American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Summer 2021     ROADS LESS TRAVELED

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Running Toward the Danger

by Gloria Rodriguez

From the Editor: When Gloria Rodriguez won an NFB National Scholarship in 2017, she planned to enter the field of disaster management and recovery. In this article she explains how she arrived at this career choice and where it led her during the COVID-19 crisis.

I am the oldest child in a first-generation Spanish-speaking family. As a child I faced the dual challenges of having a visual impairment and learning English as a second language. I remember the day when my kindergarten teacher had us bring in a picture of something that started with the first letter of our names. G. That sounded easy enough; I could have brought grapes, or something green. Instead I brought in a picture of a cat. It wasn't a cat to me, it was a gato.

I remember being asked by my classmates why I looked so closely at my books. I had no idea what they were talking about. I remember being pulled out of class for Braille instruction and for courses for multilingual students. Those experiences were instrumental in shaping me as the resilient, curious, and committed person I am today.

The Animal Planet channel and science programs on television spurred my ongoing love for science, a deep interest that I wished to cultivate. Over time this interest evolved into a desire to work in the field of natural disaster relief and preparedness systems. Sometime after Hurricane Katrina struck, Animal Planet aired a program called "The Little Zoo that Could." The program featured zoo director Patti Hall and her staff as they evacuated all of their animals to higher ground in response to three hurricanes: Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina. Ivan hit in 2004, while the other two occurred in 2005, which was a record-breaking hurricane season.

Gloria Rodriguez holds a sign that reads THANK YOU TACOMA-PIERCE COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT.

I watched this program at a time when Steve Irwin was my hero. Irwin was a naturalist and TV personality known as "The Crocodile Hunter." I was convinced I wanted to be a conservationist or a zookeeper and have a program on Animal Planet. I watched every "Crocodile Hunter" episode, sitting on a coffee table placed four feet from the television. The TV was one of those massive, blocky sets that was at least 1.5 by 1.5 feet and weighed more than fifty pounds.

I remember a scene on Animal Planet in which tigers were loaded into eighteen-wheelers to ride out the hurricane, and zookeepers used garden hoses to give them water. With each hurricane the power went out, and they still had to feed and care for the animals. In another scene the zoo staff drove back to assess the damage and found that the road was cut off because everything beyond was underwater. At one point the staff rebuilt the zoo, only to have their efforts destroyed by another hurricane.

Needless to say, all the stories about destruction were terrifying to me. I had never been to the east coast, let alone seen in-depth videos and imagery of these natural disasters. I was awed by the devastation and by the staff's love of their animals. The destruction brought about by the hurricanes and the staff's commitment to rebuild roused intense emotions in me.

Shortly afterward, Animal Planet aired a special program about the ways elephants responded to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The special focused on the scientific understanding of how animals sense disasters before they occur. I watched people forced to run inland or to the tops of buildings, hoping for survival as the water rose.

One day at a book fair at school I picked up a book about extreme weather. It described many kinds of disasters: blizzards, tornadoes, and more. I have that book to this day, along with a book about the most extreme animals and one about the most dangerous animals.

My interest in disasters influenced my education and shaped my career goals. In college I studied natural sciences and organization systems to prepare for a career in emergency management. I attended an interdisciplinary program at the Evergreen State College in the state of Washington, which broadened the range of my studies. Emergency management professionals need to understand a bit about everything and wear many different hats. For example, they need to understand how existing data and new trends influence the workplace, how climate change is intensifying disasters, and how medical responders serve people. I am grateful that my undergraduate studies facilitated the learning I needed to become a jack of all trades.

I completed my Master of Public Administration at Evergreen and graduated in June 2021. I greatly appreciate the core values conveyed in my master’s program. They guided my learning as a student with multiple identities that influence what I want to achieve. These values include embracing diversity, equity, and fairness; advocating powerfully; and imagining new possibilities in order to accomplish positive change. My end goal is to be on the ground coordinating the clean-up and recovery efforts after earthquakes, tsunamis, or other disasters.

