“Until you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes” — this phrase best depicts Johnny Rodriguez, a man who wears many hats and has a variety of experiences.
On the surface, he is known as a Brentwood city councilman and the founder of One Day At A Time (ODAT), but what drives him to take on such highly demanding positions and to be so passionate for the community and for those with little or no voice?
Rodriguez, a child of farm workers who grew up in the “haves and have-nots” of Brentwood, understands the lives of the “have-nots.” Before the growth boom of the 1980s in East Contra Costa County, farmers and farm workers comprised the main population of Brentwood. His father, a transplant from El Paso, Texas, and his mother, a farm worker from Phoenix, Arizona, met at the Blue Goose Camp, the poor farming community for migrant workers on the outskirts of Brentwood. Today, its location is the home of the Brentwood Police Department.
At 3 years old, his parents divorced. His mother remarried, and with Rodriguez’s stepdad and newly blended family, moved to The Village — a Latino Community in the center of town. The Rodriguezes were young parents of four children. Johnny was the oldest son, the second child after his older sister. Though people who did not live in The Village viewed the neighborhood as the home of gangs, he saw the community as his family.
“Like family, everyone took care of each other, protected each other,” he said.
It was his life and his world. Yes, drugs and drinking were rampant, though Rodriguez has had only one beer his whole life. He was an entrepreneur in this world. He was street smart and used it to his advantage to wheel and deal when necessary, but he did not see himself as book smart.
“I was a star athlete,” he said.
Rodriguez had issues in comprehension and reading. Though he felt his family was dysfunctional, it was his mother who pushed him to be tested at school.
“This was the best thing that could have happened to me,” he said, “to be qualified for special education for dyslexia.”
In this new world, he was no longer ‘passed along.’ Two men came into his life — the school psychologist, Harold Mitchell, and the special education teacher, John Rogers. Together, they made him accountable. Through Harold Mitchell, he was pushed out of his comfort zone, while coach and educator John Rogers promoted his confidence and leadership skills.
It was Rogers who introduced Rodriguez to wrestling under the tutelage of Greg Chapel. Mitchell and Rogers provided the consistency and discipline he lacked at home.
“Life is ebbs and flows,” Rodriguez said. “At Liberty, I was an outstanding athlete. Outside of sports, I lacked study skills and came into hard times.”
What kept him from drinking and taking drugs was what he witnessed in his personal life and the results of alcohol and drug addiction. Lacking the needed skills to enter the legal workforce after graduation, he was angry and frustrated. By the time he was 22, he hit his lowest point and stopped caring.
Fortunately, as if a guardian angel was watching over him, he got a phone call. Psychologist Mitchell witnessed his talent for working with at-risk children and with the administrator, Linda Parks, offered him a job at Garin Elementary School mentoring children. Within a year, he was offered a full-time job as a campus resource officer at Pittsburg High School. He believes the kids helped him more than he helped them.
By 1996, he was ready to open One Day At A Time, based on the Pittsburg High campus. ODAT is about mentoring high-risk students, helping them to transition away from gangs to becoming successful community members. Working with small groups of 15 participants at a time, Rodriguez’s mentoring would include trips to prisons along with visits to colleges. It’s about giving and teaching youth a level of respect. ODAT has evolved in the direction of youth empowerment and is no longer limited to those involved in gangs.
ODAT, now based in Rodriguez’s hometown of Brentwood, is about giving youth opportunity. Youth need to be heard, listened to and be given a safe place to talk so they do the right thing. He gets it — he was one of those kids.
As a member of Brentwood city council, he is about giving a larger representation at the table and including everyone in the conversation: youth, adults, seniors and people of color.
“We need to think outside the box,” he said.
It’s about blending old values, new values and bringing in new perspectives. He uses his childhood experiences to represent those without a voice.
Brentwood is a tapestry, and Johnny Rodriguez weaves many patterns to this tapestry’s success. His work with ODAT is nonprofit and survives on donations. Reach out to ODAT at www.odatec.org if you can help.
Everyone has a story. Contact Christina Dalton at firstname.lastname@example.org to share yours.