Everyday Activist: Mission Agenda’s Richard Marquez

by Casey Mills on November 29, 2004

When Beyond Chron asked Richard Marquez for a photo to be published along with this profile, he refused to provide one of just himself. He wanted to share the spotlight with fellow activists and friends, downplaying his own importance and involving others in the article. While a small request, it provides a perfect distillation of Marquez’s personality – modest, inclusive, and devoted to others.

A third-generation native San Franciscan and activist here for more than twenty years, Marquez has proven to be one of the City’s most tireless advocates for progressive causes. Marquez has built tenants’ rights coalitions, organized movements against police brutality, and coordinated volunteers for both Matt Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign and Ross Mirkarimi’s recent victorious bid for Supervisor, among countless other endeavors. A strong believer in face-to-face contact to achieve any political end, Marquez remains one of the most recognized faces in the activist community.

Marquez traces his political awareness to his parents, the children of Mexican immigrants who instilled him with a love for what he calls the “salt of the earth of San Francisco.” He remembers driving by Grace Cathedral as a young boy with his mother soon after it had been built. She told him about the people of color in the Fillmore and Western Addition who were evicted from their homes to make room for new development, including the church. “That,” he remembers his mother saying, “is why I will never go to Grace Cathedral.”

Marquez currently works for Mission Agenda, a tenants’ rights organization he helped co-found with Supervisor Chris Daly, among others. Guided by a philosophy of empowerment, Marquez believes in providing his clients with the tools to organize and fight for themselves. While this philosophy often caused controversy in the myriad of social work jobs he’s had over the years, Marquez remains a passionate advocate for it. Marquez cites the recent emergence of single resident occupancy (SRO) hotel tenants as a political force in the City as an example of its success.

For Marquez, one of the most difficult aspects of activism involves the often slow, sometimes demoralizing process of affecting change. He says it takes a daily struggle to find the strength to energize oneself with a political will to fight back against social and economic justice, and then to convey that will to leadership and the public.

He’s done a remarkable job doing just that for the past twenty years. For the sake of San Francisco, here’s hoping he can continue to do it for twenty more.

Beyond Chron: How did you get involved in political activism?

Marquez: There are so many influences that gave rise to engagement when you get to university. I went out to UC Berkeley, and I was party of what they call the post-civil rights generation. I went to undergrad and grad school there, but during my undergrad is where I got involved. I was one of the student leaders of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), and I was also the founder of the Third World Coalition on campus. Then I spent a summer working for the United Farm Workers in Porterville, California.

Then my first job was this part-time gig, while I was still at Berkeley, about ten hours a week in 1980 or so. I worked for Independent Housing Services in the Tenderloin. My job was to find “miracle listings,” which meant I had to find rental listings for studios for about 300 a month for disabled and low-income tenants.
I got to know the Tenderloin that way, and I got a complete eye awakening in terms of political engagement there. There was a hard but truthful reality there in the people there, in their words and actions. I grew leaps and bounds in terms of theory and practice. It was just amazing, because Berkeley is a manicured lawn type of place, a privileged liberal incubator where everything is assesses and criticized. And then I would take on Bart train, and get off at the Civic Center, and do my job in the Tenderloin.

Beyond Chron: You have a history as a successful campaigner for issues – what’s your strategy?

Neighborhood-based organization. More importantly, it’s really about rolling up your sleeve and knocking on doors, struggling with people one by one. It ties into why Ross won and Gonzalez came very close. I’m part of a certain mindset that it’s not about fancy mailers or the endorsements. It’s about going to the neighborhoods and finding out that thousands of people are not members of neighborhood groups, they don’t belong to the Democratic Party or the Greens, they’re not members of unions or churches. They’re not affiliated socially. They may possess a political and moral compass, but they don’t have a political relationship to any group.

For example, I cut my teeth working with SRO tenants. You couldn’t find a more isolated and devastated population. These folks don’t have phones, they don’t have Internet hook-ups, they barely have heat and sink. There’s also a language difference and a class difference. They can only be reached by direct eye-to-mouth contact. You’ve got to appeal to them in person and win them over, and sometimes you’ve got to do it for years at a time before you find out you have a harvest of hope.

Beyond Chron: What do you think is the most difficult issue facing San Francisco today, and what do you think is the best way to overcome it?

Marquez: I think it’s the growing racial and economic inequality in the city. And I think the solution is about having an inside and outside strategy and grounded on an independent progressive movement based in the neighborhoods. It’s also about having a relationship with the dissatisfied middle class in the city. Then you can have the broad unified front opposing the hammering of the working class, the poor, and the middles class. It’s only going to get worse in the next four years. You’ll see the pathologizing of poor people. And we’ll be powerless unless we build this unified front. What happens in this city is pivotal. This is the Left Coast City, and what happen here has a national impact in other urban centers.

Beyond Chron: What keeps you going?

Marquez: What keeps me going is my displeasure and awful distaste for injustice that I’ve experienced both personally and witnessed collectively. And I think that hunger for justice just hasn’t been satisfied yet. I just know how little a person’s life is worth in this country now, and I’m not just going to sit idly by and armchair it, weighing in as a pundit or getting caught up in cynicism. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself then. I wouldn’t be fit to call myself a human if I didn’t stand up and do something.

Filed under: Bay Area / California

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