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Tualatin High grad works toward equality

Mary Ruiz interns for U.S Rep. Earl Blumenauer, strives for social justice

by: TIMES PHOTO: CAITLIN FELDMAN - Mary Ruiz, a Tualatin High School graduate, has always been concerned with social justice and equality. She is pursuing these issues through her studies at Mill College in Oakland, Calif. Public policy, social justice and equitable housing are just a few of the issues that keep 19-year-old Mary Ruiz up at night.

After completing her first year at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., the 2013 Tualatin High School graduate is already participating in her third internship.

She landed her first as a senior in high school with Latinitas Magazine, and hasn’t lost her drive since.

As motivation to maintain her grades through a busy schedule, Ruiz’s parents would threaten to take away her internship or Tualatin Youth Advisory Council privileges if she started slipping. Ruiz couldn’t bear missing either, so she maintained her grades.

“I’ve always been really motivated. I just kind of noticed I wasn’t ever going to get the things that I wanted unless I asked for them,” Ruiz said. “I’m a low-income Latina. I grew up in a very white, suburban neighborhood. So a lot of things that were accessible to me, I didn’t really realize until through my own research.”

Last summer, Ruiz was placed with a Habit for Humanity internship through Bank of America’s Student Leaders program. She said the program gave her the confidence and resources to pursue her current internship in Portland with U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer. Working in the congressman’s office, Ruiz is getting a firsthand look into what creating public policy entails. After spending a year away at school in an area she said is driven by political activism and concern for social justice, she’s brought a critical eye home with her.

“My neighborhood in Tualatin is predominantly Latino. You kind of have cops coming in and out, just watching — I never really realized why it wasn’t like that in other neighborhoods,” Ruiz said. “People (at school) would always ask me what the diversity is like in Portland. And actually, it’s not really that diverse.”

Through classes under her political, leadership and economic analysis major, Ruiz began learning why certain cities operate the way they do and the different ways citizens interact within the system. While she first started thinking about this in high school when looking for what programs were accessible to people in her situation, Ruiz’s college classes and internships gave her a chance to wonder how she might be able to affect positive change.

“I have two parents who immigrated to this country specifically for these resources, so that’s always been a big part of my life is understanding how valuable those things are,” she said. “There’s people who don’t have those (resources).”

Though she’s not sure exactly what kind of career she wants to pursue, Ruiz is going into her sophomore year with experience in a variety of avenues. Last school year, she participated in Fem Dems, Model United Nations, worked for her university’s radio station and was the vice president of her class. Ruiz thinks her motivation stems from her parents, especially her father, who was laid off during the recession and worked three jobs to make up for it. As a first generation American and the oldest of five children, Ruiz has always tried to live up to the expectations her parents held.

A month into her internship with Congressman Blumenauer, Ruiz is looking into starting a more long-term project, possibly focusing on housing and how income affects Portland’s demographics. Whether she’s in Oakland or at home, Ruiz is dedicated to researching issues and changing systems for the better.

“So many people just don’t have a platform to voice their opinions. So many people have never been given that chance. That kind of work, whatever it may be, whether it be journalism and giving somebody a voice; whether it be teaching; whether it be working in a congressional office as a case worker — that kind of offers people a chance to (say) what their life’s been like,” Ruiz said. “We don’t live in a country where we’re all the same person living the same experience. It’s important to recognize that.”

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