For nearly 15 years, Irma Rodriguez has been at the center of Orange County's stormiest social controversies, from housing and health care for the poor to immigrant enclaves, gay rights and complaints of police harassment.
As a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission since March 1975, she has witnessed the ebb and flow of community and institutional attitudes toward the impoverished, ethnic minorities and other fringe groups.
If anyone should have an idea of just how far Orange County has come, it would be Rodriguez, 40, who has just retired from the 11-member county commission that is charged with studying, spotlighting and mediating such highly sensitive matters.
"We all know the image of the Orange County of the '60s and '70s--its conservatism, its lower levels of awareness to problems of the peripheral groups," said Rodriguez, who is dean of admissions and records at Fullerton College.
The advances in 15 years, said Rodriguez, have indeed been significant. "We have more programs that deal directly with these issues. The overall levels of caring and understanding have progressed. This is surely gratifying."
But she and other activists argued that some advances are now being undercut by a nationwide backlash that can be seen also in Orange County.
One example is the "English-only" movement affecting schools and even businesses. Another is the rejection in Irvine of extending anti-discrimination protection to gays. Still another: the pending eviction from a Costa Mesa neighborhood of a facility for serving the homeless and poor.
Rodriguez's explanation--one shared with other human relations activists--is linked to the mounting increase of ethnic-minority populations and the rise of unemployment and poverty among once-secure "majority population" Americans.
"We're talking about fear, and people feeling threatened by changes they don't understand," she said. "We're talking about doors being closed again, about people who don't want to deal with these problems--at least not in their city, not in their neighborhoods."
Rodriguez has left the Orange County Human Relations Commission because, commission officials said, she no longer lives in the North County supervisorial district to which she was appointed in 1975.
Rodriguez and her husband, businessman Fred Fernandez, have moved from Anaheim to Laguna Niguel. Her successor, Robert Jensen, who is chancellor of the Rancho Santiago College District and lives in Orange, was officially appointed Nov. 7. Currently, there are no South County vacancies on the commission to which Rodriguez might be appointed.
"Of course, I would like to stay on the commission--it's been my special cause for too many years. But I have no quarrel with the (residential) rule for not being reappointed," she said in a recent interview.
But Rodriguez has served notice she will remain active in other areas of the human relations field. "Let's just say I'm changing gears," she said.
One venture in the planning stage for her: a new private project bringing ethnic minority "role model" speakers to schools with high dropout rates as a move to encourage minority students to stay in school and go on to college.
Her involvement in this and other student-training projects, she promised, will not be much different from her years on the county commission, where she was known for her outspokenness and tenacity.
"Irma isn't afraid of taking risks and going out on a limb for people," said Rusty Kennedy, the county commission's staff executive director. "She's totally committed and fearless. She's also very professional in issues and organization. She is no radical."
Rodriguez brought those characteristics--passionate activist and cool organizer--to every issue, especially those in which she played a major role, such as the establishment of smoother relations between the commission and once-hostile local police departments.
Management consultant Norman Traub, who had dealt with Rodriguez when he was a police chief in Placentia and Orange, said, "Sure, she is very strong and assertive and knows what she's after. But she's not dogmatic. She takes a positive, problem-solving approach."
The commission's current chairwoman, Jean Forbath, assessed Rodriguez's impact this way: "Irma has done as much as anyone to keep the commission on the right track. To us, Irma is what this commission is all about."
Created by the County Board of Supervisors in 1971, the Orange County Human Relations Commission's mission is to "resolve problems relating to prejudice. discrimination and disorder in any field of human relations" and to work with public and private agencies in developing programs to "alleviate or prevent social problems in employment, housing and other areas."