Parent provocateur

Mom-in-chief Keri Rodrigues rallies parents on education issues, but her past work on charters dogs her

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL MANNING

IT’S A THURSDAY EVENING in late May and about 20 immigrant parents and grandparents are gathered in a meeting room of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell. It’s the monthly meeting of the local chapter of Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide organization launched two years ago to give low-income families a voice in everything from housing and public safety matters to education issues in local schools.

The group is the brainchild of Keri Rodrigues, a 39-year-old single mother from Somerville with a long background in advocacy and political organizing. The focus for the Lowell meeting is the “achievement gap” that leaves many students in urban school districts lagging behind their peers in wealthier suburban communities. As the group brainstorms ideas for improving schools, Heng Chhun Lay, a grandfather of several Lowell public schools students, tells of a high-performing school in Cambodia that was regularly visited by other school leaders looking to learn from its success.

“I love this idea!” Rodrigues says excitedly, as the group makes plans to invite Lowell school committee members to its next meeting to ask them about sharing best practices within the district.

Everything from its earnest-seeming school improvement agenda to the “Mom-in-Chief” moniker Rodrigues has adopted as her title makes the organization seem about as controversial as a PTA bake sale. But Rodrigues is no shrinking violet, and with her history in the rough and tumble of Massachusetts politics, not everyone regards the group so innocently.

Rodrigues is a study in often jarring contrasts. She’s a church-going Catholic who bristles at authority and convention, wielding a salty tongue and a large tattoo across her back. She pokes fun at her own parenting foibles, yet is driven by ferocious devotion to her three sons. But it’s the unusual crosscurrents of her political profile that have turned Rodrigues into a sometimes-polarizing—and difficult to pigeonhole—figure.

Keri Rodrigues, founder and mom-in-chief at Massachusetts Parents United.

She is a lifelong Democrat who once described herself as a “pit bull liberal” and spent nearly a decade with the Service Employees International Union, which has made its mark by organizing hospital workers, home health aides, janitors, and other low-wage sectors often dominated by women and immigrants. But she has become best known in Massachusetts political circles for helping lead the charge in an effort bitterly opposed by organized labor.

Rodrigues was the Massachusetts state director for Families for Excellent Schools, the New York-based education nonprofit that was the main source of funding for the multimillion-dollar 2016 ballot question campaign to raise the cap on charter schools in the state. As both a mother and member of the Democratic State Committee, Rodrigues says she became passionate about the issue in thinking about her own young Latino sons and the challenge for many low-income and minority families across the state who have limited options when it comes to school choices for their children.

Rodrigues saw the charter battle as part of the broader fight for social justice and values that the Democratic Party should embrace. “I worked for SEIU for years. I support labor,” Rodrigues says. “But how can we in good conscience, as Democrats, sit by when we know that children of color in Massachusetts are getting the short end of the stick?”

But the tide turned sharply against charters during the ballot question campaign, and gained a strong partisan slant the issue did not have before, with Democrats breaking heavily against the question. Critics pounded at the idea that charter schools siphon money from already strapped district schools. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in out-of-state money poured into the pro-charter side, lending credence to the cry that wealthy moguls were trying to upend public schools in the state.

The ballot question effort was defeated soundly, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, despite strong backing from Gov. Charlie Baker. By the time it was over, says Rodrigues, she had become branded “the high priestess of charter schools.”

“I am Cruella de Vil,” she says of the Disney villain caricature that took hold. Rodrigues would describe herself in far more everyday terms. “I’m a mom and I want my kids to get a decent education,” she says. “I’m not a bad person. What do you think I’m doing at night? I’m vacuuming and picking socks and underwear off the floor just like you do. I’m not like some evil villain sitting up in my tower plotting the demise of public education.”

Rodrigues says she was disappointed not just with the ballot question outcome, but also with the costly airwaves war the campaign relied on, which barraged voters with millions of dollars in TV ads, a far cry from the type of grassroots organizing she came to believe in through her work with SEIU.

Keri Rodrigues addresses a monthly meeting of the Lowell chapter of Massachusetts Parents United.

