dr. Menes Guirguis.
A woman identifying herself as “Nelly” compared Rachel to her grandson who had been accepted into Stanford.
“If she’s smart, it doesn’t matter her age,” Nelly said.
Like more and more voters, many of Rachel’s friends found out about the election via her Facebook page. Nate and Barabara Schloss and their dad barely made it in time.
“Is this is the same Rachel who hangs out at our place on Shabbat?” Mr. Howard Schloss asked.
Rachel was shocked and thankful for the overwhelming amount of support she received.
“I didn’t think that many people would show up,” she said. “It means so much that 150 people got out of their bed Sunday to work for me.”
“This is one of many examples of how the Shalhevet community supports its students,” agreed senior Emma Lipner. “Everyone was really rooting for her. We were encouraged to go out and vote.”