Women For: Orange County 2023 Suffrage Luncheon Honorees
Ameena Mirza Qazi,
and Gema Suarez
Beckie Gomez: "What Happened to You?"
When I first got the call about this award, my first thought was the Women's March, where we had several people from Cypress College walk together. Out of that day, a new sisterhood grew on our campus. We discussed having a Women's event to honor Suffrage Day in August. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, and all of our plans got scrapped.
I don't do what I do for the recognition, but my sister asked me a few years ago, "What happened to you?" Until then, I had never been asked that question, but within a split second, I answered, "Mom."
My mom did not finish high school, but she was always a public servant in her own right – she was a “room mom,” volunteered at the local park, and worked the polls on election day. She never perceived herself as a leader and never felt she had a voice. As a young person, it annoyed me that she wouldn't speak up. Most of that was culture, and her experience. However, she often got worried when I spoke out, which was pretty often.
In high school, I challenged my counselor, who wasn't convinced I should take college prep courses. I think that he took one look at me and believed that I would get pregnant and not finish school. Or when I questioned the school administration about why the female athletes had to raise money for their athletic program and awards when the boys just got everything.
I was blessed with the relationships of my teachers and coaches who showered me with their support throughout my life. And I was super lucky that my first internship in healthcare was under the wing of two phenomenal women. My supervising physician encouraged me to apply to medical or grad school, and another taught me how to be a professional in adverse situations.
To them, I owe a great deal of gratitude. I searched for Dr. Teberg several years ago and talked with her husband. Unfortunately, Dr. Teberg had Alzheimer's, and I asked her husband to tell her how much I appreciated her. Years later, after her death, I connected with her children, who truly enjoyed my stories about her and how she affected my career. Up to then, I had never been in the presence of such strong female leaders.
As I started my professional career, I sought jobs working for people I could learn from. This helped my career and how to deal with demanding people. I got lots of practice in a healthcare world where physicians were mostly men and nurses were mostly women.
Outside of my professional career, I spent my adult life coaching kids and volunteering in schools. Leadership comes in various contexts, and this is where I learned a considerable amount about "politics."
Since I have always been interested in sports, I just wanted to be a Park & Rec Commissioner. Then, I realized that the other people who sought the positions had already talked to the council members to lock up their votes before our interviews. Well, that didn't sit right with me.
When the city and school district became embroiled in a lawsuit over land grading for a new school, I thought that was ridiculous. What a waste of taxpayer money! That spurred me to run for city council. When I won, there were challenging times. Frequently, I was the only female in the room along with the attorney, city manager, staff, and council and often had to say: “You know that I am in the room, right?”
Later, some very persuasive women recruited me to run for the OC Board of Education because the Board wasn't focused on the students as they should have been. We all know where that went when we lost the majority of robust public servants from both parties.
I share these situations with you because public service comes in many stripes:
Being that “room mom.”
Encouraging young people to pursue their education.
Working the polls.
Volunteering in the community and...
Keeping our elected leaders accountable.
One does not have to be elected to be a leader. Most of us don't do the work of an activist or elected official for the accolades; we do it for our respective communities. Once, one of my Board colleagues asked me if I was "always like this" as she referenced my stand on a particular issue. My reply this time was, "No, but I have had to deal with people and situations that I don't think are fair. So yes, it is people and situations that have made me a "warrior" --- not my word, but a description by some of my supporters.
I offer my respect to all of the women who have received this award in the past. I am proud to know many of these women and have worked with them on issues important to our communities and families. It is on these shoulders that I stand today. I have had the opportunity to work with and have supported me. Loretta, Felicity, Liz, Farrah, Ada, Theresa, Judge Riddle, Stephanie, Beth, Debbie, Toni, Bonnie, Kathryn, Rima, Sue, and many more. Thank you for all you have done and continue to accomplish for our community.
Thank you so much for this recognition. I share it with many people: my husband, children, and extended family, who are always patient when I have other commitments. To my parents, who taught me the value of hard work, education, and family.
Thanks to my friends who have supported me in my many endeavors and are present today. But most of all, I am incredibly humbled to join such an illustrious group of female leaders in Orange County. Congratulations to all of the nominees.
Ameena Mirza Qazi: "All of it in that Moment!"
