Activist Gives Up Post, Not Lifework


For nearly 15 years, Irma Rodriguez has been at the center of Orange County's stormiest social controversies, from housing and health care for the poor to immigrant enclaves, gay rights and complaints of police harassment.

As a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission since March 1975, she has witnessed the ebb and flow of community and institutional attitudes toward the impoverished, ethnic minorities and other fringe groups.

If anyone should have an idea of just how far Orange County has come, it would be Rodriguez, 40, who has just retired from the 11-member county commission that is charged with studying, spotlighting and mediating such highly sensitive matters.

"We all know the image of the Orange County of the '60s and '70s--its conservatism, its lower levels of awareness to problems of the peripheral groups," said Rodriguez, who is dean of admissions and records at Fullerton College.

The advances in 15 years, said Rodriguez, have indeed been significant. "We have more programs that deal directly with these issues. The overall levels of caring and understanding have progressed. This is surely gratifying."

But she and other activists argued that some advances are now being undercut by a nationwide backlash that can be seen also in Orange County.

One example is the "English-only" movement affecting schools and even businesses. Another is the rejection in Irvine of extending anti-discrimination protection to gays. Still another: the pending eviction from a Costa Mesa neighborhood of a facility for serving the homeless and poor.

Rodriguez's explanation--one shared with other human relations activists--is linked to the mounting increase of ethnic-minority populations and the rise of unemployment and poverty among once-secure "majority population" Americans.

"We're talking about fear, and people feeling threatened by changes they don't understand," she said. "We're talking about doors being closed again, about people who don't want to deal with these problems--at least not in their city, not in their neighborhoods."

Rodriguez has left the Orange County Human Relations Commission because, commission officials said, she no longer lives in the North County supervisorial district to which she was appointed in 1975.

Rodriguez and her husband, businessman Fred Fernandez, have moved from Anaheim to Laguna Niguel. Her successor, Robert Jensen, who is chancellor of the Rancho Santiago College District and lives in Orange, was officially appointed Nov. 7. Currently, there are no South County vacancies on the commission to which Rodriguez might be appointed.

"Of course, I would like to stay on the commission--it's been my special cause for too many years. But I have no quarrel with the (residential) rule for not being reappointed," she said in a recent interview.

But Rodriguez has served notice she will remain active in other areas of the human relations field. "Let's just say I'm changing gears," she said.

One venture in the planning stage for her: a new private project bringing ethnic minority "role model" speakers to schools with high dropout rates as a move to encourage minority students to stay in school and go on to college.

Her involvement in this and other student-training projects, she promised, will not be much different from her years on the county commission, where she was known for her outspokenness and tenacity.

"Irma isn't afraid of taking risks and going out on a limb for people," said Rusty Kennedy, the county commission's staff executive director. "She's totally committed and fearless. She's also very professional in issues and organization. She is no radical."

Rodriguez brought those characteristics--passionate activist and cool organizer--to every issue, especially those in which she played a major role, such as the establishment of smoother relations between the commission and once-hostile local police departments.

Management consultant Norman Traub, who had dealt with Rodriguez when he was a police chief in Placentia and Orange, said, "Sure, she is very strong and assertive and knows what she's after. But she's not dogmatic. She takes a positive, problem-solving approach."

The commission's current chairwoman, Jean Forbath, assessed Rodriguez's impact this way: "Irma has done as much as anyone to keep the commission on the right track. To us, Irma is what this commission is all about."

Created by the County Board of Supervisors in 1971, the Orange County Human Relations Commission's mission is to "resolve problems relating to prejudice. discrimination and disorder in any field of human relations" and to work with public and private agencies in developing programs to "alleviate or prevent social problems in employment, housing and other areas."

The commission's job--then and now--said Rodriguez, "is to research the problem, to air the issues, to bring the parties together." When she joined the commission in 1975, the body had already won high marks for its reports on substandard conditions in migrant worker camps and other countywide disputes.

And a commission-backed study panel, which included Rodriguez as one of its most driving members, led to the establishment in 1977 of the Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled, the first service-and-advocacy program of its kind in the county.

However, much of this was overshadowed by the commission's running battles with some cities. The issues usually involved expanding housing and job programs for ethnic minorities and, most of all, handling complaints of alleged police harassment. But to its most vocal foes, the commission was nothing but a free-swinging, militant meddler given to showy public hearings.

The commission, Rodriguez conceded, was then more openly aggressive. "You have to remember that this (activism) was the temper of the times, that a lot of (commission members) had come straight out of the societal movements of the '60s and early '70s."

Rodriguez herself was one: A Latina born in Stockton and raised in Compton and Covina, she joined the battle for educational, employment and other rights for ethnic minorities while earning her bachelor's degree (psychology and ethnic studies) at Cal State Fullerton and master's degree (public administration) at USC.

But by the early '80s, the commission's image was less abrasive and more low-profile.

"It was all part of the maturing process for all of us," explained Rodriguez, who as commission chairwoman from 1976-82 was a pivotal figure in this transition. "(The commission) realized we couldn't go around trying to put out every forest fire. We also found the mood in the county was becoming more sympathetic to these issues."

A significant example: Commission relations with police departments have improved markedly. Since the early '80s, she said, more departments sought the commission's assistance in handling racial tensions, including rifts between police and ethnic enclaves in those cities.

One of the most dramatic turnarounds involved Stanton, one of the commission's bitterest critics in the '70s. According to Rodriguez, the city "invited us in" after a police officer shot and killed a 5-year-old boy after mistaking the boy's toy gun for a real weapon.

"Tensions were high in that (racially mixed) neighborhood because the boy was black, and the city wanted us to help cool things down," recalled Rodriguez, who acted as the commission's spokeswoman. "We kept our role as low key and behind-the-scenes as possible."

Rodriguez is also credited with a major role in starting commission-sponsored meetings between police and minority leaders and in launching "cross-cultural" training sessions for police officers.

Martin Hairabedian, Fullerton police chief from 1977 to 1986, and now a North Orange County Municipal Court judge, recalled, "We realized that (the commission and departments) had a lot in common, that we were seeking the same (community) goals."

And, added Hairabedian, who in 1981 became the first police chief to sit on the Orange County Human Relations Commission, "She (Rodriguez) has done as much as anyone to create this climate of communications."

To Rodriguez, the credibility of the Orange County Human Relations Commission, after a few tumultuous years, is solidly in place.

And its impact, she said, has been considerable: "We have helped raise the empowerment of people in this county and give them greater access to the system. That's no small achievement."

Even though, she added, the commission's resources have remained small: An annual operating budget of $268,000; a full-time staff of six. (As for the 11-member commission itself, the Board of Supervisors still appoints six commissioners; the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities the remaining five.)

In the '90s, the commission's role will be even more urgent, she said, given such recent Orange County setbacks as the cutbacks in health care for the poor and the backlash signs in some communities toward ethnic and economic minorities.

And Rodriguez, looking back on her years on the commission, hopes the county panel remains as much an advocate as it is an educator and mediator.

"To really change attitudes and create new understanding, you have to keep after people and institutions--you can't let up, you can't let them become too complacent."

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