Joan Yoshitomi, Rod Dembowski, and Dolores Sibonga at a reception for the creation of the Ruth Woo Fellowship • Courtesy of Rod Dembowski

Dolores Sibonga is a pioneer in every sense of the word.

She was the first Filipino American to serve on the Seattle City Council, and before that, she made a name for herself as the first Filipina woman to ever practice law in Washington State.

This year, at the age of 92, Sibonga will receive the International Examiner’s ‘Lifetime Achievement’ at the annual Community Voices Award gala on Thursday, October 26 at Joyale Seafood Restaurant. A passionate public servant for her entire career, one may find it surprising that when she was young, Sibonga actually dreamed of doing something quite different with her life.

“I actually was going to be a violin teacher,” said Sibonga. “But it was my mother who encouraged me to pursue a career in journalism. It’s because she had so much respect for Victor Velasco, the longtime editor and publisher of the Filipino Forum, a weekly newspaper covering the growing Filipino community in Seattle and Pacific Northwest.”

After earning her journalism degree from the University of Washington in 1952, Sibonga did end up becoming a journalist and eventually co-owning and running the Filipino Forum with her late husband, Martin.

“That community newspaper was a big part of our lives, along with the Filipino community in general,” said Sibonga.

“Over time, it became a family affair. I remember, when my son was 15, he was our designated newspaper’s photographer. He and I went out and covered a demonstration at the airport with the Black contractors to promote minority participation in the construction trade. Well, the airport authority threatened to use water cannons on us and we were all hauled off to jail.”

Sibonga explained they were all later acquitted, but that that experience in court was one of the things that got her interested in entering the legal profession. And similar to her mother, who pointed her towards a journalism career, her husband helped nudge her to take a summer course at University of Washington, aimed at assisting ethnic minorities interested in going to law school.

“Martin told me that if I wanted to change the way things run, I needed to become a lawyer. So I applied and got accepted into law school in 1970. This was nearly 20 years after I got my undergrad, but I was determined to do it,” she said.

As a wife and a mother, Sibonga has never shied away from challenges, even when the odds were against her. After she got her law degree, few of the major law firms were hiring BIPOC attorneys, so she worked as a public defender and was later recruited to become Deputy Director of the Washington State Human Rights Commission.

At the urging of late community leader Ruth Woo, Sibonga later ran for Seattle City Council, where she served for 12 years.

When Woo passed away in 2016, Sibonga was quoted at the time saying that her “heart was broken and Ruth Woo changed my life.”

When it comes to being an inspiration to other Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander American (ANHPIA) women, Sibonga, like her mentor Ruth Woo, has made a significant impact on the lives of people like Kristina Logsdon.

Joan Yoshitomi, Kristina Logsdon, Dolores Sibonga in 2017 • Courtesy of Rod Dembowski

“I still can’t believe Dolores is in her 90s. She is just amazing,” said Logsdon, who is currently serving as Chief of Staff to King County Council member Rod Dembowski.

Logsdon, a second generation Japanese American, said she first met Sibonga when she and Sibonga worked to launch the Ruth Woo Emerging Leaders Fellowship, a paid full-time position within King County to help empower youth from economically disadvantaged communities gain access to careers in local government.

“Dolores is a real life hero,” said Logsdon. “She models the way that we should be as leaders. She didn’t do things because she wanted the spotlight. She did it because it was the right thing to do.”

Another ANHPIA woman who calls Sibonga both a mentor and a friend is 83-year-old Joan Yoshitomi, who wrote a letter to Sibonga when she was in high school because she was so impressed by her entry in law in her 40s.

Yoshitomi said Sibonga wrote her back, and the rest was history.

“Dolores was always working behind the scenes, encouraging people and prodding people to get where they want to go,” said Yoshitomi. “What may surprise people about Dolores is how down to earth she is despite all of her accomplishments. She was just committed to her community. She wanted to give back because of what was given to her.”

Even in her 90s, Sibonga is continuing to work and give back to her community. She is currently a part-time hearing examiner for the King County Board of Appeals.

When asked about her proudest accomplishments, Sibonga said it had to be her family, including her husband who passed away in 2001.

“No one was kinder and more gentle than my Martin,” said Sibonga. “My entire family is a big part of my legacy. My three children and three grandchildren are doing well and are supportive of what I do.”

Sibonga has this advice for those who want to follow in her footsteps.

“Just go with your heart. Be your authentic self. I have always liked the quote by writer Joseph Campbell: ‘The greatest privilege in life is being who you are.’”

This year’s Community Voice Awards benefit dinner will be at the Joyale Seafood Restaurant Oct. 26, 2023. Tickets, both in-person and virtual, can be purchased online:   

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