Community activism and civil rights work was an industry Elaine Rodriguez was born into. It began with her mother. As a single mom to three kids, she worked at a local canary in Watsonville, California when Rodriguez was a child.
When the canary ended up going on strike due to unfair wages and poor treatment of the workers, it was Rodriguez’s mother who stood tall at the front.
Rodriguez had a front-row seat to see her mother be the voice for those who did not have one. Calling out injustice, Rodriguez witnessed her mother’s activism and determination to do what was right. For Rodriguez, this experience forever changed the course of her life.
Today, Rodriguez has established her work in community activism and civil rights. She is the president of a community action group called Mano Amiga En Roseburg, a group of Latinx women that support the needs and opportunities of the Latinx population in Roseburg by providing access to resources and fostering equity through improved health, education, and social services. She is also a civil rights advocate for the State of Oregon.
Much like her mother, Rodriguez has become a voice for those who are unable to do so within her community and has made it her life’s mission to continue the work that she once witnessed her mother do, inside their home, all those years ago.
How did you get involved in community activism?
It’s always been a part of our family culture. My mother worked in a canary in Watsonville in the 80’s when a strike broke out due to unfair wages and poor treatment of the workers, and I remember at a very young age, the meetings that she would host at our house. I remember how she would garner support, excitement, so much energy. My mom always made sure we knew how to defend ourselves and others and encouraged us to speak up when we saw injustice. I get most of my inspiration from her, she is my example of what community activism is.
Being in the role of community activism, what does that role consist of and what are some of the work you have done?
When I came to Roseburg 5 years ago, I found a group of parents at a local school that were gathering to talk about work within the school. It was a Spanish-speaking group. There I met a wonderful woman named Lupita. We started talking about some of the things that we would like to see in Roseburg, and they were all things that really resonated with me. Things like services for the community, access to Spanish language material at school, and access to healthcare. And I was like, wow I can get with this, I want to be part of whatever you all are doing! [Lupita] connected me with other women in the area that had similar interests, and eventually, we became Mano Amiga En Roseburg.
In October of last year, we worked together to host the Mexican consulate mobile unit [in Roseburg]. We had a great turnout, got a lot of feedback, and heard testimonials from people about what they need in the community. As a result, we started facilitating monthly informational meetings. We invited the DMV to talk about the licencias (license) and the real ID and how folks can attain them. Our next monthly session is going to be about access to healthcare. We plan to invite folks from different organizations to talk about OHP and help them sign up.
Discuss the civil rights aspect of your work
In my regular job as a civil rights advocate, I’m fortunate to be able to advocate for people and equip them with an understanding of what their rights are. I work with some amazing people that are also very passionate about supporting victims of violent crimes and discrimination. I do trainings and presentations on civil rights, so it meshes very well with my community work.
What is the impact of being a woman in community activism and civil rights work? Are there challenges?
This is a predominantly female field that I find myself in. I don’t consider being a woman a barrier to overcome, I think women are powerful. What I do want to highlight is that women of color and people of color are not in the position to influence the distribution of funding. The folks that are sitting on these finance committees are generally not people from our community. They’re not women or people of color. I would like to see more people who look like me in those positions.
Civil rights work is not easy to be involved in. How do you find the courage, as a woman, to do this important work?
Let me tell you, I did not come into this work through traditional means. I did not graduate from high school; I got my GED in my youth and then went to college as an adult. I’ve been in this line of work for the last 20-something years, and I have sat at the table with very powerful and influential people, and I’ve come to realize that those people sitting across from me are no different than I am. They have the same doubts, the same insecurities, and they make the same mistakes. They are human just like me. I realize if they can do it, so can I.
Looking at all your work experience, what was the most meaningful to you?
Probably the most recent which was hosting the Mexican consulate in Roseburg because there was so much collaboration with other agencies, and the women at Mano Amiga stepped up into strong leadership roles. It revitalized us and increased our confidence.
Advice you would give to other women wanting to get involved in community activism?
Be brave, be bold, and give each other grace. Know that you’re going to make mistakes and that’s ok. When you do make the mistakes, be gentle with yourself. And most importantly, when you see other women winning, champion them and lift them up.