All politics are local, right? All over the United States, more disabled people are running for office and winning. Here is my interview with Ligia Andrade Zúñiga about her campaign this year and her vision for the future. SF Bay Area represent y’all!!
Please tell me a little about yourself and your background!
My name is Ligia Andrade Zúñiga, I am 40 years old, my pronouns are she, her, hers (ella, de ella), and I identify as a woman of color (LatinX) with a disability. I was born and raised in Redwood City, California. I am first generation North American. My parents each immigrated to the states from different parts of Guatemala in the 70s. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Counseling and Administration, and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California. I’ve been working in nonprofits and local government for a little over 20 years and have served on different boards, commissions, and committees for almost 20 years. My work focuses on disability justice, civil rights, and sexuality and disability specifically in access and education especially around reproductive justice and reproductive health rights. I have two sons, one is 23 and the other is 18, they are both in college. I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.
When did you first become involved in the SF Bay Area disability community? What do you love about living in this area?
In 2009 I sustained a pretty severe spinal cord injury. About 6 months after my injury I became very involved in the spinal cord injury peer support program at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center where I did my rehabilitation. About a year and a half after my injury I also started working for the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center (SVILC). I learned so much about disability justice, disability rights. I learned about disability history, and to be proud of my new identity, to be proud of who I am, that disability is a part of human diversity. I learned to embrace my new culture. Between peer support and SVILC I learned my voice again. I was able to see my purpose clearly. Peer support and SVILC saved my life.
All of the advocacy and work I did before on social change prepared me for what my contribution to our community would be. There were certain issues that affected our community that really spoke to me. It was then when I made a commitment to keep fighting for our community anyway I could.
There are so many things I love about living in this area. First and foremost, this is my home. I was born and raised here. I love how rich the history of so many cultures is here. I love how the demand for social change, access, equality is so strong here. Although there are many things that we need to change, there are also so many things that we are privileged to have here.
This fall you ran for a seat on the San Mateo Union High School District Board of Trustees and won. Congratulations! How do you feel? What was it like when the results came in Tuesday night on November 3, 2020?
Thank you! I am so grateful and so honored to have so many people supporting me. I’m very proud of what my campaign team and I accomplished, I feel really excited for all of the work that is to come. It sends a message that people want change. The night of the election was really exciting. We had a watch party on Zoom, friends, my family, people that were helping out on my campaign, my kids, we all watched it together. On December 3rd the election results were confirmed. That blew me away even more. I was able to receive more votes than both the incumbent and the other candidate that was running. What was really important was what this symbolized. I am the first Latina with a disability to serve on this particular board.
What led you to run for this board in particular? What kinds of improvements and changes that will help students, parents, and community members in the San Mateo Union High School District?
I’ve been in this district for quite some time being that I have two boys that are five years apart. I’ve served on parent advisory groups in the schools, and volunteered in different activities. Both my kids were in football, so we were really involved with that too. Over time I’ve seen many great things, we’ve gotten a lot of great support, and my kids received a lot of great opportunities. However, there are many things that need to be corrected, there are many things that need significant change. My older son has a learning disability. I was privileged to be able to research what I needed to do to help him, what support he would need, how to help him advocate for himself and understand what his accommodations mean and how to access them. I chose not to medicate him, so consistency and collaboration was very important. I thought about other kids with his same situation and whether they were getting the services they needed, whether they and their families knew how to advocate for themselves, whether they knew what their rights were.
I also saw the lack of diversity in the leadership of the district, leadership of administration, and even student leaders. We need to create better opportunities for all of our students including students with disabilities, our students who are foster youth, the students in the continuation schools, our adult learners, our English learners, we need leadership that includes everyone. I feel like the student voice gets drowned out by the adults. That needs to change. I really want to make sure that students feel empowered to ask for what they need, and that they know how to do it. I want students to know the importance of the school board and why they need to get involved. I want to create more access for all of our community to understand and participate, not just the same people all the time. I want to create a pathway for our students to get involved in civic engagement and running for office. Especially from our underrepresented communities. I want to make sure that every student is getting every opportunity to be able to be successful in this district however success looks for them. I want to create an education continuum pipeline where all the districts work together to create opportunities for our students and their families. Lastly, I want to bring a different perspective. I want to represent the communities that are overlooked, silenced, invisible.
