Inspired by the experiences and grit of her mother, Súeli B. Gwiazdowski says she’s known advocacy and the law would be a part of her future from a young age. The Whitman College junior grew up hearing her mom’s stories about immigrating to the United States after losing both of her parents, and witnessing the discrimination and sometimes aggressive suspicion toward her mother, a Brazilian woman of color.
“Being alongside my mom while she was treated so differently from me on the basis of her skin color and status as an immigrant is what I think motivated my initial interest in civil rights,” Gwiazdowski says.
She found a way to channel her interests in middle school, when her English teacher recommended that she join the debate team. “She knew that I was passionate about politics and loved in-class dialogues.” Gwiazdowski fell in love with debate, rising all the way to the state championships in her first year of high school. She excelled in policy debates, where her developing passion for community advocacy and political action shone through.
In her sophomore year, she participated in a protest against police brutality spurred on by the shooting of a neighbor with mental disabilities during a crisis call.
Around the same time, she got involved with ACCE Action, a California-based organization focusing on housing rights. For Gwiazdowski, who says housing insecurity and terrible landlords were a regular part of her life, the cause hit especially close to home.
Her attendance at protests aligned her with other passionate organizers, who she eventually joined at the capitol in Sacramento to lobby for Proposition 10, a rent-control bill. Instead of being at protests in her home of San Diego, accompanied by friends and supporters, she was inside the crucible of law for the state of California. For the first time, Gwiazdowski was given a view into a truly professional law setting.
“It was then that I realized I could pursue a professional career working towards the same kinds of change. Before, the idea that I could go beyond my hometown hadn’t presented itself as a possibility,” Gwiazdowski says.
Becoming Her Own Advocate
Her sophomore year of high school also marked the beginning of a new phase of advocacy for Gwiazdowski—this time, fighting for herself.
That year, the degenerative spinal condition Gwiazdowski was born with rapidly worsened, requiring her to use a cane, then leg braces and, eventually, a wheelchair. Before then, most of her classmates were unaware of her condition.
“Everyone was able to single me out as a disabled kid. That was the first time I had ever experienced my disability being entirely visible. All of a sudden, my whole world changed and I was perceived in a completely different way than I had been a couple of weeks before.”
As her symptoms progressed, the perception by her fellow students wasn’t the only difficult change. Although federal law is meant to protect students with disabilities and allow them to the greatest extent possible to learn in classrooms with nondisabled students, Gwiazdowski says her high school claimed it could no longer support her education due to inaccessible facilities. In her junior year, she was forced to transfer to a special education classroom at another school. For Gwiazdowski, that meant the end of competing in debate and no access to honors-level classes.
That abrupt change further motivated Gwiazdowski to challenge the status quo.
Every day seemed to be a fight just to receive the kind of education Gwiazdowski knew she could thrive in. In spite of dismissal from her special education teachers, she knew she possessed the motivation and intelligence to succeed. Soon, it became a question of whether she needed to transfer again or drop out of school completely. After successful negotiations with the school system, she was able to attend an independent study program to finish
junior year and complete high school through homeschooling.
“Throughout all this time that I was fighting to be able to get a seat in general education classrooms with my previous classmates, I was being told to give up and move on,’” Gwiazdowski says.
Informed by her experiences with educational settings and school-based support systems, Gwiazdowski felt a deep draw to disability and education law and policy.
Back to Debate
At the same time Gwiazdowski was speaking up for her education at high school, she was also looking ahead to her college career.
She knew she wanted to attend Whitman, but as a first-generation and working-class student, Gwiazdowski made the financial choice to first spend a year at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC). There, she met administrators who helped arrange accommodations. She founded an affinity and advocacy group for students with disabilities and campaigned for campus accessibility improvements. While a student at WWCC, she visited a Whitman debate team meeting, where she connected with Lauran Schaefer, the college’s director of debate.
When she transferred to Whitman in the fall of 2020, she joined the debate team and, soon after, founded Whitman’s first affinity group for students with disabilities, the Disability and Difference Community.
In the summer of 2021, Gwiazdowski had the opportunity to work with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, enabled by a First Generation Internship and Career Opportunity Endowment from Whitman. She describes the experience of working with the agency that handles cases where free and appropriate education has been denied to students—similar to what Gwiazdowski had faced herself—as “incredibly intense and rewarding.”
In the fall of 2021, she began a yearlong fellowship with The Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation at Loyola Marymount University. The virtual program recruits and trains students with disabilities who aspire to careers in law. It’s an important step toward a more inclusive justice system: People with disabilities have been historically excluded from the law and related professions, even though they currently make up 26% of the U.S. population, Gwiazdowski says.
“The fact that I can only think of a handful of disabled people who are active in law, policy, or politics right now—that’s embarrassing for our country. We need more representation, less pity, and for allyship to go beyond retweets.”