The pandemic came with many forms of devastation. It brought challenges we had not experienced before and forced the world to adapt to new methods of education, work, and health care. Throughout 2020 each month brought new crises in addition to the pandemic itself.

As I see organizations making positions available remotely and meeting over Zoom, I feel hopeful that jobs will become more accessible for people who don't drive. Many companies are beginning to see the need to raise wages in order to compete in the new economy. Hardship and devastation can bring growth, renewal, and beauty. This phenomenon never ceases to amaze me. It's not always apparent, and it may take many years to see the positive change, but time and time again communities rise above their challenges. Seeing this resilience is one of the many things that makes this kind of work very attractive to me.

As it turned out, the pandemic allowed me to start my career and get firsthand experience helping my community through a major crisis. My first position was with the Pierce County Department of Emergency Management in the state of Washington. I started by working in mobile COVID testing, and then I began presenting movies to vaccine clinics. I served as the support team leader for the Access and Functional Needs (AFN) team. The AFN team is designed to address barriers to access that patients would experience without adequate resources or accommodations. We hosted three to seven clinics a week and saw thousands of patients all over Pierce County. My mom or my brother drove me and picked me up each day, and Silo, my guide dog, always came along. I served under the county's access and functional needs coordinator.

I contributed in many ways to the ongoing development of the AFN program. My work included training staff to lead simultaneous operations, forming community partnerships to promote vaccination, and leading AFN staff and interpreters. This is the team that makes or breaks the experience of the whole vaccine clinic for many people. I customized processes for specific events or for patients coming through the clinic.

Every day was different, and there were always new challenges. One day we might have two hundred or more Latinx community members who needed Spanish interpretation, and I would have to coordinate multiple certified interpreters. Another day I would need to greet a patient who is deaf, using a radio communication system until our ASL interpreter arrived. I would welcome the patient and explain that I'm blind and need slower signing. Sometimes we would have a local doctor lead a caravan of five vehicles, all loaded with patients who had limited English proficiency. The doctor would support them all on site.

I was also responsible for handling issues regarding staff, the general public, and changing policies. In the beginning our medical staff wanted to pull aside vehicles with patients who fell under the AFN umbrella and were going to take more time checking in. The patients would be allowed to rejoin the line when they were ready. I was not afraid to say we weren't going to do that. Even if some people needed more time and held up the line, pulling them out of the line would be discriminatory, exclusionary, and isolating. Our goal was to make sure every patient was taken care of on their terms and at their pace. I'm proud to say I made that change, and it didn't take long before it was implemented.

Another thing I'm proud of is being featured in one of the videos produced to encourage vaccination among the BIPOC community. I participated in other activities for the campaign, but this one is my favorite because I proudly introduce the viewer to my guide dog, Silo. Here is the link to the video posted on YouTube. It also ran on public television.

At the vaccine clinics I sometimes joked, "The pandemic isn't an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, but I'll take it." I'm proud of the work I have done. Together we vaccinated more than eighty thousand people.

At the beginning of June I started a new position as vaccine coordinator for Latinx Unidos of the South Sound. In this new role my goal is to increase vaccine participation in the Latinx community. I am excited to work more closely with the community I was raised in. I want to form relationships with local businesses and schools, and I hope to continue to contribute and learn through these efforts. My cultural background and upbringing will play a significant role in how I approach this job. I look forward to trying new outreach methods and being creative. I am so excited about these new challenges!

I never expected that a pandemic would launch my desired career and give me the chance to create systemic change in an organization. It is a privilege to gain work experience with so much complexity so early on in my career. Some people who graduated at the same time I did are still not in this position. Some people spend their whole lives discerning what they are meant to do. Having the opportunity to start doing the work I have aspired to do for so long is not something I take lightly. I hope to take advantage of everything I get to do and learn.

I am certainly one of those people who run toward danger instead of away from it. I bring a perspective and a voice that historically have not been included in disaster response. I hope that in their own time everyone will figure out what they want to do and live their lives the way they want.

I strongly believe that learning to identify your needs or the needs of others and communicating or pushing for those needs is invaluable. Like figuring out what we want to do in life, these skills take time, but they are essential.

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