What were some of the challenges for you as a disabled candidate running for office in the middle of the pandemic? What did you learn and was there anything you were surprised by?
Some of the challenges as a disabled candidate running for office were fundraising, the invisibility of my disability, and my personal care. I underestimated my time frame because I had some things come up unexpectedly towards the end of the campaign which affected the fundraising. In the end we did great and we came out ahead, but it was very stressful. Because I couldn’t see people in person it was difficult, it became so impersonal. Online people can’t tell that I have a disability, so it made my disability invisible. I had to explain my situation. I’m very proud of my disability and I want people to know that I’m disabled, it helps them learn more about our community.
My personal care became affected because of the pandemic. I had a caregiver have to quit because her children were in school online during the time she was with me, and she had to be with them. She was also going to school and they changed her classes from night classes to day classes, so she had to resign. The last minute scrambling for another person while I was trying to keep up with my campaigning was pretty tough.There are so many things that go into hiring a new caregiver.
I learned how resourceful and adaptive we are as people with disabilities during times like this. Because I sometimes don’t have care, sometimes I don’t have transportation, I’m used to using Zoom and video conferencing to conduct my work. I learned how supportive my community is, that strength in numbers really does make change. I learned that direct communication with people in our community is extremely important because people want to be heard. I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy, but I learned more about the power we have within ourselves, that we all have something we can contribute to this world, sometimes we just need a little bit of help discovering it and bringing it out.
If this is your first time in public service, why is this important to you in this particular time in our history? What do you hope to bring to the Board of Trustees as a new member?
This is not my first time in public service, I have been on boards, commissions, and councils for quite some time now; I just have never run for office. I felt that right now there is an opportunity to really bring in folks that can bring more representation to our community. Right now I think our world is begging for change. The door was open. The pandemic made it a little more manageable for me believe it or not. The events that may have been tough due to the lack of accessibility were accessible because they were virtual.
What is your vision for the future of public education? What should it be like for all students, and disabled students in particular?
My vision for the future of public education is for everyone to have access to the same opportunities. That looks different for everyone, and that’s okay. However we also need to have a leadership that reflects the communities we serve because without that representation we won’t be able to understand what type of access people need. I also believe that what is being taught needs to also reflect the diversity we have in our communities. I think our system needs to bring in more teachers, administrators, leaders in the schools that look like our students. Covid-19 has really exposed a lot of things, but they are also things that we’ve been talking about for a very long time. They have been ignored and now they are worse. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “We are never going to reach equality in America until we achieve equality in education.“
For disabled people who want to become politically involved in their local communities, what is your advice to them on where to start?
For disabled people who want to be politically involved in their local communities I would recommend starting really local. Committees, commissions, and boards are a good place to start. Even joining the PTA (Parent Teacher Association) in the schools your children go to, attending community meetings, writing to your local leadership, little by little. However, if there are people that want to just take a dive into running for office, I recommend taking trainings that are offered through NCIL’s Elevate program, talking with other elected officials with disabilities, having a plan.I think it’s really important to create some sort of plan on where you want to end up and what steps you need to take to get there. Everyone’s goals are different, but having a plan to get there is extremely important.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes, it’s so important for our community to be visible. I believe the best way to make serious change is through policy. We must be present to advocate for change in systems that are outdated, archaic, discriminatory, and provide solutions that are coming directly from us, that will better serve our communities. If not, we will always have decisions made for us by people who don’t really understand.
Ligia Andrade Zúñiga, M.P.A. has dedicated her focus on educating and empowering individuals living with disabilities on various aspects of independent living, especially in the area of sexuality, reproductive health rights and disability justice. Ligia holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Human Services with an emphasis in Administration and Counseling, and a Masters Degree in Public Administration from Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.
Ligia acquired a spinal cord injury in 2009 following an automobile accident and has since been actively and deeply involved in the community advocating for individuals with Disabilities. Ligia is a co-founder of the Bay Area Sexuality and Disability Network. She has been a peer supporter for 11 years through the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Spinal Cord Injury Peer Support Program. Ligia serves on several boards and commissions, such as the San Mateo County Commission on Disabilities where she chairs the Legislation, Outreach, and Advocacy Committee, Center for Independence of Individuals with Disabilities Board of Directors, California State Independent Living Council where she chairs the Communication and Collaboration Committee, San Mateo County Health Commission, and others.
Ligia has two adult sons who are both in college and reside in San Mateo.