Thank you so much, Adam, for the wonderful and hearfelt introduction. Adam [Overton] is such a gifted and important advocate for social and economic justice in Orange Country through his work at Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). You know, they say that nothing quite bonds two advocates in the struggle like getting arrested together...and I'm proud to have gotten arrested with Adam and two hundred others a few months ago, when I went with a CLUE contingent to a Unite Here action demanding fair wages for hospitality and tourism workers. So we're quite bonded!
I’m so honored to receive this recognition by Women For: Orange County and to join this esteemed “corsage” group of past honorees. And on a day such as this, recognizing the fight for women’s suffrage. You know, one of my very first biography reports in elementary school was on Susan B. Anthony. What struck me about her story was not just about the tremendous work she did in the movement for women’s suffrage, but how it was just that, a movement, a chorus of voices joined together to advance rights for women all over the country.
A few years ago, I mentioned in an interview with a reporter, that I’m just a drop in the ocean of this movement. And that has always been true… I’ve been blessed to have been surrounded by so many others who have brought vision and vigor to this work, or who have supported and enabled the work that I do. So I’d like to introduce you to a few of the ocean drops in my life…. Adam, who I introduced you to, the wonderful Felicity [Figueroa] who I’ve known for about 15 years and is present on almost everything I’ve worked on; my mother and sister who are here, my children, my friends here who are such important advocates for our community, and my husband who has believed in me and pushed me even sometimes when I couldn’t find the strength in myself. I’m also joined by some members of the League of Women Voters, North OC, which is, I should mention, the fastest growing League chapter in the state, who are joining me in taking such important steps with our chapter to advance equity and racial justice.
Recently, I’ve come across a quote by the famous poet Rumi: “You are not a drop in the ocean, but the entire ocean in a drop.” Beautiful, isn’t it? But which is it? A drop in the ocean? Or the whole ocean in a drop? To me it’s both. There is nothing more powerful than to be joined by others in the struggle for justice and equity, a tidal wave of talent, heart, and wisdom. Working in community always makes our work more grounded, meaningful, and impactful. However, there are times, especially as a woman activist, perhaps in the late hours of the night, when you’re tired and stressed and up with a sick child, or you’re the only woman sitting in a board room trying to make your voice heard when so many others want to drown you out, that you must summon the strength of all those drops in the ocean, those female forces of nature from across space and time, you must be the power, the force, the beauty—all of it in that moment.
One more quick story before I end… a few years ago, I was clothes shopping with my daughter who was probably seven or eight at the time. I picked out a shirt for her that read “Girls rule the world.” But she told me that she didn’t want the shirt because it’s not true, “Girls don’t rule the world.” It’s sad to think that after so many years since the suffrage movement we still have such a long way to go. That girls still don’t feel like they don’t have an equal place in the world, that their voices might not matter as much. But for me, and I’d like to say this to my daughter now, it’s not about ruling the world; yes, people power is important but not control, or domination, or dominion. For me, what is important especially as a woman activist, as a mother, aunt, grandmother, or whatever role we may hold for others… is to nurture the world, to grow it, empower it, to strengthen it, to help people all over maximize their potential.
So I’m so thankful again for this honor, and excited to continue to join with all of you in this mass movement to improve our communities, and to join you on the next wave. Thank you.
Gema Suarez: "My Journey in the World of Organizing"
I am very touched by the intro from my colleague Salvador Sarmiento. Thank you. I am also happy to see my comrades sitting at the table: Scott Sink, Dean Inada, Maria Zacarias, Karla Juarez, Aileen de La O, Carlos Perea, Tracy La and my mother Estela. They all represent various parts of the organizing I have been part of in the last decade. I would not be here without them.
First of all, I want to recognize the women’s suffrage movement, it is an important struggle that challenged sexism and patriarchy in the established voting system. It is a movement to learn from.
I associate this suffrage movement with other movements. I define the movement that I participate in as a struggle against oppression, against exclusion and against exploitation.
I have seen the movement to defend human rights, to defend cultural rights and in general to defend the dignity of people, especially people who have been historically oppressed in their own land and divided against each other.
My journey in the world of organizing has allowed me to learn, to participate in collective action, and in collective reflection, and to be part of a process of articulating our conditions and our needs and finding opportunities to break the wall.
