Julie Chavez Rodriguez appeared out of nowhere—not from behind the azure curtain in Fitzgibbon Recital Hall, and not from any place of honor. She stood, at the sound of her name, from the third row of the audience, hurriedly gathering together some notes scrawled only seconds before and padding up the stairs of the stage into the spotlight.
“Is this on,” she asked the audience quietly, tapping her mouthpiece. We shook our heads. “Oh yes, the power,” she said, flipping a switch. Her small voice suddenly boomed into the hall.
Rodriguez spoke to the Hanover/Madison community on Wednesday night as the first high-profile speaker in the 2010-2011 Capstone series Food and Civilization. Although her current work with the Department of the Interior under Secretary Ken Salazar does not directly deal with food production, her connection to food still runs deep; for Rodriguez hails from the Chavez clan that produced Cesar Chavez, leader of the Farm Worker’s Union and widely inspirational figure in non-violent protestation.
“For me, growing up in the Chavez family has allowed me to become the person I am,” said Rodriguez. “The concept of being a public servant has really always been a part of my experience.”
Rodriguez’s story, as her democratic ascension from our humble crowd, speaks to the possibilities of small people doing big things. Her grandfather, Cesar Chavez, began his life on a failing ranch in Yuma, AZ and ended it as an inspiration to workers around the globe.
She called him a “small brown man,” not tall or imposing. And then she called him an inspiration and a role model.
As in her description of her grandfather, there was no visible air of greatness in her demeanor either: Rodriguez’s small, almost slight frame barely rose above the podium in front of her. But when she began to speak, her words held the depth of her lineage and experience.
“We only have one life to live,” Rodriguez said. “And we need to use that life to improve the lives of others.”
“I began volunteering at the age of five,” said Rodriguez, causing a wave of whispers to pass over her audience. Coming from a family of prolific activists created a sort of competition among her siblings, she explained.
Her sister, who began her first job at five, set the high standard for an early start. And so, with the adamant assertion to her mother that she would follow in her sister’s footsteps, a five-year old-Rodriguez stood with her grandfather outside a New Jersey grocery store warning against the dangers of using pesticides on produce.
“My cousin once told me, ‘Some families go on family picnics, but we went on family pickets,’” said Rodriguez, laughing.
Rodriguez had several other “early firsts” besides going on protests. At the age of nine she was arrested, for the first of three times, for civil disobedience.
“You know how in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts you have the patches and the badges? Our family sort of has the unspoken ‘I’d-been-arrested’ patch,” she said.
Rodriguez said that she still believes her adolescent experiences with her grandfather define her future life and identity.
“My experiences with him inform my work I do now,” she said.
Currently, Rodriguez’s work with the Department of the Interior takes her around the country trying to get young people involved more in the outdoors. She has implemented programs to mobilize the youth of America and make them agents in environmental change.
In her talk, she cited a recent study that found young Americans to spend an average of six hours a day in front of a computer and only four minutes outdoors. Her mission is to encourage these technological zombies to take stock in their public lands.
“We’re in a position to really engage young people in a meaningful work environment,” said Rodriguez. “It’s also an important vehicle to encourage young people to have that sense of environmental stewardship.”
What Rodriguez’s life and work seem to represent is empowerment: she and her family chose a life of action and actively made a difference in the world. And that seems to be her message as well
“We can make a choice—with our lives and with our education—to take responsibility,” she said.
At the corner of one of Rodriguez’s slides, projected large, was the logo for the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, a non-profit organization carrying on the legacy of Chavez’s work. Its motto: Si se puede. Yes, it is possible.
Rodriguez looked at the motto, seeming to take courage from her grandfathers’ adopted rally cry. She spoke to the audience, as if it were a challenge.
“What is the stone we’re going to cast in the water, and what are the ripples we’re going to cause?”