Ruiz creates youthful bridge between education and political worlds
(OREdNews is profiling a handful of school board members from around the state in January during School Board Recognition Month.)
Ricki Ruiz ran for the Reynolds School Board in 2017, just one year after graduating from college, for a simple reason: He thought the board needed to hear more from younger people of color.
“Not that I was going to fix everything, but I felt like at least in my school district I wanted to make sure we were taking care of not only our immigrant students and families but also making sure we were protecting and serving all our students,” he said.
That same spirit drove his successful effort to become a state representative. Ruiz is among Oregon’s youngest lawmakers, part of a wave of legislators of color elected in 2020.
Elected at age 22, Ruiz was the youngest known Reynolds School Board member, although he is no longer the board’s youngest member. The district in eastern Portland and surrounding communities is incredibly diverse. Less than 30% of students are white, and 85 different languages are represented.
In 2021, the Reynolds board was made up entirely of members of color for the first time.
Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign raised issues of race and immigration status and created a climate of fear for some students. Ruiz said he got tired of asking why Latinos weren’t being represented in his community, and decided he had to stand up.
“It was engraved on my brain from a young age that I had to be responsible for my family and responsible for those who look like my family,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz was born in the United States. His parents are from Michoacán, Mexico. Ruiz credits them with instilling his drive and making him go to school when he didn’t feel like it. His parents told him public education is a gift worth treasuring.
He also saw older classmates drop out and take bad jobs. He wanted to graduate and break out of that cycle.
Ruiz graduated from Reynolds High School, the first in his family to earn a diploma. He is also the first to earn a college degree, although he has a younger sister working on her degree. He now works as the community services coordinator for the city of Gresham. Ruiz is still learning, pursuing a master’s in public administration. He is married to Espy and has a daughter, Maleni, born in September.
It’s a full life, but the added legislative demands haven’t dimmed his passion for school board work.
Right now, he is deeply concerned about how schools in low-income areas such as Reynolds can retain talented staff. Dedicated teachers and staff made a huge difference in his life, and he wants that for today’s students.
“It’s important to understand that those humans who want the best for us are also humans who have needs,” he said.
Reynolds School Board Vice Chair Yesenia Delgado said Ruiz has incredible relationships with teachers, some of whom taught him, as well as with young people.
“You can tell the first and foremost thing he cares about are students,” she said.
Delgado was appointed to the board shortly after Ruiz was elected. She said he encouraged her and other board members to get involved, increasing the community’s diversity of representation.
Reynolds board members benefit from Ruiz’s legislative experience, she said, giving them a better understanding of the funding and policies that flow from Salem.
Conversely, Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, the Democratic majority leader, said the Legislature benefits from Ruiz’s inside knowledge of schools. She said Ruiz can articulate how education bills might be more useful or how to prevent them from doing more harm than good.
“It’s really key to have people in a caucus who you know are subject matter experts,” she said.
The caucus also appreciates his youthful perspective, she said.
“Our experience of many things that are impacting people every day are decades old,” she said. “He has a contemporaneous understanding of students … that is invaluable.”
Smith Warner gives the example of the Menstrual Dignity Act, which requires schools to provide free menstrual products. Ruiz was one of the chief sponsors. Smith Warner said the need might not have occurred to someone who hadn’t recently been in schools and talking with young people.
Ruiz said it is important to infuse youthful voices in Oregon’s institutions. He has young people on his staff, and he frequently brings students into the Legislature and school board meetings to testify.
Ruiz said he did not run for the school board with an eye toward political office. The school board increased Ruiz’s community visibility, though. When then-Rep. Carla Piluso, who was on the nearby Gresham-Barlow School Board, decided not to run, people approached Ruiz to consider the seat.
He said he is learning from those who have been around awhile and reading a lot because he wants to continue working on public policy in his district and in the Legislature.
“Honestly, I wish I would have known this would be my path because now I’m playing catch up,” he said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
* Ruiz announced on Jan. 13 that he was resigning from the Reynolds School Board, effective Feb. 1.