Community organizing had always attracted Jonathan Manuel Romero Robles ’13, and at K it became the most important skill he learned.
The son of Mexican immigrants living in South Central Los Angeles, Romero discovered at an early age that one’s social status greatly affects one’s education and access to resources. He was also keenly aware of how negatively the media portrays people like himself and his parents.
“It bothered me,” he said. “All that negativity was reinforced in school and at home. Then the media’s negative portrayal of us influenced policies that had detrimental consequences, such as decreasing our access to quality education, which in turn adversely affected our self-esteem. Media portrayals made it difficult for us to achieve our best potential and to do great things.”
Romero also learned that Latinos were survivors of a larger political landscape that was steeped in historical oppression.
“I didn’t have a name for that oppression in my early years, but I certainly felt it and was aware of it. It made me angry, but it also inspired me,” he said. “Supporting marginalized groups became what I wanted to do with my life. Later I learned that I could make change through organizing and advocacy work.”
Romero believes that Kalamazoo College gave him a positive foundation and several opportunities to lead by example.
He came to K as a POSSE Foundation scholar. POSSE administers one of the most comprehensive and renowned programs in the U.S. for college access and youth leadership development. It identifies, recruits and trains students from public high schools with extraordinary academic and leadership potential.
“Through the K-Plan I acquired a broad sense of what to do with my life, what that would mean, what I needed to learn,” he said.
“If you can’t articulate injustices, some people will consider them valid,” said Romero. “K gave me lots of opportunities to call out injustices, through the Arcus Center mainly. Jamie Grant, Lisa Brock and other staff were always supportive of my organizing work on campus.”
In the summer of 2011, Romero obtained an internship at the Center for Progressive Leadership (Washington, D.C.) where he developed relationships with other young professionals and met with several congressional policymakers.
“It was the first time I envisioned myself as someone who could implement change,” he said.
That same fall, he had an opportunity to study away at the Philadelphia Center for Urban Studies. There he attended classes and secured an internship position with City Council Member Curtis Jones Jr. At City Hall Romero worked with the communications team during the Occupy Movement.
“The Occupy Movement made me examine the social hierarchies that oppress people on a variety of issues,” he said. “Never before was I prouder to be Latino, and I felt the need to make a point, to validate our experience.”
In spring of 2012 he studied abroad in Costa Rica and discovered immigration to be a global issue. It became clear to him, through observations of the media and various personal interactions, that Nicaraguans are a marginalized group in Costa Rica. Romero was painfully reminded that people too often react to people of color solely based on the color of their skin. It happened to him when he was prohibited from returning to Costa Rica after a visit to Nicaragua.
“Despite my U.S. passport, they wouldn’t let me back in. My peers who were ahead of me in line were let through, but not me.”
His Costa Rican experience inspired him to write his very first Spanish language poem, which he shared at K during a visit of Yosimar Reyes, a nationally acclaimed poet. He also decided to write his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) in the philosophy department arguing why undocumented immigrants should not be deported from the United States.
“I think about the intersectionality of people’s experiences and how oppressive systems win unless those at the bottom take a seat at the table, leading and promoting their own interests,” said Romero. “So my work has been centered around proposing new ideas and innovative ways of handling this oppression among Black people and Latinos.”
Romero is very excited about his current position as jobs coordinator for Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) in South Central Los Angeles. SCOPE has been in existence for 24 years. It builds power in the community by training ordinary people to lead by example in campaigns and lobbying opportunities and in neighborhood canvassing. SCOPE’s organizers have learned how to cultivate movements in which everyone takes the lead.
“That is the essence of democracy,” said Romero. “We have to use the system to do the best we can for marginalized groups who have been left out.” he said.
Romero serves people who want to work and to contribute to the community but who face a variety of problems including the lack of legal documentation, limited English proficiency, and discrimination based on LGBT status and nonviolent criminal records.
“At SCOPE I identify and advocate for job opportunities,” he says. “For example, we’ve pushed for civil service jobs at the City of Los Angeles and on-the-job training programs at the Department of Water. These targeted local hire programs are providing proof that our community faces significant barriers to employment and that the situation must change.”
SCOPE sees what South Central LA can be and works for the change that can make that vision a reality.
“Our current system is designed to keep certain people out in order for other people to benefit,” said Romero. “The question for those on the lower rungs of the social hierarchies is how and when will they push back against a system that minimizes their dignity and humanity.
“I help my community identify, articulate and call out systems rigged to oppress us. What I do has policy implications, and it provides a channel for change. The work is an awesome responsibility, and a privilege, too.”