By Tim Gruver
Northwest Asian Weekly
Having served Washington’s district 37 for nearly 18 years, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos will be one of eight people to receive a lifetime achievement award as one of the Northwest Asian Weekly’s top contributors to the Asian community.
Cindy Domingo, Chief of Staff to King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, recalled witnessing Santos’ passion, diligence, and inspirational work ethic, while traveling to the United Nations’ 1995 World Conference on Women.
“It was there at that conference and the months leading up to the conference that I saw Sharon’s leadership blossom and her passion for developing a platform of action for a women’s rights agenda,” Domingo said. “She is unstoppable, unflappable, and smart, and a good friend, colleague, and comrade to me and many other women who aspire to be leaders and change agents in this world.”
Elaine Chu, a philanthropic adviser to the Seattle Foundation, recalled Santos’ strength both as a mentor and as an inspiration. “Sharon is one of those rare individuals you meet that stays in your life forever,” Chu said. “She taught me to challenge myself and go beyond what you could just do now, but also what you can accomplish moving forward.”
During her time in politics, Santos dedicated much of her career to ensuring quality early learning programs for Washington students, closing what many refer to as an education opportunity gap, which represents everything from unequal access to current textbooks to disproportionate assistance from teachers.
“You do not throw an English learner into an advanced placement English composition course and expect that student to excel,” Santos said. “Why? Because they are an English learner. That student needs additional support and additional time to perhaps achieve the same level as his or her peers or perhaps it’s a satisfactory performance, but not at the same level.”
According to Santos, part of the problem stems from a lack of trained educators who share the same cultural values or even the skills necessary to interact in increasingly multicultural classrooms.
“We talk a lot about the need to increase the number of educators who reflect the culture, the students in the American public educational system. We talk about the need to promote cultural competency training among all teachers,” Santos said. “All teachers are necessary to educate a well-rounded student body, but not when you have teachers who are unskilled in interacting with all students.”
Moving with her parents to the Seattle area from San Francisco as a young child, Santos spent much of her childhood in Beacon Hill. She would go on to attend Franklin High School, which enjoyed the distinction of being one of the most racially desegregated schools in the nation at the time.
There, she and other student activists would then volunteer to be bused to Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School as part of the Seattle School District’s attempts to racially integrate its student populations in the late 1970s. The hour-long bus rides every day from Nathan Hale and back proved difficult for students like Santos, whose Japanese American heritage became the object of her teachers’ biases.
“When I needed extra assistance in my precalculus class, I was not able to receive it,” Santos said. “As a result, I raised this issue with a teacher who told me, ‘You orientals are all smart in math, you don’t need extra help.’ I lost interest in math and up to that point, I loved math and I was good at math.”
Such experiences impressed upon Santos the importance of state and local government in meeting the educational needs of its citizens, in addition to matters such as public safety.
For Santos, the murder of Chinatown community leader Donnie Chin highlighted Seattle’s failure to include Asian Americans in its efforts at ensuring public safety measures.
“That we continue to be brushed off by the Seattle police, who fail to remain in communication with the community, as to what they are doing with facts of the investigation into Donnie Chin’s murder, is unacceptable,” Santos said. “It is a clear signal as to how the Seattle Police Department continues to disrespect and marginalize the Chinatown International District.”
Santos praised efforts by local leaders, such as Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena Gonzalez, whose push for the creation of a public safety survey and coordinator step forward for better protecting Chinatown residents.
“[Chinatown residents] are city taxpayers, they are state taxpayers, they are county taxpayers,” Santos said. “We have as much right to public safety and security for individuals, for businesses, as the downtown business core, or any individual who lives in a richer part of town.”
Regarding the passing of her husband, activist, and International District community leader Bob Santos, Santos recalled a man whose work and life reaffirmed her commitment to her communal and political service.
“It was around core values and seeing that we shared the same vision for our community and that we could be more effective and supportive of one another as a unit,” Santos said. “If anything, Bob reinforced for me the lessons that I had learned both as a youth and throughout my adulthood about the effectiveness of activism.”
Santos will be honored on Dec. 2 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Tim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.