.Spotlighting Local Luminaries for Women’s History Month

The Impactful Women of Santa Cruz County

Editor’s note: In this article, ‘woman’ refers to anyone who identifies as a woman or is gender-expansive.

Last Thursday, I walked into the Museum of Art History to listen to a panel of intergenerational women discussing what it means to be a leader.

The evening was cold, but as I stepped into a room buzzing with chatter and mainly filled with women, warmth replaced the night’s chill. 

For the next hour and a half, I listened to women and girls share their experiences and thoughts on leadership. They talked about their role models, with every single one listing their mothers. They spoke about the importance of opening doors for the people around them and how being a leader means, first and foremost, serving the community. I was moved to tears twice.

One of the younger girls on the panel spoke about her mother, who had given up her life and family in Mexico in hopes of her children having a brighter future. After her father passed away, her mother stepped in to fill both parental roles.  

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Later, one of the few men in the audience talked about how proud he was of his two daughters. He said he was inspired to attend the panel in hopes of better understanding the world his daughters lived in.  

It’s not easy being a woman in this world. Listen to the news on any given day, and there will be stories about politicians continuing to restrict abortion rights, about women who have suffered at the hand of domestic violence (one in seven will) or being assaulted (an experience that 81% of people identifying as women will have). 

Listening to these women speak and researching the countless women in Santa Cruz County who have devoted their lives to improving the quality of life for others, I find that inspiration is my antidote for the otherwise grim reality. I am humbled and in awe of the sacrifices women in our county make daily and their resistance in the face of adversity. 

This article doesn’t come close to including all the women in Santa Cruz County, making our community more just, more educated, more accepting and overall kinder. Here’s to everyone who identifies as a woman, visible and unseen, fighting for all of us. 

Activism 

Santa Cruz County has been home to countless women activists. Many of whom are world-renowned: political activist and UCSC professor Angela Davis; literary giant Gloria Jen Watkins—better known as bell hooks—who received her Ph.D. at UCSC; the former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens Celia Organista; and Maria Ramos, a daytime nurse who spends her free time fighting for reproductive justice for migrants and most recently organized a gofundme that raised more than $147,000 for Pajaro Valley flood victims. 

In part because of her long history—25 years and counting—of advocating for migrant workers and partly because of the tragic floods hitting migrant farmworkers in South County, we spoke with Dr. Ann Lopez about her journey in activism. 

After obtaining her Ph.D. from UCSC, Dr. Lopez left academia because her experience as a woman of color was marked by institutional racism and misogyny.

“I felt either targeted or ignored,” Lopez says. “These were all-white seminars, and I was silenced.” This strengthened her resolve to help minority communities, specifically the local farmworker population. In 2000, Dr. Lopez founded the Center for Farmworker Families, a nonprofit serving South County. The center provides emergency assistance, such as a bi-weekly food and toiletry distribution. 

Dr. Lopez has gained the trust and confidence of the farmworker community she serves and has received numerous awards and accolades, including being named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women consecutive times. She encouraged other young women of color to pursue their goals and help tear down barriers that exist even today. 

“Follow your dreams and don’t give up,” Lopez says. “Times have changed, and we have to do something to stop the abuse. The only way the system will change is if people know the truth.”

Nonprofits 

As illustrated by the recent natural disasters, nonprofits fill the gap in services that federal, state and local resources simply don’t cover. At the helm of many of these critical organizations are women. 

Monarch Services, an organization dedicated to supporting victims of sexual assault and violence, is headed by Kalyne Foster Rendal. The Diversity Center, which supports the LGBTQ+ youth and community, is run by Cheryl Fraenzl. And Dientes Community Dental, which provides free and low-cost dental care for low-income patients, is run by Laura Marcus. 

And then there’s the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, one of the most influential nonprofits, led by a woman known fondly in the community: Susan True. 

True grew up in Minneapolis with a family who emphasized public service. The daughter of a nurse, True spoke about how her mother’s strong values and life lessons from childhood led her to her work today. 

