In 2005, Maria Ruiz was going through a dire situation: her three sons were struggling in school, and she had no idea where to find help. That’s when she met Henry Perez, who had just been appointed as coordinator for the Familias Unidas program at InnerCity Struggle (ICS).
“I felt hopeless because I felt that there was nothing I could do to help my children, and as a mother that is one of the worst feelings,” said Ruiz, a longtime resident of Boyle Heights. “I met Henry at a workshop he brought to Hollenbeck [Middle School] where my oldest was going, and he changed all of our lives.”
She says Perez helped her gain access to valuable resources to support her children, with extra attention to her middle child who, as someone in the Autism spectrum, struggled to find adequate support in school. Seeing what ICS could do for her family, Ruiz decided to join the Familias Unidas team to fight for more dedicated support for struggling students in LAUSD.
Ruiz’s two oldest sons are now college graduates and her youngest is studying at CSULA. Over the years, she’s participated in a wide array of education campaigns spearheaded by ICS and Perez. She was ecstatic when she learned that Perez would be the organization’s next Executive Director.
In March, ICS announced that Pérez would formally take over as Executive Director after 18 years holding various posts in the Boyle Heights-based organization that focuses on building stronger schools, growing civic engagement and preventing housing displacement in the Eastside.
Most recently Perez led the organization in an interim position while the former executive director, Maria Brenes, ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the LAUSD Board of Education. Brenes remains as ICS Senior Advisor.
Inner City Struggle was started in 1994 by a small group of parents, youth and residents in Boyle Heights concerned with the high volume of violence and crime in the neighborhood at that time. Over the years, the organization has sought to engage residents in a number of issues – in 2022, for instance, the organization called for Los Angeles councilmember Kevin de León to resign.
“InnerCity Struggle is a reflection of the Eastside, and just like the neighborhoods we represent, we’ve seen a whole lot of change and growth,” says Perez. “I am grateful for the work of every single person who has made this organization what it is, and I promise that I will continue on that legacy, our mission to uplift and keep moving forward.”
Perez says he began his activism during his first year as a UCLA student, at a time when affirmative action was called
into question in California. In 1996 he joined a student group that rallied behind the “No on 209” campaign.
“Throughout my life I got to see the lack of resources for people of color at every level of education, I just never recognized it for what it was until I joined that campaign,” Perez recalls. “Even though that measure passed and did away with traditional affirmative action, it opened my eyes to the barriers we face as people and how it takes coming together to have our voices be heard.”
Perez remained an activist throughout his time in college. After earning his Bachelors of Arts in 2000 at UCLA, he served as director of a student retention program for Latino students at the university. In 2003, he earned a Masters degree in Latino Critical Race Theory at UCLA.
“Once I graduated, I knew that I wanted to go into organizing so that I could help address some of the issues in education I saw were having such an effect on the communities I came from,” says Perez, who was born in Boyle Heights and raised in Pico Rivera.
Perez joined ICS in 2005 as the nonprofit’s first full-time Coordinator of Familias Unidas, the group which Ruiz joined the same year, leading outreach efforts to build leadership among Eastside families. Though his roles have changed over the years, from focusing on voter engagement to housing justice, he said creating a sense of community at the organization has always stood at the core of his work.
“What ICS does is build grassroot leaders from within the Eastside, so that the genuine perspectives of our community are vocalized and actually listened to,” says Perez. “We’ve built up a truly amazing space where a lot of those who engage in our programming come back and give back. That’s what a community is, we stick together, we fight together.”
Ruiz, the community member, expects to continue doing that under Perez’s leadership.
“Henry is someone who you can just feel cares about people, he cares about community,” she says. “InnerCity Struggle is like my second family, and that’s a feeling I know he’ll create for years.”