My people are brave, empathetic, complex, caring, versatile, resilient, and in solidarity, but one of the traits that has amazed me the most, is that they believe another world is possible, and so they are possibilitarians.
While other people who are conditioned to be indifferent or may think it is impossible to change, my people have mobilized and planted the seeds of resistance and have been building alternatives.
It takes a whole village of possibilitarians to undo the effects of a capitalist and colonial economic system. So we do it in parts and we make it possible. I offer a few examples below.
If we could have suffrage for immigrants --- including women! --- the work to defend dignity at the polls could facilitate our organizing to have results in a bigger picture.
In electoral politics there is a critical voice that can change the route of what is decided at the polls. The idea that there should be voting rights for people including women, without citizenship, may sound wild for some, but not for my people.
Today not all women can vote.
Representation, universal suffrage, is one of the founding principles of the American Revolution. Before the American Revolution, tax-paying immigrants were able to participate in elections for Parliament. Founding fathers Alexander Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette were immigrants. During and after the American Revolution, immigrants continued to vote. States allowed immigrants to vote in federal elections right up until the 1928 elections.
It was the White supremacists who organized against allowing residents to vote. This trend was championed by the actual Ku Klux Klan, who held a lot of political power at that time. Grassroots movements challenged the agenda of the KKK. Restrictions on suffrage have been defeated by our movements, resulting in:
• The removal of property requirements for voting
• Suffrage for women
• The eradication of lynching
• The smashing of Jim Crow
• The Civil Rights Act of 1964
But other remnants of the KKK agenda still remain.
It’s time to go back to universal suffrage, a founding principle of the Enlightenment, a founding principle of democracy. It’s time to reclaim this American tradition.
Twenty years ago, undocumented students were not able to even consider going to college due to expensive tuition and lack of a Social Security Number. So my people organized around that and changed the fortune of many of us. That seemed impossible. Not for my people.
Another example: rent control. It sounded like too much to ask, but my people did what had to be done. They researched, wrote the best renters’ rights local policy in the entire state, joined with different communities, changed the narrative, and won rent control in Santa Ana.
A final example, from early this year: the public announcements made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to protect workers who are brave enough to report labor abuses. Again, this seemed impossible, but not for my people.
Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez is serving her third term on the Tustin City Council and was the Area 1 Trustee for the Orange County Board of Education from 2016 to 2022. Professionally, Beckie held healthcare management and consulting positions and was the two-time past President of the Greater Orange County Health Information Association. She was a tenured faculty member and Dean for the Health Science Division at Cypress College. In the community, Beckie served as the President of several local non-profit and school organizations. She was a longtime softball, basketball and soccer youth coach. She has received numerous honors for her professional and public service endeavors. Beckie earned her B.S. from the UCLA School of Public Health, a M.S. in Healthcare Administration, a M.A in Sports Management, and a Ph.D. in Law and Public Policy.
Ameena Mirza Qazi is the Co-Executive Director of the Peace and Justice Law Center, former board member of the ACLU of Southern California, former CAIR-LA Deputy Executive Director, and former Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles Chapter. She is a civil rights attorney and tireless activist who has worked on free speech, social and economic justice, discrimination, First Amendment, equal protection, and procedural due process issues as well as a national and international speaker on civil rights issues affecting American Muslims.
Gema Suárez is currently the Organizing and Campaign Coordinator for El Centro Cultural de México, a community-based and alternative space in Santa Ana engaging Orange County residents in social justice initiatives through cultural, educational, and artistic development. Suarez has led El Centro's campaigns around Tierra, Techo, y Trabajo. She helped found the first domestic workers-led organization in Orange County, Nuestras Manos, and continues to build grassroots organizations and collectives such as the Asociación De Jornaleros de Orange County and the Colectivo Tonantzin. Since 2006 Gema has contributed to major campaign and policy wins in Orange County. These include day laborer defense for job-seeking rights in 2008, wins in district elections in Anaheim 2013, and through her work with the OC May Day Coalition to reform the impound policy in 2011 toward protecting undocumented families from unfair impounds. She supported Tenants United Santa Ana since its founding in 2018 through its rent control victory in Santa Ana in 2021.