We asked you to tell us about inspiring women in your life. We went through hundreds of nominations in our Remarkable Women contest. Now, we’re sharing our finalists’ stories.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the usually quiet library at 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 long-time activist Ofelia Zapata, the District 2 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 sparkly red sequin shirt, she asks the crowd to get up and sing along — and they do: “and the world will be a better place for you, and me, you just wait and see.”

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

“My goal, as a trustee, is that my schools — which have been on the east side of 35, where I lived, where I grew up — where there was a lot of inequities, that we create a district of equity that students learn at the same highest level at every school in our district. That students understand that the resources are there for everyone.”

The road has not been easy for Zapata. Today, she’s not shy picking up a microphone and singing to a crowded library, a far cry from who she used to be.

“I couldn’t even give eye contact,” she said. “I always walked around with my head down. I would stutter. I just got nervous and sweat 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 was lost — did not know anything of what to do. So I took a risk and started really attending a lot of meetings so I can learn how to be that responsible parent, to help support my child’s education,” she said.

Ofelia Zapata serves on the Austin ISD Board of Trustees (Courtesy Ofelia Zapata)
Ofelia Zapata serves on the Austin ISD Board of Trustees (Courtesy Ofelia Zapata)

It’s led to a successful run as an advocate and now school board trustee. She also leads Austin Interfaith, which teaches people to participate in civic life; served on the Eastside Memorial Early College High School PTSA; created an Advocates for Social Justice Reform group; is a community representative in the Travis County Public Defenders Office; and is the community organizer for the Texas Anti-Poverty Project.

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

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

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

“The people I help are the people that people think should not be or cannot be helped,” Zapata said. “I want people to know that everyone was created with many gifts. We need to give everybody that opportunity to know and begin to that about themselves.”

Zapata has spent the past 30 years helping families.

ofelia with a woman in a school hallway
Ofelia Zapata visits an Austin school (Courtesy Ofelia Zapata)

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

As a school board trustee, Zapata’s “Lead with Love” platform is something close to her heart. “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 isn’t used to the light shining on her.

“For me. I don’t see myself as anyone different — but I’m honored that somebody thought that I should be recognized for that,” she said.

She’s much more comfortable shining the light on others.

“It’s not your zip code that dictates how much you’re gonna learn,” she said. “It’s the school district dictating that everyone’s gonna learn at the same levels.”