An Interview with Activist & Organizer Rosie Flores
Photo: Sillouettes of tomorrow via photopin (license)
Change is possible, but it takes a community. Rosie Flores become sober because a community of women supported her along the way. And today she’s part of our Women’s Policy Institute community, advocating for the rights of formerly incarcerated women. Photo: Sillouettes of tomorrow via photopin (license)

Rosie Flores’ journey is truly remarkable. Surviving homelessness, addiction, incarceration and domestic violence, Rosie is now a dedicated mother, student, organizer with the California Partnership and a policy fellow in our Women’s Policy Institute-Riverside Class of 2015.

Along with other passionate organizers, Rosie helped pass Senate Bill 1029 last year, which repealed the lifetime ban for people with drug-related felony convictions from receiving public assistance through programs such as CalWORKs and CalFresh.

That was a groundbreaking victory for California. But just a few years ago, Rosie was in a completely different place in life. It took a lot of inner strength, unconditional love for her son and a beloved community lead by attorney, activist and WPI-graduate Vonya Quarles, to turn her life around.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Rosie Flores and I work as an organizer with California Partnership. I’m a Riverside Community College student in social work, a proud single mother to an incredible eight-year-old boy, Nicolas and a CalWORKs and CalFresh recipient. I’ve also spent most of my adult years in prison.

What inspired you to do advocacy and organizing work?

My life experiences inspired me to do this work. I never really had a family. I don’t know much about my mother and my father was a chronic alcoholic. As a young child my four siblings and I were put into foster care. If my life before foster care was difficult, my life in the girls’ home was worse. Soon I started running away and living on the street with the other little girls. I had no education and I didn’t want to be anything when I grew up. I did drugs and tried committing suicide twice because I just didn’t want to live.

One night, when I was twelve, I was out with some kids. It was a really cold night and we were looking for shelter. One of the older kids showed us how to carjack a car so that we’d have somewhere to sleep.

We got caught and I was the only one arrested. That’s because I was holding a gun when we got caught. I was twelve years old and I got eight years and four months for it. I went to the California Youth Authority and stayed there until I was eighteen.

When I was paroled, I didn’t want to leave because I had nowhere to go. So after I came out, I was rearrested many times. I was hanging out with the wrong kinds of people and I did not know how to live.

How did you turn your life around?

I tried to get clean many times and I couldn’t. My addiction was bigger than I thought. I still thought I had power and control over it. In reality, I never did, so it took me longer to get sober. I went to rehab many times, but each time I got out, I would start using again.

Then I got pregnant with Nicolas, my forth child. And I vowed never to take drugs again. I already had three experiences of having to give up my kids; my third son had cerebral palsy because I was using while pregnant. So I stopped everything.  I was willing to do whatever it took for my child to be healthy.

But, truly, the reason why I’m here today is Vonya Quarles. She’s my inspiration: She’s a Women’s Policy Institute graduate, an attorney and a formerly incarcerated woman.

She told me, “Rosie, you have a choice: you can either do 90 meetings in 90 days and stay here where you’re safe [a rehab and treatment center], or you can leave now and Child Protective Services will be called on you sooner or later to take your son away. So you make your choice.”

After she said that to me, it put things into perspective. I stayed because I was all out of ideas. I didn’t know what to do anymore, and that’s what it took for me to get sober. I’ve been sober since.

How did you get into organizing?

Vonya Quarles was part of All Of Us Or None, a grassroots civil and human rights organization fighting for the rights of formerly- and currently- incarcerated people and their families. I started attending meetings with her and advocating for SB 1029. I went to Sacramento every year and told my personal story of incarceration and reintegration.

I went to testify every year, and every year the bill wouldn’t pass. Then it passed last year! I told my story on the Senate floor along with other advocates and I think we helped that bill pass. I felt so proud and capable that day.

What does the future hold for you?

I want to help people. I know that I didn’t go through all the struggles in my life for nothing. I can’t cry over it for the rest of my life, but I can do something with it.  I know what people are going through because I’ve been there and I can understand them.

There are a lot of different places where I think I would do good: criminal justice reform, homelessness issues, access to childcare. I have a big heart when it comes to children. I do not like to see kids hurt.

I’m still in school, so I want to graduate in a few years. I graduate next spring from Riverside Community College with my AA and half my BA and I plan to transfer to Cal Poly.

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