Maura Rodriguez began volunteering at age 15, accompanying her mother in a door-to-door effort to organize fellow laundry workers in Phoenix. She watched, listened and quickly grasped the essentials.
“I would say to people that César Chávez wouldn’t have fought so hard for a union if it wasn’t going to help the people,” Maura says. “We talked about people’s rights, and I learned a lot.”
In 2010, she joined Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy (CASE) in a groundbreaking initiative to sign up thousands of Arizona residents for early voting. Intended to improve turnout among working people, early voting was still relatively new to Arizona, but it generated a dramatic increase in Latino votes during a mid-term election when participation in other states dwindled.
“I realized that voting really does make a difference in things that concern me and my family directly,” she says.
Her taste for organizing now ignited, Maura returned to volunteer work with the fledgling launderers union, helping to register 3,000 new citizens as first-time voters. Her efforts were part of a historic victory: Daniel Venezuela became the first Latino to be elected to the City Council from Maura’s working-class district.
“Maura helped sign up thousands of voters to Arizona’s permanent early voting list, a strategy that increased Latino turnout 500 percent,” says Brendan Walsh, executive director of CASE.
In between campaign work, Maura was putting herself through Phoenix College by working as a cashier at McDonald’s. She put her Shriver Poverty Warrior Award money toward her tuition and plans to transfer to Northern Arizona University, where she hopes to earn a degree in business management.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to pay for myself in college,” Maura says. “My mother still works doing hotel and restaurant laundry, so I never want to ask for any money.”
Though she has spent countless hours securing voting rights for thousands of other Latinos, Maura, because she is an undocumented immigrant, is not eligible to vote. However, she began applying for citizenship.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a leader, so when I won the Shriver Award, I was really excited,” she says. “Before, people would push me down and say that I wasn’t going to do anything with my life. Now I’m paying attention to things in the community that I never noticed before and using what I learn to help myself and for others.”
From January through March, Equal Voice News is publishing a profile each Friday under the theme of “America’s Next Leaders.” Each story features a young person who contributes to his or her community and who has received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News, honors young people with this award. One Arizona nominated Rodriguez for the award.