Her response to the top-down ballot campaign, which was directed by Baker’s top political advisers, was to found an organization that she says flips that model on its head. Taking inspiration from her organizing work with SEIU, Rodrigues says Massachusetts Parents United takes direction from its members, who are parents in some of the state’s neediest communities. They are being coached to advocate for themselves on everything from school issues to public safety to affordable housing concerns. The organization held its first meeting in January of last year, and claims 8,000 members.

Its chapters have taken on everything from gun violence to pushing for expansion of school breakfast programs. But with backing from some of the same deep-pocketed funders that helped bankroll the charter school campaign, Massachusetts Parents United will have to prove to some doubters that it’s more than a stalking horse for pro-charter forces.

“I have to keep fighting because the inequities still exists. Voters made their decision. I accept it,” Rodrigues says of the charter question. But she says there are all sorts of other ways to work to improve schools and advocate on other issues facing parents. “My children are not going to have access to the same education as rich white kids are going to get,” Rodrigues says of the current status quo.

Helen Corrigan, the former chairwoman of the Somerville Democratic City Committee, says she has long puzzled over Rodrigues’s disparate dimensions. “Her language is pretty rough. On the other hand, she’s a Eucharistic minister,” says Corrigan. “She’s a complicated person.” Some things about her, Corrigan says, are clear. “There’s nothing shy about Keri,” she says, “and she seems to be willing to take on anyone.”

TOUGHING IT OUT

If her personality and political profile defy simple categorizing, so do Rodrigues’s early years growing up in Somerville.

She’s the daughter of a “townie Irish” mother from Charlestown and a father with a Portuguese heritage. Her grandmother was a co-founder of the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers and a player in local Democratic Party politics. Rodrigues’ childhood gave her a grounding in politics and civic activism, but she says it was also marked by upheaval that she says helps fuel her passion to improve the lot of children—and that may also explain some of the edge with which she approaches that work.

Rodrigues is very frank about the trauma she says she dealt with as a young girl, but some members of her family dispute her claims and other family members say they don’t know who to believe. Whatever the cause, she says she was removed from the family home at age 13 by the state and spent several years living in foster care and group homes.

As with so many things about her, Rodrigues did not fit any simple preconception of a foster kid from a troubled home. “I had a big brain, but also had this kind of growing-up-hard-in-Somerville situation. I was a tough kid, but I was a band geek,” she says, an all-state percussionist with a streetwise edge.

From an early age, she had a thing for talk radio, and became a regular caller by age 12 to the late David Brudnoy’s show on WBZ. Rodrigues was expelled from Somerville High School in 11th grade (she was caught with a knife in her purse that, unbeknownst to her, she says, her boyfriend had stashed there). She got her GED and managed to land a slot at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she studied broadcast journalism and political science. (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Rodrigues graduated from Temple.)

She credits Brudnoy, whom she got to know off the air, with encouraging her to broaden her horizons and get away from Boston for college. He pointed her to Temple because of its good communications program. “He really sent me on my trajectory,” she says. Her left-leaning impulses clashed with Brudnoy’s libertarian-conservative outlook, and he also taught her to welcome a good give-and-take and to be ready to defend your views.

Her ability to do that helped her land a string of radio jobs following college, including gigs in Springfield, Worcester, and Providence. In Fall River, she hosted a talk show for nearly four years, calling out local politicians and serving as an AM rabble-rouser, rallying support for a grassroots campaign against a proposed LNG terminal on the city’s riverfront. “I really started organizing the community on the air. It was like a town meeting every single day,” she says.

She went from radio to SEIU, where she spent nearly a decade in the communications operation of the activist union, known not just for its advocacy on behalf of health care workers and janitors but its support for broader causes like an increase in the minimum wage.

“I was good at coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas and tactics,” she says. “We’re going to do a flash mob at the Ohio state capitol,” she says, recalling one organizing drive. Or teaching people “how to do a ‘die-in’ and lay down and get in the newspaper every day and make John Kasich look bad,” she says of the state’s Republican governor.

