Advocacy and Empowerment: The Rhizome in Gabriel Rodriguez

5 min readMar 10, 2022


By Michelle Mairena, twitter: @michemairena

When Wekiva High School senior Gabriel Rodriguez canvasses to get his neighbors registered to vote, he wears one of his great-grandfather’s cream striped playera shirts with a LGBT+ rainbow pin attached. He often wears this same outfit while phone banking for election legislation or while organizing voter registration drives at his high school, adding Taíno necklaces and large mal de ojo earrings to his look.

For Rodriguez, wearing these clothing pieces is not a matter of accessorizing (although he receives many compliments), but a way in which he proudly carries his Mexican, Puerto Rican, and trans teen identities that are what propel him into advocacy in the first place. This is the reason why, at just 17-years-old, Rodriguez co-founded “Rhizome”, a national youth-led non-profit focused on activating young people’s identities into action.

In a world that often shuns minority teens from civic spaces, Rodriguez’s community involvement is an unapologetic act of self-love — and he is just getting started.

Gabriel Rodriguez, 17, wears his grandfather’s cream striped “playera” shirt and “mal de ojo” earring. In a world that often shuns minority teens from civic spaces, Rodriguez’s proudly wears his Mexican, Puerto Rican, and LGBT+ identities. For Gabriel, community involvement is an unapologetic act of self-love.

His Family, An Inspiration

Rodriguez first inherited a passion for topical issues through his grandmother, who he has always bonded with by watching the evening news. His grandmother and his mother have also inculcated in him a love for his heritage by passing down recipes for Puerto Rican dishes such as arroz con gandules, which have helped Rodriguez actively celebrate where he comes from.

“I’ve been trying to decolonize myself and learn the roots of my ancestors,” he says while pointing to his Taíno necklaces. “It’s the little things: cooking gandules, making coffee a specific way, making sure you are not barefoot in your own household. Little things that make sure you know who you are,” he continues.

Today, his family is a major reason as to why Rodriguez cares about leaving a positive mark in his community: he wants to ensure his siblings, “his kids” as he calls them, grow up in a better world than he did. Living in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood in Orange County, Florida has specifically accentuated this sentiment for him, where experiencing microaggressions for being from a working-class Latine family are something he doesn’t want anyone to live through.

“It is not our goal to be objects to people,” says Rodriguez while talking about receiving stares for speaking Spanish. “It’s our job to be ourselves without fear. And I just want to make sure my kids don’t go through what I see everyday,” he exclaims with teary eyes, describing the constant struggle to have his presence acknowledged in certain spaces as a trans teen too.

“It’s every little microaggression that you get. It’s everything pushing you to not show yourself or not be who you are,” he says. “It’s not being seen in a room until I speak loud enough to where they make me be quiet.”

But Rodriguez never stays quiet. He continuously pushes himself to speak up in every space he inhabits, inspiring others to proudly do the same.

“Even when you think that others don’t see you, you see yourself,” he says. “It doesn’t matter: you see you. And you are not doing it for everyone else.”

Drive for Change & Past Work

These lived experiences have planted in Rodriguez a social consciousness that he carries everywhere he goes, demonstrating it even through small acts. At his school, he leads conversations on Mexican-American history and often places the Mexican and Puerto Rican flags in any corner he can: his notebooks, club booths, drawn on classrooms’ whiteboards. Even as a student reporter for his school’s agriscience “Future Farmers of America” (FFA) club, he ensures that diversity is always represented in his work, be it by dancing bachata at conventions or highlighting LGBT+ and Caribbean icons through the club’s social page.

“I want to be seen as the one who is making sure people are uplifted,” he states.

During the 2020 election cycle, Rodriguez felt a drive to expand his outreach and help his community in a different way. While his schedule was already filled with helping his mother around the house, amidst a pandemic crisis that forced him to look after his siblings even during school time, Rodriguez messaged hundreds of students across Orange County to help them navigate election season: how to register to vote, where to find polls, why it’s important to vote. He did the same at his school, organizing a mass voter registration drive where he presented in online classes.

He did this work as a Student-Ambassador for the non-partisan “When We All Vote,” an organization that aimed to close the age voting gap in the election and registered over 10,000 high schoolers across Florida. As if that work wasn’t enough though, Rodriguez continued his voter advocacy after November 2020 and began mobilizing Florida youth to support the “For The People Act,” a bill aiming to expand voter laws and reduce the influence of money in politics. He phone banked, canvassed, and even attended a meeting with Senator Marco Rubio’s office as the only high school organizer for “Un-PAC Florida.”

“It’s kinda magic,” says Rodriguez, explaining how it has been like to handle home responsibilities, school work, and community organizing during the pandemic. “It feels like you put the whole world on your shoulders,” he remarks.

“People need to know what’s going on in their country, how to become an informed voter, how to be better as a person, how to be an active citizen,” he reflects. “That’s why I wear my great-grandfather’s shirts every day. They remind me of why I do it.”

Rodriguez wants this to be one of his life goals: inspiring others into reclaiming who they are. It was this desire that led Rodriguez to “Rhizome,” the non-profit he co-founded this past summer alongside 90 students across the country.

Rodriguez: a Rhizome

“Working with young people before, even in different organizations, [I have always known] that we had the power to create some type of change,” he says, pointing at how proud he is of teenagers coming together to bring something like Rhizome into fruition.

Within Rhizome, Rodriguez specifically works as a Community Organizer for the Southern Region, where he has focused on outreach to low-income schools to create civic literacy clubs. He describes Rhizome’s August launch as a day of celebration, where all he could feel was overwhelming happiness.

“Creating Rhizome has been the greatest moment of my life,” he says with a smile.

“I love what we have made. We are a family,” he continues.

While having co-founded a national non-profit at 17 is already a big deal, that’s not where it stops for Rodriguez — his dreams of helping others go as far as becoming U.S. President.

For now though, like the definition of rhizome itself, Rodriguez will continue extending his reach where he can — unapologetically growing in every direction and claiming new spaces for who he is and stands for.

His most radical act then, as he agrees, is just being himself.




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