Erika’s involvements revolve mostly around youth organizing with Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC), a grassroots community organization that aims to empower community members by working on local and statewide issues to help improve communities. Additionally, Erika spends a large portion of her time cultivating narratives through poetry and writing with The Body is Not An Apology, a movement to unapologetically love their bodies regardless of what societal norms teach us to believe, where Erika has written various pieces. Ruiz has been a crucial leader in the city of San Bernardino for about a decade, and first became involved in 2008 after Erika’s older sisters introduced them to ICUC. As a teen, Erika was highly influenced by youth organizing and writing because these spaces centered storytelling and healing, and unlocked a new power for Erika.
In Erika’s roles with ICUC, Erika has been in charge of leading social media efforts purposely because they believe the internet is such a crucial way of connecting with youth. Being a part of ICUC made Erika realize that youth are truly an important part in social movements and the process of creating change, however, youth are usually not given access to these spaces and are often undermined by adults. Erika feels that working with young people is crucial because “we live in a world where systems in society are oppressive and dangerous norms based off of stereotypes,” said Erika, and believes it is necessary to push against all of that and build a new system to teach people that they have power. Young people are often most impacted over intersection of a lot of oppressed identities, ageism, and yet do not having an equal voice when they share the same burden as an adult. Erika believes that a fresh perspective is important, change is good, and that new ideas are necessary.
Throughout their* life, Erika has had several crucial mentors, such as their sisters: Maria, Eva, Rocio, and Cristina have been a pivotal support system “in every possible definition of support.” Erika is eternally grateful to have such strong women help hold Erika up through everything, and is deeply indebted to them for all the love and support. Two other crucial political mentors to Erika are Tom Dolan and Ivan Aguayo. Erika feels that even as a white man, Tom has done great at cultivating a space for Erika and many other youth of color to use their skills by creating the foundation of ICUC itself, and giving them access to all the knowledge about community organizing and the systems in this world. Ivan has helped Erika by constantly pushing them to think about their vision and helps plug people together to make it happen. Erika feels that both Tom and Ivan have been truly influential in their political growth, “both are passionate and put their ideas into action, they don’t just talk about theory.”
Erika’s college experience greatly helped shape their current work with writing and poetry. They attended the University of Redlands and graduated with a B.A. in Creative Writing. Erika felt that being there was an “interesting experience” because it was a space of a lot of privilege, there are many resources that much of Erika’s community does not have access to. Erika dealt with many microaggressions while they were a student there because of all the affluent and white people that go there. Overall, Erika felt that it was still a great education especially because of the Creative Writing Department that is truly undervalued. Erika’s former professor, Elisa Slaughter, helped create a space for them to embrace their identity, but it was also felt strange for Erika, as a person of color really struggled to be in those spaces because everyone was white. In the future, Erika would like to obtain a master’s degree in poetry, but is content with not immediately rushing into graduate school.
This past summer, Erika led a youth training with the Sierra Club’s West Summer Program (SPROG), where Erika led several trainings on anti-oppression, healing, poetry, and more with approximately 50 young people from across the country. Erika is beyond grateful for the amazing training team who cultivated a revolutionary and open space for young people.
Ultimately, Erika’s life goals are to work on projects that center narrative, healing, and youth as much as possible. Also, Erika would love to eventually publish a book, and stay in San Bernardino to continue their work in youth organizing. Erika has been a part of more than a decade of youth organizing work, and feels a responsibility to help maintain and grow the movement much more intentionally. Additionally, Erika wants to create stronger coalitions in the Inland Empire and teach youth more material that they don’t have access to in their public education, and that there is a world that can exist outside of the existing oppressive systems.
Erika is truly thankful for their community and the people who’ve surrounded Erika especially during their struggles with mental health. Erika believes that community is extremely important because they really help hold each other up. Lastly, Erika is currently working on a collaborative video with CultureStrike about the air quality in San Bernardino and is excited to share the outcome with their community and help educate community members. They plan to continue to use narrative more intentionally with ICUC and work on developing more youth leaders to create a shift in the Inland Empire.
You can follow some of Erika’s writing here with: The Body Is Not An Apology.
*Note: Erika’s preferred gender pronoun is they/them.
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