Andy Stern served for 14 years as national president of SEIU and was a leading figure in the US labor movement, overseeing enormous growth of the union and turning it into a progressive powerhouse that aggressively organized previously non-union sectors. “She’s a force of nature,” he says of Rodrigues, for whom he has become a mentor. “She doesn’t accept the status quo when it hurts people.”

Rodrigues serves as a lector and volunteer at St. Anthony’s Shrine, the Franciscan Catholic center in downtown Boston known for its commitment to social justice issues. The Rev. Thomas Conway, the shrine’s executive director, says there’s nothing inconsistent about being a battle-ready Franciscan.

“I think the stereotype of the person who is interested in spirituality is one of docility,” he says. Rodrigues is more apt to say, “put up your dukes,” says Conway, but that’s an “archetypal Boston Catholic” approach. “I’ve got a whole church full of people like that. They’re ready to take on the world.”

BALLOT QUESTION BATTLE

Although she honed her political chops on the radio and at SEIU, Rodrigues’s involvement in education issues is fairly new, and it came about, ironically, as a result of her effort to steer clear of the issue. In 2014, while doing consulting for local Democratic candidates, Rodrigues insisted that they not fill out issue questionnaires sent by Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-reform group that supports charter schools. She didn’t think the candidates, some of whom were involved in competitive primary races, had anything to gain by completing the surveys and wading into contentious education policy issues.

The frustrated director of the state chapter of the Democratic education organization, Liam Kerr, reached out to ask if she’d sit down with him. When she did, says Rodrigues, she began to see the education issues the group was advocating as part of a social justice platform that Democrats should support.

“I started doing my own kind of internal analysis” on school issues, she says. Until then, she says, “I just thought that as a Democrat, whatever the teachers’ union said was the line that we follow.” She decided education issues were more complicated than that, especially as she started to face challenges with her own children’s education. One of her sons was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and clinical depression and was suspended dozens of times during his kindergarten year in his Somerville elementary school.

“It opened my eyes,” she says of the experience, and convinced her that parents needed more of a voice in their children’s education and more options in choosing the right school for them.

She ended up doing some consulting work with Democrats for Education Reform and then getting hired as state director for Families for Excellent Schools during the 2016 ballot question campaign to expand charter schools. She was relentless in arguing the pro-charter side, taking part, by her count, in 116 debates with Question 2 opponents. “We spend so much time worrying about the feelings of adults and the turf wars,” she says of education battles. “Our prime focus is supposed to be our children.”

“Teachers should absolutely have a seat at the table,” she says. “They should not have every seat at the table. I should have an equal say in what happens to my children.”

Keri Rodrigues with two of her three sons, David, her youngest, left, and Matthew, her oldest, right.

The charter school issue has long divided Democrats, often pitting two key party constituencies, lower-income minority families and teachers unions, against each other. But Democrats broke strongly against the ballot question, with the state party even taking an official stand against Question 2.

Not, however, before Rodrigues and state AFL-CIO president Steve Tolman mixed it up at a Democratic State Committee meeting. Rodrigues says Tolman wound up in a rage yelling at her. He says she’s exaggerating. “We had a confrontation, I remember that,” says Tolman. “She tried to make more of it than it was.”

Deb Kozikowski, the vice chair of the state party, didn’t share Rodrigues’ view on the charter school ballot question, but she admired her determination and principled stand, and thinks Tolman overreacted. “She’s willing to stand up for her vision and her truth of what the Democratic Party means to her,” says Kozikowski, who regards Rodrigues as her “political daughter.”

The charter ballot campaign was a debacle in all sorts of ways, says Rodrigues.

Families for Excellent Schools poured more than $15 million into the failed effort. Last September, the group paid the largest fine in state campaign finance history—$426,000—for illegally hiding the identity of its donors. In February, the organization announced it was disbanding, shortly after its founder and CEO, Jeremiah Kittredge, was terminated following sexual harassment allegations.

“It’s terrible, and it hurts our work,” Rodrigues says of the impact of the financing shenanigans and fine on the charter school movement.

