He went from a life of gangs and poverty to working at prominent companies like eBay and winning election to Silicon Valley’s most powerful education board.
Santa Clara County Board of Education Member Peter Ortiz knows the struggles of many students in his district because he’s lived through them himself.
Ortiz, 29, grew up off of White Road in East San Jose with his mother and two older brothers. His father was abusive, Ortiz says, and ended up leaving their family when Ortiz was 11.
His mother worked long hours to keep them afloat. Ortiz helped by getting a job too. With special permission from his high school, he was cleaning public and private properties by the age of 13.
That’s when Ortiz got involved with a gang. It was a natural next step, he says, a path laid out by his older brothers and cousins who — absent good male role models — were acting the way they thought men should act.
“I made mistakes growing up,” said Ortiz. “I was hurt really bad several times, but that was kind of like my environment.”
At 22, Ortiz says he started looking to change his life. His friends were dying or ending up in jail and he was depressed. So Ortiz started reading books — about philosophy, society and how to address societal issues.
“That’s when I started to get involved in my community,” Ortiz said.
The budding advocate got involved with Year Up — a Bay Area-based program that provides a variety of career-building help to underserved young adults. Ortiz learned to code and landed decent-paying jobs with PayPal, eBay and other prominent companies — jobs that afforded him the time to volunteer in his community. Today, Ortiz works for Year Up as the manager of public policy and government affairs.
During the rocky journey, Ortiz met Omar Torres, who came from a similar background. Though he hadn’t joined a gang, Torres grew up in a neighborhood where drugs and crime were prominent. Torres, who serves as community relations coordinator for San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, gave a talk at Year Up one day about the struggles students face in the public school system.
“If you want change,” Torres remembers saying during that 2013 talk. “Come and help me.”
Out of a class of 25 students, Torres said, Ortiz was the only one who approached him afterward, offering to get involved — a trend Torres says has continued over the last six years.
Since then, Ortiz has assisted Torres with neighborhood clean-ups in the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Association, provided Torres with digital communication help during some of his political ventures, and — during Ortiz’s time as a Mount Pleasant School District Trustee — collaborated with Torres to bring a new public library to the community. That library is scheduled to break ground on March 22.
Constructing a library in that community was a priority for Ortiz and fulfilled his campaign promise to bring resources to the families there.
“Mount Pleasant kind of gets forgotten,” Ortiz said.
Parents who work two jobs struggle to drive their kids to the library to get books or use the Internet, and the nearest libraries were too far to walk. Without access to these resources, Ortiz says, these kids live at a disadvantage compared to their peers.
While education is a passion for the recently-elected Santa Clara County Board of Education member, protecting small businesses in the community is another. Ortiz started working with Carrasco’s office and learned the impacts of the new light rail system and other development on small businesses.
Ortiz walked up and down Alum Rock Avenue to speak to business owners — some of whom were brought to tears because they felt their livelihoods were at risk. He identified one of the business owners, Jesus Flores, as a natural leader who could help him form what is now the Alum Rock Santa Clara Street Business Association.
Flores remembers Ortiz’s persistence.
“I think that was the main characteristic from Peter,” said Flores. “He came to my office five times. The first three times, I didn’t want to see him.”
Flores is now the president of that association. He credits the unified voice Ortiz helped create for bringing support to the immigrant-owned businesses in the Alum Rock corridor.
Ortiz decided to run for county office in this past election to support more students. He worries that students are being expelled when they should be given guidance.
“I wanted to make sure we weren’t just throwing away these kids who made mistakes just like I made mistakes,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz’s friend Jordan Eldridge says Ortiz’s past is precisely what makes him so good at what he does.
“His experience is what a lot of young people on the east side are dealing with on a daily basis,” Eldridge said. “He has a great opportunity to really impact youth in a way that others without his experience cannot do.”
While Ortiz doesn’t consider himself a role model, he acknowledges his unique position and hopes his story might inspire others.
“I just want to empower them,” Ortiz said of the students.
Contact Carina Woudenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @carinaew on Twitter.