“My mom looked at me, and she said, ‘Suzie, fair is not always equal, and equal is not always fair,’” True says. “It took me years to understand what she meant, which is that some people need more than other people. And that’s fair, in the end, and that’s how we started talking about equity in our community.” 

For True, being a leader was about stepping up. 

“Often, I was the youngest person in the room because I held a leadership role when I was in my mid-20s,” True explains. “I never had any actual aspiration to be a leader—but I had a daily plan to keep caring about people, keep bringing people together, keep bridging differences and make more just and equitable decisions.” 

Arts 

Santa Cruz County has a vibrant arts scene powered mainly by women. The 2023 Santa Cruz Poet Laureate is Farnaz Fatemi, an Iranian American poet and writer and founder of The Hive Poetry Collective. Julie James, playwright, author and actress, is also the founder of the Jewel Theatre Company, a longtime Santa Cruz favorite for local plays. Valeria “Val” Miranda, the Executive Director of the Pajaro Valley Arts and the Santa Cruz Art League, supports local artists and brings the arts to the youth.

There are also women uplifting others in the art scene: Isabel Contreras is one of those women. 

Contreras, an artist herself, was discouraged by the lack of artists of color at some of the North County events she sold her art at. 

“Talking to artists of color, I saw how much they were craving visibility, wanting to have their artwork be accepted and valued just as much as those artists who are at the Westside farmers markets,” Contreras says. 

Despite being a self-proclaimed introvert, Contreras filled the need for minority-centered arts events with Mi Gente. 

“Leadership, it’s just listening and opening doors,” she says. “A lot of black and brown people struggle. There are just less opportunities, and it’s really hard to network in these spaces. I’m just trying to create a space for people to feel welcome. Listen to yourself; listen to what your mind or spirit is trying to tell you. Listen to your intuition. That’s what I did. I kept hearing that voice inside of me saying, ‘do it.’”

Science 

As Executive Director of Regeneracion Pajaro Valley, a local climate justice organization based in Watsonville, Nancy Faulstich organizes community talks, forums and more that center on climate change.

Faulstich taught preschool and kindergarten in the Pajaro Valley School District for 25 years. Her daughter and young students inspired her to participate in climate activism. 

Regeneracion began as a loose network of concerned residents who noticed the community’s lack of climate engagement. To better understand the Pajaro community’s needs and relationship with climate change, Regeneracion was born.

Faulstich and her team currently assist residents and organizations in the Pajaro Valley with storm recovery efforts. 

Unfortunately, this extreme weather is “an expected kind of natural disaster,” she says. 

Faulstich joins the ranks of women in the sciences throughout Santa Cruz County’s history: Julie Packard was a UCSC alumna who founded Monterey Bay Aquarium; Kathryn Sullivan, another UCSC graduate, was the first U.S. woman to spacewalk; Sandra M. Faber is an astrophysicist and professor at the Lick Observatory famous for her research on the evolution of galaxies.

Politics

Last year, Gail Pellerin became the first woman from Santa Cruz County to hold office at the state level. The Santa Cruz City Council had its most diverse council, with three women of color sitting as council members, including Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson, Sonja Brunner and Martine Watkins. 

Kayla Kumar, who ran for public office in 2020, spoke about why they entered politics and how they want to bring more diversity and progressive initiatives to local politics. 

Kumar has become a prominent organizer and advocate for youth empowerment, housing justice and food insecurity. Most recently, they co-led efforts to put Measure N, the Empty Homes Tax, on the ballot to fund affordable housing in Santa Cruz. They recently joined the team at Food What?!, a food justice organization that runs job training programs for local youth involving organic farming and nutrition education.

As an organizer of color, Kumar knows how depleting it can be to overextend oneself while doing meaningful work and stresses the importance of her colleagues doing self-care work. 

“I want rest, ease and care for my fellow organizers,” Kumar says. “You all deserve to be taken care of while you do your important work. I think the goal needs to be finding ways to hold our complexity with love, empathy and solidarity.”

Blaire Hobbs and Josue Monroy contributed to this story.

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Aiyana Moya
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