Birth of a Social Justice Warrior

For #RedForEd Rally organizer Mike Rodriguez, living and learning in LA during the Rodney King riots left an indelible mark

Mike Rodriguez at Orange County #RedForEd Rally at the Old Courthouse in Santa Ana

In the eighties and nineties, social justice advocate and member of the Santa Ana Educators Association (SAEA) Mike Rodriguez saw the daily impact of economic inequity while growing up and attending LA schools. That experience would put him on a path to social justice awareness and advocacy that he continues to pursue as a principal organizer of Wednesday’s Orange County #RedForEd Rally. During the rally, he shared his thoughts about why teaching and confronting structural inequities are inextricably linked.

What drew you into social justice organizing work? “Growing up in Los Angeles, wealth inequality stares one right in the face.  It all exploded when violence erupted after the Rodney King verdict in 1992.  I remember watching in shock on TV as parts of my city were burning to ashes and many poor and working class folks were looting stores for basic necessities. School was cancelled for a week, and when we returned, just about every business was burned to the ground as I drove down Venice Boulevard in the Mid-City area.  How did the Riots impact you as a high school student? “It was a wake-up call for me. I entered UCSD in 1993 and began to take Ethnic Studies classes and studied how structural inequality based on race, class and gender has ravaged our society. But also, I learned how people have worked tirelessly throughout history to challenge it.  This is why so many in the #Red4Ed movement are calling for things like smaller class sizes, more counselors and Ethnic Studies: to prepare our next generation to create a better world.  And this is why I teach, to learn from the past and work in the present for a better future.”

Since the first #RedForEd strike in West Virginia in February 2018, there have been multiple job actions across the country. What do you think has changed? “Teachers are waking up to the fact that there are deep, structural economic problems in our society, and we need to be on the forefront of social change.  Teachers are in the trenches; we see the conditions in which many of our students are living.  We work with students who are homeless, who have to work jobs to help their families, and who have parents that work two jobs or more; we have students that have families members in prison, or students who have been in the system themselves.  It’s time to do everything we can to help students become successful, which means fully supporting teachers and fully funding education for our youth. 

Would you say that you are rallying for your students, to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed? “Teachers are public servants, we have committed our lives to serving our students.  We need to hire more future teachers to reduce class sizes, we need more counselors, we need many things so that all of our students have the opportunity to succeed.

Where will you be marching along a particular route. Why? “We will be marching in Downtown Santa Ana, from the Old OC Courthouse to Sasscer Park.  On the way, we will be making a stop at one of the 15 charter schools in Santa Ana, Nova Academy, to highlight the lack of transparency and accountability of charter schools statewide.  Santa Ana, the heart of Orange County, is the largest district in the county and it also has the largest number of charter schools.  We’re here to say that districts in Orange County should be investing more in local public schools than in charters.I’m here for my students. I know what resources they need and I’m here to make sure they get it!”