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Hispanic Profile: Community Organizer Ramón Pérez

By Kevin Milliken, La Prensa Correspondent

 

For more than 15 years now, Ramón Pérez has spent his professional life interacting with the diverse residents of North Toledo as a community organizer.

 

His life’s work is deeply rooted in the belief that every individual should have the opportunity to realize his or her full economic and social potential—and every neighborhood should be able to flex its political muscle when needed for the betterment of its residents.
 


Ramón Pérez

“A community organizer is a person who is able to go out and find out what people are thinking and what people are feeling about what they want to see changed, want to see moved,” he explained. “We can bring those individual thoughts, concerns and feelings together in a collective way and start making those changes and improvements in what the community wants to see. In the process, you’re identifying and building leaders.”

 

Pérez, 58, considers himself part consensus-builder and part bridge-builder. In the end, he works to ensure the residents of a neighborhood set their own agenda and determine their own course of action. To that end, he sees a community organizer as much more than a social service worker or advocate, because he allows “a neighborhood to stand on its own, to sustain itself socially, politically, and economically.”

 

Pérez has traveled to Eastern Europe—including Romania and Hungary—during his career as a community organizer. Around the world, he stated his colleagues share very similar characteristics, which allow residents to chart their own destiny.

 

While Pérez works out of the offices of United North on Lagrange St., he actually works on behalf of One Village Council (formerly Lagrange Village Council).  The community development corporation provides office space to the citizen group as an in-kind service.

 

Pérez also advocates on behalf of Latino issues locally, but that’s more of a personal passion. As a community organizer, he “knocks on all doors” to represent and bring together all ethnic groups in North Toledo.

 

“There’s a good diversity of people who come to those meetings,” he said. “With the Latino community, there’s a different approach, because there’s a specific ethnic group, history, language, and culture, religion, politics, and economic class that exists. It’s different from the mainstream of the Toledo population.”
 

Pérez, of Mexican-American heritage, grew up in Stryker, Ohio, where his family had settled. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade, and worked the rest of his teenage years as a migrant farmworker. He finished his GED through a specialized program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the age of 20. His uncle convinced his parents to enroll him, because it focused on migrant farmworkers and children.

 

Pérez had finally found a place where he fit in, after being discouraged to speak Spanish in school and teachers referred to him by the name Raymond. That led him to more deeply discover his Chicano roots.

 

He also admitted he fit in well at Bowling Green State University once he joined the Latino Student Union, where LSU members organized a campaign for student rights, including a sit-in at the university president’s office. Nearly two dozen Latino students were arrested, including Pérez. They became known in local lore as “the BG 23.”

 

“We were protesting what we researched and had defined as institutionalized, de facto racism,” he recalled. “We did the sit-in and refused to leave until the president agreed to meet with us and to disassemble this institutionalized racism.”

 

Pérez stated the police showed up in riot gear to quell what he called civil disobedience. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) provided the student protestors with legal representation—and even subpoenaed the university president.

 

“In essence, we won our case. It was one of some amazing things we did as students at BGSU,” he said. “That’s what helped us get into a lot of the roles and positions that we’re in now.”

 

His tenure at and thoughts of Adelante, Inc.

 

Pérez looks with a bit of sadness at Latino student union groups at universities across the country now, because “they have become so complacent.” He attributes that to the advisors of those groups, guiding them to assimilate to the campus culture.

 

“They really have no idea who they are, all the injustices that are still in their lives, in their parent’s lives, in their community’s lives,” he lamented. “They don’t recognize it. They don’t know how to recognize it, so they don’t know how to fight it.”

 

Nearly 20 years ago, Pérez was instrumental in helping to form the organization that became Adelante, Inc. The nonprofit started as a way to deliver substance abuse services to Latinos, especially in an era of heroin addiction. Jack Ford, who was then the director of SASI, helped create Adelante.

 

The agency thrived under former director Sonia Troche’s 6-year tenure, but in recent years and after Ms. Troche’s departure, has lost a lot of its funding and suffered through a rapid succession of administrators and leadership challenges.

Pérez is no longer affiliated with Adelante, stating that until recently, the nonprofit organization had lost its way with a “top-down approach,” instead of seeking directly the evolving needs of local Latinos to lift them up.

 

However, he is confident new executive director Guisselle Mendoza can return the agency to its roots.

 

“It’s great to see a Latina who is now the executive director. To me, that has a lot of benefits. Number one, she’s bilingual,” he said. “The other thing is she’s been with the organization for a number of years, so she understands how the organization operates and she understands that for Adelante to be successful, you have to meet Latinos where they are at in the community, find out what Latinos are thinking and feeling—and from there, develop your social, political, and economic agenda for Adelante.”

 

Pérez recalled that it took “holding officials accountable, holding funders accountable, and holding a lot of people accountable” in order to create Adelante. He stated the agency “hasn’t progressed” as he would have liked according to its original vision as a “fighting, progressive machine” for the needs of Latinos in its service territory, instead becoming a social service organization.

 

Pérez candidly stated that he measures the “progress” of Latinos by poverty, education, home ownership, and “having equity and financial resources that provide security in our lives.” He also sees political clout as a measuring stick “to determine our own destiny through our voices and votes.”

 

“When I do the research and look into it, I still see high levels of poverty and low education,” he said—even speaking about cities like Lorain, Cleveland, and Columbus, where the Latino community is more organized and mobilized around common agendas.

“They may be on the right road and able to bring 100, 500, or 1,000 people together, but if you’re not able to show you’re moving up in education, employment, and economic parity, then you’re not really making a difference.”

 

Don’t look for Pérez to slow down or speak up less when it comes to advocating for Latino issues. The passion and fire still is very much alive, especially after he recently read another book on Chicano history. So immigration, access, and equality all will remain on his radar as he tries to help organize the Latino community.

 

“We haven’t really evolved much at all. We’re just barely existing,” he said. “We haven’t learned about who we are or where we came from. We’re still trying to figure out where we fit in.”

 

Copyright © 1989 to 2014 by [LaPrensa Publications Inc.]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 03/25/14 05:19:52 -0800.

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