By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
DOVER – Karol Ruiz rejects the title of role model, even though her story as a first-generation American from Colombia, attorney, Dover Board of Education member and ferocious fighter for health and human rights tells a different story.
Ruiz, the co-president of the nonprofit, faith-based advocacy organization Wind of the Spirit, would rather point to the people she comes across on the daily basis overcoming countless hurdles as the true role models.
“I am not a role model,” Ruiz told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “I dropped out of high school. I am a flawed human being; at times impulsive, often late, and still working toward optimum physical and mental health. Through Wind of the Spirit, I have the opportunity to mentor true role models: youth that overcome disabilities, trauma, financial barriers, racism, sexism, nativism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia, and legal barriers to excel.
“I also have the privilege to be mentored by exceptional leaders like Diana Mejia, Eduardo Lopez, and greats in the legal profession who make me better. I strive to lead by example and to learn from my mistakes. I take my role as a mentor very seriously. A mentor is different than a role model. Mentorship is a relationship, one in which both the mentor and the mentee benefit and grow,” she continued.
Ruiz had to overcome her own hurdles. She came to the United States with her father, mother and sister from Cali, Colombia.
“My father crossed the Mexico-U.S. border without authorization in 1984, during the height of the U.S. and narcotrafficker-funded civil war,” Ruiz said. “He worked three jobs, including as a dishwasher, to raise enough money to pay the coyotes (guides) needed to help my mother, my sister and I cross in 1985. We were not personally persecuted in Colombia, so despite the civil war, we were ineligible for asylum.
“My parents, my sister, and I lived without authorized immigrant status in the U.S. until the end of the 1990s. My brother Ricky was born in the U.S. in 1988, and our baby brother Johan was born in the U.S. in 1995. My father’s job petitioned for him to adjust his status just when the anti-immigrant laws passed in 1996 (IIRIRA).
Her father was forced to return to Colombia because of immigration laws and she dropped out of high school to support the family as a waitress.
“My father’s lawyer informed us of the strong possibility that I would be unable to adjust my immigrant status with the rest of my family, because by the time the process was completed, I would no longer be a dependent minor,” Ruiz said.
The Power of Mentors
The following years that followed saw Ruiz get married at 18 only to see the marriage fall apart and she struggled with depression.
That is when Mejia, of Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Ceter, and Lopez, of Escucha Youth Mentoring Program, helped solidify Ruiz’s life. She received a lawful immigration status and climbed out of the abyss of depression. She gave birth to her son Elijah Marrero from the her first marriage, gained lawful immigrant status, earned a GED, graduated college became a U.S. citizen.
“I found my calling volunteering with Wind Of The Spirit Immigrant Resource Center, fighting collectively for immigrant justice,” Ruiz said. “That is also where I met my life partner Brian Lozano. He is the son of Colombian immigrants and worked as the organizing and policy coordinator for the organization.
“We fell in love and planned to marry, but the pandemic accelerated our plans,” said Ruiz, marrying Lozano in a front yard wedding in April just where coronavirus restrictions limited gatherings to 10 people are less. “Brian was underinsured with coverage through the Affordable Care Act, which was insufficient for him, an essential worker with asthma. We’ve been married for just a few months now and I could not be happier. I joke that I married once for love and immigration papers, and a second time for love and insurance papers.”
The Common Threads
A graduate of Seton Hall University School of Law, Ruiz now uses her legal skills and real-life experiences to help the marginalized. She said through Wind of the Sprint, she sees common threads through all stories of liberation.
“We recognize that our liberation as immigrants is tied to the liberation of all people in this country, so we are members of coalitions across the country and the world,” Ruiz said. “The members of our collective have become like my family. Diana Mejia, has supported me in every stage of my adult life, from college, to law school, to helping my family fundraise to cover the cost of my mother’s cancer treatment.
“I’m particularly grateful for our organization’s contributions to the wins in the fight for equal access to higher education in New Jersey, DACA, access to driver’s licenses in New Jersey, and policing reform in partnership with Black Lives Matter Morristown,” she added.
She said decisions at Wind of the Spirit are made collectively and “honors the contributions of all members of our community, regardless of immigrant status, age, gender, sexual orientation, race, class, religion, cognitive, physical, or mental capacities, or ideology. The organization is not perfect, we are still learning and growing, but the commitment I see from all the members to work toward justice inspires me.”
More to Tell
Ruiz’s life story and accomplishments are impressive enough but she had so much more to tell. Here are some excerpts that she shared with Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa.
FRNJ: You did work as a public defender. What does it mean to you to act as a public defender and what do you learn about the community through that connection?
Karol Ruiz: Becoming a public defender is a dream come true for me. I work for the Mental Health Advocacy division of the NJ Office of the Public Defender, which allows me to use both my personal and professional experience with mental health. Mental health remains stigmatized in our communities, no matter how many “stigma-free zone” signs municipalities may post. In the wake of the recent tragedy in Morris Township, which left our community grieving the death of a young man suffering a mental health crisis and shot dead by police, I pray our legislators examine our response to mental health crisis and the lack of mental health services available in our state. (https://morristowngreen.com/2020/07/14/man-shot-by-police-was-son-of-former-morris-township-cop-attorney-general-investigating/)
FRNJ: How long have you served on the Dover BOE? What led you to running for it? Have you been able the make a difference on it? Why?
Karol Ruiz: With the goals of improving student achievement, increasing community engagement, and developing a healthier workplace for our teachers, a group of community members named Your Voice ensured an election win for me to the Dover Board of Education in 2016, the same year Donald Trump was elected as our country’s president. After celebrating our local victory, I spent the rest night sobbing for our country. After that initial win, Your Voice continued working to elect board of education members that reflect our community, have children in the district, and are willing and prepared to debate the issues facing the district. Prior to the 2016 election, the Dover Board of Education was a mostly homogeneous group of white, conservative, middle-aged residents who often voted in line with the superintendent’s recommendations without discussion nor debate. With the support of Your Voice, I won re-election in 2019 and am entering the 4th year of serving our community, with a laser focus on increasing our students’ achievement. Today, after four years of civics education and community engagement led by Your Voice, the Dover Board of Education is one of the most diverse in the state. Our district is beginning to implement dual language education, we hired a new superintendent, and our community is now more active at meetings, demanding better and better services, as well as accountability from the board.
FRNJ: Who has and continues to inspire you (parents, teachers, etc.)?
Karol Ruiz: My son inspires me. Poetry inspires me. Justice Sonia Sotomayor inspires me. My husband inspires me. My friend Sasha, who fought to overcome addiction and later died of a fentanyl/heroin overdose, inspires me. The sun rising each morning inspires me. My faith, Unitarian Universalism, inspires me.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Karol Ruiz: Sadly, the work for justice seems endless. In five years, I see myself in the same space, fighting for justice. Perhaps in 5 years I will own a home, perhaps I will be celebrating a revolutionary change in policing in NJ, perhaps we will finally have comprehensive immigration reform. I am an optimist and a dreamer.
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