Anastasia Somoza Takes Center Stage
Anastasia Somoza (C’07) speaks at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last month. (AP Photo)
August 11, 2016 — The 2016 Democratic National Convention wasn’t exactly short on big speeches.
The four-day ceremony featured addresses from a seemingly never-ending list of prominent national politicians — including two U.S. presidents — all endorsing the first woman to run on a major-party presidential ticket in Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But one of Philadelphia’s most poignant speeches didn’t come from a rising star legislator or party politics veteran. On Monday night, the first of the convention, New York-based disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza maneuvered her motorized chair to center stage and delivered a powerful five-minute endorsement of Clinton to a roaring crowd.
Judging by the reaction pieces that night, the political press received the speech as well as the arena had. But for Somoza, it was only the latest big moment in a life of public service and activism that began with a childhood passion for equal rights and was shaped here at Georgetown College.
Somoza (C’07) was born with cerebral palsy with spastic quadriplegia, which confined her to a wheelchair from childhood. Her parents — both immigrants, of Irish and Nicaraguan descent — worked hard to ensure she got the same educational opportunities as other children. But while Somoza could speak eloquently, her twin sister Alba’s condition rendered her almost completely nonverbal, making the fight to keep her in general education classes much more difficult.
Outraged that the school system had shunted her sister into a special education track for a physical disability, Somoza spoke up. In 1993, she met President Bill Clinton (F’68) at a nationally televised town hall and lobbied for her sister’s cause. All of nine years old, she made her case clearly and directly to the sitting president.
“She can use her computer to speak, and I think she should be in a regular class just like me,” Anastasia Somoza told Clinton.
Before long, Alba was granted access to the classes she deserved.
Having seen up close how political advocacy could change lives, Somoza continued to involve herself in politics even after Alba’s situation was resolved. She volunteered in local campaigns, from school board elections to New York Democrat Mark J. Green’s run to become the city’s first Public Advocate.
When it came time to apply to college, Somoza knew she wanted to follow her Fordham-educated mother’s advice and find a Jesuit school — but she also knew she wanted to leave New York, eliminating her mother’s alma mater from the search. Eventually, her mother suggested she apply to Georgetown.
“It was an instant connection,” Somoza said. “I felt really comfortable in every way.”
Even for someone who now possesses the self-confidence to speak in front of thousands of people, the first few days of college can be nerve-wracking.
“People may be surprised to hear this, but there was a time that I didn’t have that level of confidence,” Somoza said. “I had personal apprehensions about whether I’d be able to meet the academic standards, just like most typical teenagers.”
Coming from a public high school, Somoza was worried that she would struggle in an academic environment with students who had had access to more advanced classes at private schools. She worried that her fellow students would be ultra-competitive, and even that making friends would be a struggle.
“It was so not,” she said. “I found a supportive group of friends right away, and whenever I did need extra help, I remember all my professors having an open door.”
Somoza eventually decided to major in government and minor in English, but she took full advantage of the flexibility the College offers to explore as many disciplines as possible, and eventually ended up only one class short of a second minor in sociology. When she wasn’t in class or cheering on the basketball and football teams, she kept up her activist streak, getting involved with an HIV/AIDS awareness group and serving on the board of Hoyathon, a 24-hour benefit dance marathon for the Children’s Hospital of DC.
Somoza’s experience at the College helped give direction to the drive to serve that she had felt for years. After graduation, she enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science and earned a Master of Science in Human Rights.
“One of Georgetown’s biggest mottoes is to live in the service of others,” she said. “I’ve carried that with me. I tried to do it at Georgetown, and that’s a big part of the reason I pursued the graduate degree that I did.”
Today, Somoza consults for the Shield Institute, a disability rights advocacy group based in New York. Shield supports a number of programs for people with both intellectual and developmental disabilities, many focusing on daytime physical therapy and training for those who can’t work a traditional job. She’s most familiar with the Pure Vision Arts studio, where her sister Alba is a resident artist, but she serves as a sort of jack-of-all-trades for the organization.
“My work with them is speaking, working with their board, fundraising, and staff, parent and teacher training,” she said. “My role is really to help the staff and families remember what they’re doing beyond the paperwork.”
But Somoza’s work isn’t limited to her paid job in New York. She’s brought her passion for service to a national and international scale, with the indirect help of a family she first met as a small child: The Clintons.
After a chance meeting with St. Cloud State University’s Dr. Kathy Johnson while interning at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting, Somoza began working on a CGI project aiming to eliminate the abandonment of children with disabilities in China. The project — a Commitment to Action, in CGI terms — will seek to establish a comprehensive resource center for parents of children with disabilities.
In addition to her consulting and volunteer work, Somoza will serve as an official surrogate for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign this fall. She’ll hit the trail in the coming months and speak on behalf of Clinton.
Less than a decade removed from her graduation, the woman who was nervous about even coming to Georgetown is making a tangible difference in her city, her country and halfway around the world. She’s doing exactly what it would seem she’s been destined to do since childhood, and she credits her education for helping her get there. So what does she think current Georgetown students should do to follow in her path?
“Take every opportunity you have to pursue things that you love, but also that you never imagine you’d be interested in,” she said. “That’s the best part, realizing how many pathways there are to realizing who you are as a person. Step — or wheel — outside your comfort zone.”
— Patrick Curran