I COULDN’T DECIDE where to talk to Fabricio Rodriguez for this column.
We could’ve met on the campus of Temple, Penn or Drexel, or on the steps of the Philly Art Museum. At each institution, Rodriguez had organized protests by security guards whose pleas for a few paid sick days had for years fallen on deaf ears.
Thanks to his efforts – which resulted in the creation of the Philadelphia Security Officers Union – guards who are sick no longer have to choose between going to work or going broke.
We could’ve dug into crab fries at Chickie’s & Pete’s, whose workers just won a staggering $8.4 million settlement to recover tips that had been stolen by management. Rodriguez, as founder of the Philadelphia chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, had referred the complaining employees to state and federal authorities for help. A killer lawyer took things from there.
Or, if I had the money, Rodriguez and I could’ve flown to Juneau, Ala., and chatted near the silver mine where he once toiled alongside his father. They pushed their employer to honor the law allowing miners the right to wash their hands before lunch and to eat their meal in a clean place. Father and son got fired for their trouble, but three years later the rights they’d demanded were finally enforced.
In the end, Rodriguez and I settled for lunch at El Fuego, the fabulous Center City Mexican cafeteria whose owner, Pete Ellis, stands mostly alone in Philly’s restaurant industry by providing paid sick days to his employees.
That makes him a hero in Rodriguez’s eyes. So that’s where we met, because Rodriguez is a hero in mine. When it comes to issues of economic and social justice in this city, he’s not only on the right side of issues affecting the low-paid and working poor, he actually makes change happen.
I wanted to ask Rodriguez about his a new gig as an organizer for nonprofit POWER, the increasingly influential collective of faith-based organizations that has been able to get an initiative put on the May 20 ballot. If passed, it would raise wages for more than 2,000 airport workers and other city-subcontracted workers to the city’s standard of $10.88 per hour.
Rodriguez says that POWER’s mission speaks to his heart.
“So many people feel hopeless,” says Rodriguez, 42, as we dig into our burrito bowls at El Fuego. “They work at jobs that don’t pay enough. The houses around them collapse. Their neighborhood schools are bad. The systems that are supposed to support us are breaking down, and those who are most affected are the poor. Helping them is a matter of justice and dignity.”
But the way you do it matters, says Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER.
“Fabricio has great love for people, a strong faith and deep commitment to compassion and equality,” says Royster (who officiated at Rodriguez’s wedding last summer).
“When you couple that with the fact that he’s one of the best organizers in the city, and perhaps the country, that’s when change happens. . . . He is fearless. He’ll speak truth to power for those who are most deeply impacted by what’s failing in our city.
“He may make some enemies,” Royster laughs, recalling how he and Rodriguez were threatened with arrest by Philadelphia police during a demonstration for Temple’s security officers. “But not because he means to.”
Rodriguez says he wants to help POWER’s constituents differentiate between prayer and hope. Prayer, he says, is where we articulate our “future-perfect” dreams. Hope, he says, is what we feel when a plan has been laid out to get us there.
Hope is everything. In its absence, as sociologist Cornel West has noted, there is only nihilism – “the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness and (most importantly) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.”
I’m thinking about this as I tell Rodriguez that he has set a tall order for himself. He corrects me.
“The job of an organizer is not to make social change happen but to be a midwife to other people’s power” to make it happen, he says. “Since the day I left the mines, my only focus has been on building the capacity, courage and leadership of normal people to change the world.”
Go get ’em, Fabricio. So glad you’re here.