Though she was often the face of the campaign, Rodrigues says she had no say in the high-level strategizing of the ballot question effort. “I was completely boxed out,” she says. “I was like a prop. I think I was used as a parent.” The effort was run entirely by Baker’s consultants and Kittredge, “who thought they were the smartest boys in the room,” she says.  “They didn’t need to hear from me. I was banging my head against the wall a lot.”

PARENT VOICE 

At the May meeting of Mass. Parents United in Lowell, before the discussion on the achievement gap, Chhorvy Sumsethi, a leader of the chapter, introduces Rodrigues in Khmer, and she gets up to offer a brief welcome to start the meeting.

Before Rodrigues speaks, one of the parents remarks on the new, short hairstyle she’s adopted since she last spoke to the group.

“I don’t have to spend any time dolling myself up anymore. It gives me a whole other hour to cause trouble,” Rodrigues says with a sly grin. “I can cause a lot of trouble in that time.”

No one doubts that. But as Rodrigues is quick to emphasize, the goal of the group is not so much for her to cause trouble as for parents to do so themselves.

Rodrigues met with Stern, the former national SEIU president, when developing plans for the new organization. “What you used to do organizing workers is exactly the same thing you need to do in organizing mothers around schools,” Stern says he told her.

Mass. Parents United has hired 12 part-time parent organizers like Sumsethi who work 10 to 20 hours a week. In addition to Rodrigues, the group has five other full-time staff members, including an administrator, a full-time organizer in Springfield, and a coach who conducts training sessions with parent organizers. 

Along with the Lowell group, there are now Massachusetts Parents United chapters in East Boston, Lynn, Lawrence, Lowell, and Springfield, and a new one getting started in Salem.

The group’s mission includes ensuring that “every child has the high quality education they deserve, whether it’s through a district, charter, or private school.” Rodrigues says parents don’t care about labels and turf battles that pit district schools against charter schools. They just want schools that work well for their child. But Mass. Parents United claims a broader agenda than schools, with public safety, affordable housing, and immigration issues also chief concerns. In fact, Rodrigues says, “the parents I work with are first dealing with poverty issues,” whether it’s safety on the streets or rodent problems in poorly maintained apartments they rent.

“The conversation always goes to education in the end because that’s the pathway out of this mess so that the next generation doesn’t have to deal with the same burdens that we as parents are dealing with,” she says. “But you have to first understand where education falls in context so that you can engage parents. Otherwise they turn off to you and they say, listen, you don’t get where I’m coming from at all.”

Diana Cifuentes, a native of Colombia who has lived in East Boston for 12 years, was one of the early members of the neighborhood’s Mass. Parents United chapter. “It’s excellent because we get to expose what our needs and problems are as a community,” she says after a chapter meeting in late March, her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter in tow. “We are the voice of our kids and the voice of the community.”

The organization has secured funding from several foundations, including the Walton Family Foundation, the Longfield Family Foundation, and the Barr Foundation, all in Boston, and the Springfield-based Davis Foundation. The group’s biggest backer, the Walton Family Foundation, is run by heirs to the Walmart fortune, a fact that has raised lots of eyebrows among those who tangled with Rodrigues over Question 2.

The foundation has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into charter schools nationally in recent years, and two members of the billionaire family, Alice and Jim Walton, between them donated nearly $2 million to the Massachusetts charter ballot campaign in 2016. Amos Hostetter, the benefactor of the Barr Foundation, donated just over $2 million to the charter ballot effort, and Boston area entrepreneur Chuck Longfield, benefactor of the Longfield Family Foundation, also made a sizable contribution to the ballot campaign.

Rodrigues’s “Mom-in-Chief” title has a folksy feel, but it belies her group’s fast rise and impressive funding stream. The Parents United annual budget is now more than $1 million, with the Walton Family Foundation providing $400,000 to date.

Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts Boston political scientist who blogged extensively about the undisclosed “dark money” that poured into the pro-charter ballot question, sees Mass. Parents United as little more than a fresh venture of the same forces. “It’s hard to say what Massachusetts Parents United is really about,” Cunningham wrote last summer in a blog post about the group titled, “Old Wine in an Empty Bottle.”

“You’ve really got to focus on, not the Rodrigueses of the world, but the Walton Foundation, the Longfield Foundation,” Cunningham says in an interview, likening the situation to the agent-principal concept in economics and political science. “These people, they’re the agents,” he says of Rodrigues and Parents United organizers. “The principals are the people with the money. There’s an agenda that’s coming from the top.”

Rodrigues says it’s nonsense to think the foundations are directing her work, or to imagine that Parents United is plotting a new charter expansion campaign. She says the group shared its organizing plan with the Walton foundation, but insists Parents United’s funders have no say over the issues it works on.

“The path to more high-quality schools for families who need them most looks different in every community, city, and state,” said Marc Sternberg, director of K-12 education at the Walton Family Foundation, in a statement. “What is most important is that thanks to MPU, parents have a seat at the table and can make that happen.”

“I think people are being stuck on that issue of the ballot question,” says Rodolfo Anguilar, a Guatemala native and Hyde Park resident who works as one of Parents United’s part-time parent organizers. “The fact is the ballot question lost. That’s not the question [now]. The question is, what can we do to build better schools in the public system?”

Kim Rivera, the group’s full-time Springfield organizer, says Mass. Parents United has been pushing for a universal waiting list that lets parents sign up for district and charter schools through one application. They helped organize a local rally as part of the nationwide March for Our Lives protests on March 24 against gun violence, and are also part of the state’s “Breakfast after the Bell” coalition, which is pushing legislation to increase access to school breakfast in Massachusetts. It’s a coalition that includes the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which led the fight against expansion of charter schools and tangled regularly with Rodrigues.

Rivera also helps promote weekly community meetings the Springfield Police Department holds in the tough Forest Park neighborhood. “She helps us a lot,” says Sgt. Ariel Toledo, the Springfield officer in charge of the sessions. “Their agenda is to empower parents, particularly poor parents from low-income communities. So there are a lot of things where we have the same goals. When it goes political, we have to stay out of that. But 80 percent of the stuff [Parents United does] we work together on,” he says of the organization.

Parents United’s efforts to find common cause with would-be allies is sometimes running into roadblocks from those who still see Rodrigues’s past as prologue. Last year, the Springfield chapter got involved in bringing attention to complaints from parents about an unhealthy school climate under a principal at one of the city’s elementary schools. The issue also drew the attention of a Springfield school committee member, the local NAACP branch, and the city’s teachers union. But the union’s president, Maureen Colgan Posner, says she was uneasy about Parents United’s involvement.

“We feel they were trying to use that situation to build up their membership. But we don’t feel they are trying to do it from a completely honest and clear position,” says Colgan Posner. Like Cunningham, the UMass professor, she thinks the group is ultimately still interested in pushing for more charter schools.

“If they’re being funded by that same money that funded Yes on 2, then follow the money,” she says.

Stern, the former SEIU international president, says it’s absurd to think Rodrigues is taking direction from her funders. “If you meet Keri, you understand she’s not taking orders from anybody,” says Stern, who has also taken heat from some in progressive circles for his involvement in education reform efforts. “She’s not a patsy for anybody. She is taking orders from nobody but the mothers.”

The tattoo Rodrigues has on her back is a quote from abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Without struggle, there is no progress.” Rodrigues, who regularly lets loose on her “EduMom” blog against teachers unions and anyone she sees blocking the path for school improvement, concedes she enjoys mixing it up.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

As tough as she is, Rodrigues also admits that the battles can take a toll. “I have my days where I’m like, oh god, this is so hard, everybody hates me,” she says. “Everybody has those days.”

When that happens, Rodrigues says, she looks to Stern for support. “He kicks me in the butt and reminds me what’s on my back,” she says of the Frederick Douglass quote. “He says, you know leadership is not easy. Creating progress is not easy. And you have to start with being comfortable being uncomfortable and challenging.”