By Leslie Yeh
Northwest Asian Weekly
In a nation that has yet to inaugurate a female president, it can often feel as though the voices of women lose resonance in the midst of a male-dominated political arena.
However, on Sept. 25, 15 voices rang loud and clear at the tri-annual “Women of Color Empowered” luncheon held at the China Harbor restaurant. Hosted by the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation, the event celebrated the diverse and influential impact of female leaders in local political roles.
Angela Russell, KIRO-TV anchor, was the master of ceremonies for the event. She kicked off the event by announcing some VIPs in the crowd, notably Seattle mayor candidates Joe Mallahan and Mike McGinn.
The honorees included women of various ethnic backgrounds who now serve on the Washington state legislative board, local school boards, and city council boards.
During the two-hour luncheon, the honorees were brought up to the stage one by one to answer questions regarding their inspirations and future goals.
“The challenge is making the move to be in a political position and making your voice heard. You must know your community, be involved in it, and take a lead role in it,” said Bremerton City Council Member Dianne Robinson, discussing what hurdles Black women face in politics today.
Robinson encouraged more Black women to speak out and become political representatives for their communities.
Cheryl Chow, a Seattle school board and city council member, elicited laughs from the crowd with her candor.
She joked about what instigated her career in politics. “My mom said no, so I went ahead and did it anyways.”
On a more serious note, Chow said, “I feel very, very passionate about children having good role models. Especially in a diverse city like Seattle, it is important that they see someone in the news or classroom that is speaking up for them in the bigger picture.”
Although all the honorees hold prominent political roles, the audience was still able to empathize with the struggles that these honorees encounter daily as women of multiethnic backgrounds.
Perhaps the most poignant of these revelations was when Sonia Rodriguez spoke about the discrimination and racism she currently faces as the first Latino to serve on the city council in Yakima’s 122-year history.
Rodriguez is seeking re-election this year and says it has been made clear to her that some people won’t vote for her because she is Latino.
Many people who will vote for her won’t publicly admit to it for fear of being ostracized in the community.
“There are things about me I can’t change, like my last name.” Rodriguez said in a shaky, but firm voice. “I bring a lot besides my ethnic background, but people only see me for the color of my skin.”
Cindy Ryu — the first Korean female mayor of a U.S. city — also spoke candidly about the racism she has encountered as mayor. She says people often call her at home. They don’t introduce themselves, and they just hurl insults.
Ryu said callers have told her that she doesn’t belong in America and should “go back to where you came from.” Other callers have said, “I need to know where you live so I know where to burn the cross.”
Audience members flinched hearing these words. Ryu smiled and said she did not want to end her statements on a bad note. She eased the mood by smiling and announcing, “Even so, I’m running for re-election because I do love my job. I love being mayor.” She continued on, explaining that being a public servant is not a lucrative career, but she continues to work within it because it is incredibly rewarding.
While they come from a variety of different backgrounds and political paths, the honorees all shared a communal gratitude toward the support of their family and their respective communities.
“If I didn’t have the ongoing support of my community, it would be very difficult, but we carry this burden together,” said Sharon Tomiko Santos — the first Japanese American female to be elected as a Washington State Representative.
Commenting on her legacy, she said, “It is to follow in the footsteps of those before me. We only stand on the shoulders of those who come before us.”
The honoree interviews were followed by a question and answer session with the audience, where Santos readily voiced her opinion on the issue of R-71. If not approved, she said the referendum would repeal the rights of state-registered domestic partnerships.
“It’s important that we confirm our continued support of [equality],” she said in favor of voting yes on the ballot.
The luncheon concluded with a raffle drawing, where lucky winners were presented with inspirational books on female empowerment.
Although not present at the event, Gov. Chris Gregoire sent her congratulations to the honorees through a greeting read by her representative.
“I am thankful that Washington is home to women of spirit and resolve,” she stated. “I hope those in attendance will be inspired by these discussions.”
Other honorees included Patsy Bonincontri, Marilyn Strickland, Doris McConnell, Marie Reibe, Joan Hernandez, Sue Rahr, Claudia Kauffman, Phyllis Kenney, Sili Mana’o Savusa, and Mary Bass. ♦
Leslie Yeh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.