He was working as the deputy mayor of Los Angeles when a group of activists came to him asking if he would allow them to close off streets for a day of cycling. He asked them if they had done it before, they said no. He asked if they had any money – also no.
“And in my head I’m thinking, ‘Why not? It’s a great experiment,’” he says. “I remember taking that leap with the gut feeling that this could be something interesting. And if it fails, at least we tried it.”
This year CicLAvia celebrated its eighth anniversary. The fun bike ride for a few dozen casual riders that it started as has evolved into an event that draws thousands of people and families pedaling their bikes through the notorious city of cars.
To the LA native who migrated to the city from the Philippines when he was just six, the ride represents the best of his hometown. The mix of races and classes and age groups all taking part in an event that celebrates a more sustainable form of transportation.
The event also encapsulates the way Romel’s built his career – from nonprofits to inside the upper echelons of California politics – with a mission of environmental justice in the greater community at its core. So when CicLAvia came asking if he would serve as their executive director in 2014 Romel said yes.
“There was a feeling that something big is here and you have the ability to be part of it. And I don’t ever shy away from leading anything,” he says. “But I do know in that leadership space you always bring folks with you and mentor folks, so you’re not by yourself when you’re done.”
The idea of mentorship emerged as a strong theme when we spoke. Romel’s leaned on more than a few as he’s navigated an impressive career in politics that started in Sacramento and has continued in LA. And he has more than a few thoughts on the issues facing cross-generational mentorships and how to overcome them.
A law career avoided
But let’s begin with the tennis-obsessed college student at UCLA convinced he was either going to be a ranked pro or a lawyer when he graduated. He had already started working at a law firm and applied to 30 schools when he asked the youngest lawyer at the company: Are you happy? The answer came quickly: no.
“That made my decision for me,” he says.
He ended up going to UC Berkeley and studying for a masters degree in urban planning. Romel believes firmly in the idea that you end up where you’re supposed to end up as long as you have your passion to guide you. Romel’s passion was defending the underdog. He thought being a lawyer was the best way to do that. It turned out, he could accomplish far more working as a nonprofit advocate and, soon, within the government.
“Urban planning led me to understand that I was very good at communicating very simple things to a wider group of people; how you want to translate policy and how you want to get them engaged on it to make a difference,” he says.
He was more of a social justice issue guy until he got an environmental fellowship while at Berkeley. It set him on the path of environmental justice – a relatively new area of government at the time in the early 1990s that examined land use and the conditions that created strife in lower-income communities.
An education begins in earnest
After a few years of “banging on doors” as an employee of Bay Area environmental nonprofits, Romel was invited to join the Environmental Protection Agency.
“That was the hardest transition point. It was easy to be an advocate and tell somebody else to do it, because there’s someone else doing it,” he says. “But now you’re on the other side you’re the one who actually has to do it. The challenges and difficulties and opportunities in getting it done. And that’s where you test yourself … how do you collaborate? How do you get these historic institutions to move forward?”
When his work at the EPA eventually resulted in an appointment as California’s first assistant secretary for environmental justice, Romel’s insider education began in earnest. He was only 31, but he was beginning to learn how to pick his battles internally and how to communicate and galvanize communities around causes. He learned to build multidisciplinary teams for the long-term, even if his appointment was only a temporary one.
His career progressed, joining the staff of former LA Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa in 2005 and becoming deputy mayor in 2008 until 2013. Along the way he learned how to manage, leaned on mentors to show him the ropes and began to hand some of his knowledge down.
The state of mentorship
“Mentorship to me is not just the guidance, but some level of honesty. I think true mentors are the ones that say you’re full of crap if you think this way,” he says. “Part of the challenge is that I’m not sure folks today are willing to hear that level of honesty … and it’s built into how the digital world works. You think about the end result, but not about the journey. And it’s about understanding the journey. If you understand why you failed, it makes you a lot more approachable and wise.”
Finding that balance between tact and authenticity is a tricky one. And it requires a willingness to break down pre-existing notions as well.
“Risk-taking is being risky in how you give advice as well,” he says. “This generation, I’m not sure they’re open to that advice. And I’m not sure we as folks who are experienced, how patient we are with that.”
That doesn’t mean Romel doesn’t work at it. His staff is a cross-generational mix. Romel, at 50, feels more alive than ever, and more comfortable in who he is.
“I still act younger than I am, And I also think younger than I think I should be,” he says. “In that vein, I have this wild aspiration that it’s still possible to open up a business, it’s still possible to be able to run for office, still possible to be appointed on a cabinet somewhere … Those kind of aspirations are still there, they’re just elevated higher.”