Longtime Austin activist, AISD school board member giving to her community for 30 years

We asked you to tell us about the women who have inspired your life. We have passed hundreds of nominations in our Remarkable Women competition. Now we share the stories of our finalists.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – In the usually quiet library of Perez Elementary School in Southeast Austin, red heart-shaped decorations hang from the ceiling as a woman belts out the song “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”

At the microphone is longtime activist Ofelia Zapata, District 12 representative for the Austin ISD Board of Trustees.

It’s Valentine’s Day, her favorite holiday “because we just want to shine and sprinkle that love everywhere,” she said.

Zapata shines in more ways than one. Dressed in a shimmering red sequined shirt, she asks the crowd to stand up and sing along—and they do: “and the world will be a better place for you, and for me, just wait and see.”

Zapata grew up in Southeast Austin and continues to advocate for the same community.

“My goal, as a trustee, is for my schools — which have been on the East Side of 35, where I lived, where I grew up — where there was a lot of inequality, that we create an equity district that students learn at the same highest level in all schools in our district. That students understand that resources are available to everyone.”

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The road has not been easy for Zapata. Today she’s not shy about picking up a microphone and singing in a crowded library, very different from what she once was.

“I couldn’t even make eye contact,” she said. “I always walked around with my head down. I would stammer. I just got nervous and sweaty because I always felt intimidated that other people were smarter than me, better than me, and — and worth more than me.

She soon found her voice with a support group.

“I was a young widow and I was lost, I didn’t know anything about what to do. So I took a risk and started actually attending a lot of meetings so I could learn how to be that responsible parent, to help support my child’s education,” she said.

Ofelia Zapata serves on the board of directors of ISD Austin (courtesy of Ofelia Zapata)

It led to a successful run as a lawyer and now a school board administrator. He also directs Austin Interfaith, which teaches people to participate in civic life; he served at Eastside Memorial Early College High School (PTSA); created a group of advocates for social justice reform; he is a community representative in the Travis County Office of Public Defenders; and is the community organizer for the Texas Anti-Poverty Project.

“Because I was visually impaired, I thought there was nothing I could do. I don’t have a degree, I don’t have any money, I grew up in public housing,” Zapata said. “Don’t let these things dictate who you can be.”

You’ll often find Zapata at community events, including the support meetings she’s created called “Lead with Love.”

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Several times a year, Zapata brings together parents, educators, and city leaders to meet and discuss ways to help students and their families.

“The people I help are the people people think shouldn’t or can’t be helped,” Zapata said. “I want people to know that everyone is created with many gifts. We must give everyone the opportunity to know and start doing it about themselves.

Zapata has spent the last 30 years helping families.

Ofelia Zapata visits an Austin school (courtesy of Ofelia Zapata)

“Whether it’s housing, access to health care — all those things that I was struggling with — the community had the same concerns,” she said. “I’ve learned that working together is how we’re going to make change.”

As a trustee of the school board, Zapata’s “Lead with Love” platform is something she holds dear. “I love it!” she said. “Because with love we can remove all kinds of barriers.”

Zapata is a finalist for KXAN’s Remarkable Women series and said she’s not used to the light that shines on it.

“For me. I don’t see myself as a different person, but I’m honored that someone thought I should be recognized for this,” she said.

He is much more comfortable lighting others up.

“It’s not your postcode that determines how much you’ll learn,” she said. “It’s the school district that dictates that everyone learns at the same level.”

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