By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Observe. Plan. Act.
These are steps that serve Sofia Aragon well, and led her to where she is today: a hopeful in the state senate race for the 34th district, which comprises West Seattle, Burien, White Center, and Maury and Vashon Islands. The decision to run is the next step for Aragon in a career in healthcare and government. She would not be the first woman to obtain the seat if she wins. She will replace Sharon Nelson, but as a Filipino American, she would be the first person of color to win in the 34th.
Aragon said, “It’s a wonderfully progressive district…where leaders can take a stand on the tough issues of the time. The communities are right along with those values. It’s an exciting place to serve.”
Aragon’s family immigrated to the United States when she was 3, and her mother was invited to the United States to help ease the nursing shortage. Aragon recalls that her mom and grandmother “did what they had to do to get us to school…their goals were pretty focused and clear. We’ve got to get you educated, so that you can earn and support a family, and that’s the best that we can hope for. I remember thinking about that and…I wasn’t discouraged or anything, but it was sort of this realization like…the odds were against you, but it was just all circumstance.” Observe.
Aragon took to heart the importance of preparation, particularly in her situation.
“I remember as a very young woman, maybe an adolescent thinking, I’m a minority, I’m a female — that’s a double-whammy!” Yet Aragon’s father, who also came from a healthcare background, assured her that “as a woman, you can do whatever you want.”
Aragon attended Seattle University’s School of Nursing, then landed a job at Swedish Cherry Hill, where she grew frustrated with hospital nursing.
“Patients seemed to just rotate through the hospital and there wasn’t a lot you could do to really help their situation.” She wondered, how could she do more to help the community in a lasting way? Plan.
“I found this opportunity for a community health clinic back in my neighborhood [at Rainier Park Medical Clinic],” explained Aragon. “I worked there for two years. We served immigrant populations, low income, people who are kind of transitioning in life…That was a really meaningful experience.” It was then that Aragon got her first sense of the role of state government in healthcare. “One day, we were told that ‘something happened in Olympia.’” That “something” turned out to be a state health reform that resulted in insurance companies pulling coverage from Aragon’s patients. Again as the role of observer, Aragon thought to herself, what does a person have to do in order to change policy? Plan. Act. Go to law school.
Aragon attended Loyola University in Chicago, with an emphasis in Health Law. Living outside the Pacific Northwest heightened Aragon’s ability to not only observe needed changes, but also existing positives. In Chicago, people asked her, “Why are you coming to the Midwest when we’re all trying to head for the West Coast?!” Aragon realized, “Yeah, we are ahead, yet we have to be careful to manage progress. I always hope for new and better things, like everybody else, but…we should never take for granted all the achievements we’ve made — like the Affordable Care Act (ACA). People will whittle away at that if we let them.” Change works best if balanced with keeping the good things that the 34th, Seattle, and the state already have.
Aragon was involved in establishing the ACA in Washington and describes it as one of her proudest moments to date. After law school, it wasn’t long before Aragon found an internship in Olympia with what is now the Department of Commerce. From there, she gained an understanding of the layout of the capital, and the different departments. Observe. Plan.
Act. Soon Aragon was advising the Secretary of Health, but rather than resting on her laurels, Aragon strategized how to do better and more.
“The secretary would need somebody who saw the whole picture of how things worked,” she observed, so she took a job as Director of Governmental Affairs for the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA). Said Aragon, “I was shoulder to shoulder with a contract lobbyist that WSNA had at the time and totally learned that system.”
When Aragon started in Olympia, Democrats held the majority. She views the experience of working through the changeover to a dominantly Republican legislature as one of her greatest campaign assets.
“I saw the tide turn politically, which I think is valuable experience in running in the senate, for this position.” Aragon considers two of her strengths in the race to be her ability to work effectively with both parties, and that she is already an insider in the capital. “To really be effective, you need a broad-based coalition,” she said.
Currently, Aragon is executive director at the Washington Center for Nursing, where she enjoys the opportunity to effect change.
“This is why you need women in leadership,” she explains. “You can actually develop policies from where you sit. And really advocate for important things…as well as raise people’s awareness in a productive way as to confront the things that keep us from living life through an equity lens.”
Like many of the 34th’s constituents, important issues for Aragon are equitable, affordable healthcare, housing, and education.
“I’m concerned that people don’t have the opportunities I had when my parents brought me over,” said Aragon. “They had a pretty simple but clear plan. We get jobs. We get our daughters through school…We buy a home…And that’s all we need…I feel like today, there’s so many barriers to that for everyone.” Aragon and her husband took pains to find a house, where she grew up, in West Seattle, but it wasn’t easy. “You think you have choices where you live, but you actually don’t,” she observes.
Aragon understands that these issues impact all of Washington. She notes that King County “gets a lot of attention…but rural communities have the same issues, whether it’s affordability of housing, [or] access to education…I think a statewide outlook is important.”
For the 34th, Aragon said, “I want it to continue to progress and be innovative. I think it needs to evolve in a way that its communities are evolving. One of the reasons someone encouraged me to run for office was partly because I’m a relatively new resident of Burien — but she said, ‘You look like the people who are coming in…That’s what I want to see in representation.’”
“People know it’s time to look at more diversity in the legislature.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.