Dr. Suzie Abajian, a Board of Education member for the South Pasadena Unified School District, was honored last Saturday by Rep. Judy Chu during the Congressional Women of the Year Awards Ceremony at the San Marino Center.
The annual event recognizes local women in the San Gabriel Valley who have contributed to the community through service, organizing, or leadership. Abajian was honored by Chu as the Woman of the Year in the City of South Pasadena.
Abajian, whose passion for social justice and education stems from her experiences as a third-generation refugee in Syria, immigrated to America from Aleppo, Syria when she was 12 years old. Her family first settled in New York where she struggled in school because English was her third language. At the time there were no English Language Learning programs so she struggled in her studies and spent most of her days coloring and painting. Her family later moved to Los Angeles and she enrolled at an Armenian school that provided dual language instruction, which eventually set her on a path towards higher education. It was these challenging experiences as an English Learner that really helped shape her future.
After spending several years as a high school teacher, she took a job at the Orange County Department of Education as an administrator in charge of developing the curriculum for English Learners in county schools. For Dr. Abajian, this long career in education was a deliberate choice because she considers it to be the backbone of a strong democratic society and a way to empower different communities. However, she soon realized that her students’ educational experiences were not only shaped by her teaching, but by the policies that were made regarding curriculum, school funding, affordable housing, and healthcare, amongst other things. It became clear that it wasn’t enough to just focus on teaching, but that she also needed to advocate for her students outside the classroom and in the political arena.
With this in mind, she noticed a lack of teacher’s perspectives on the school board, so Dr. Abajian began her run for board member of the South Pasadena Unified School District, ultimately getting elected in 2015. Since being on the school board, Dr. Abajian has actively worked to make the school district a better place for students. Nowhere is this more evident than in her leadership in sponsoring the resolution that reaffirmed the school district’s commitment to a safe, inclusive and non-discriminatory school environment regardless of a students’ immigration status. She has also pushed to expand the school curriculum so that it is more culturally responsive, and in fact, due to her efforts, South Pasadena High School will be offering an ethnic studies course in English Language Arts next year.
While many of Dr. Abajian’s accomplishments relate back to her educational journey, she has also been a strong supporter of the local and organic food movement. She co-founded two Community Supported Agriculture pickup sites in the San Gabriel Valley and the Greater Los Angeles area. Over the past decade, these sites have provided over a thousand families access to local organic produce! She initially started this project because there were no store options that provided fresh organic produce while she lived in Lincoln Heights. She never expected how much it would grow, especially considering that little marketing was done. However, families have spread the word, which has not only led to an expansion of locations, but also a lot of leftover produce being donated to Union Station and the Union Rescue Mission.
Her passion for social justice and greater equity have made a real difference in the community.
Women of the Year
•Dr. Suzie Abajian (School Board Member, South Pasadena Unified School District), South Pasadena
•Hon. Barbara Messina (Councilmember, City of Alhambra), Alhambra
•Juanita DeVaughn (Civil Rights Activist), Altadena
•Tak Lau (Founder, Tak Lau Charity Foundation), Arcadia
•Gabriela Gamiz (Director, Office of Community Engagement – Harvey Mudd College), Claremont
•Lindsey Rehfeld (Executive Director, Visiting Angels Senior Homecare), Glendora
•Linda Wong (Executive Director, SPARK Afterschool Academy), Monterey Park
Lena Kennedy (Founder, Southern California Women’s Health Conference & Expo), Pasadena
•Lizbeth Mateo (Attorney, Law Offices of Lizbeth Mateo), Pasadena
•Kit Man Shum (Chief Consultant, DSC Laser & Skin Care Center), San Gabriel
•Lucille Norberg (Community Volunteer), San Marino
•Reyna Del Haro (Director of Public Affairs and Brand Communications, Kaiser Permanente, Baldwin Park Medical Center), Upland