Photo by James Dillon III

Roberto Rodriguez likes to know what’s beneath the surface of an issue. “I am a person that values context quite a bit. How did we arrive here? What makes up a person? In education, we call this a trauma-informed approach,” he said. After five years on the Portland Board of Education, he is running for an at-large seat on City Council. “When you interact with someone, it’s not your responsibility to fix their problems, but you need to understand that we all have multiple layers of context that make up who we are, that make up our values.”

His own experiences help him understand what other people face. Born in Puerto Rico, he lived in Mexico and then Miami as a child, and became a parent a month after graduating from high school. “I was just bouncing around, trying to figure things out. To have a kid so young, you’re just trying to make money, pay the bills.” At 22, he started community college for a degree as a physical therapist assistant, then got an outpatient clinic job. There he met his wife, an occupational therapist born in Portland and raised in upstate New York. In the cultural diversity of Miami, layers of identity were “constantly at odds with each other, complementing each other, questioning each other,” he said. “How do we fit them all in? It was an amazing experience in identifying who I was.” Meeting his wife was “my very, very first glance into white America. Me dating a white woman from Maine and New York was a crash course in whiteness,” he said with a laugh.

They moved from Miami to Portland so they could be more engaged in a smaller community, just before his second daughter started kindergarten, and Rodriguez immediately began volunteering in her classroom. In 2016, he jumped at the chance to run for school board. “This is exactly what we were here for. This is the kind of community support and involvement we wanted,” he said. He’d been involved in his older daughter’s childhood, but her upbringing was different. He’d had no time to volunteer. “I’ve experienced being a parent without all the resources, and now being a parent in a life of privilege,” he said. He brings this lens to his work as a public servant. “I want to think it enriches my ability to make decisions. I use a trauma-informed lens to appreciate what others have gone through to create who they are today.”

After 17 years working in physical therapy, just before the pandemic he began full time work in the business he’d started a few years earlier, Fresh Food Gardens, which helps families and organizations create organic urban vegetable gardens with the goal of self-sufficiency. And he recently became interim co-director for Cultivating Community, a food access nonprofit with programs for New Mainers and young people, that manages 11 community gardens in Portland.

Rodriguez’s school board years motivated him to run for City Council. “A lot of the issues that we’re trying to address on the school level – that keep families from thriving – are society-at-large issues that the schools cannot solve alone. The most pressing ones are the affordability of the city; opportunity, meaning access to high quality health care and access for families that require public services; and the information and support systems in the community.” Social justice, he said, is the overarching issue that doesn’t happen in a silo. “When we talk about equity, social justice, we want these lenses to be applied to all areas of policy making. If we make a commitment to it, we need to show outcomes that demonstrate equity.”