Women of the District
Every year in celebration of Women’s History Month, we have a tradition in the Legislature of celebrating women from each Senate and Assembly district who are accomplishing amazing things in their communities. This year, the California Legislative Women’s Caucus is celebrating Women Making Herstory with a ceremony at the Capitol on March 20.
I introduce you to our 39th Senate District's Woman Making Herstory – Dr. Toluwalaṣé “Laṣé” Ajayi – and the 23 incredible women that we are honoring as our Women of the District, who were nominated by you, our constituents of SD 39!
2023 Woman Making Herstory
Toluwalaṣé (Laṣé) A. Ajayi, MD (she/her)
Dr. Toluwalaṣé “Laṣé” Ajayi, MD FAAP, is a community pediatrician, adult and pediatric palliative medicine physician, and clinical translational researcher. Dr. Ajayi is a Trustee of the American Medical Association, President of the San Diego County Medical Society, and Chair of the Council on Medical Services of the California Medical Association (CMA). She is the first black woman President in the organization’s 152-year history. In 2022, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors recognized Dr. Ajayi for her “outstanding leadership, service, and commitment to the citizens of San Diego County.”
Dr. Ajayi immigrated to the United States as a political refugee from Nigeria when she was seven and grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. She completed medical school at the University of Kansas and a pediatric residency at the University of Kansas Medical Center prior to training in adult and pediatric palliative medicine at the Institute for Palliative Medicine at San Diego Hospice.
Dr. Ajayi is currently an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UC San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego where she works as a hospitalist and pediatric palliative medicine physician. She serves as the Director of Diversity Initiatives, Director of Clinical Research, Assistant Professor of Molecular Medicine, and a Senior Staff Scientist in Digital Medicine at the Scripps Research Translational Institute. She is also the co-medical director of adult palliative medicine at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego.
Dr. Ajayi has a long history of leadership in policy-making and organized medicine at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and is an AAP delegate to the American Medical Association (AMA) where she advocates for the needs of children and those with serious illness. She is a former Chair of the AMA and CMA Young Physician Sections.
Dr. Ajayi’s research focuses on opportunities at the intersection of novel digital medicine technologies and unmet needs in maternal fetal health as well as pain and palliative medicine. She is a member of the Pediatric Operations Task Force and on the Digital Health Technologies committee of the All of Us Research Program with the National Institutes of Health as well as the Palliative Care Research Cooperative. As the Principal Investigator for PowerMom, she works to increase participation of pregnant women in clinical research and further investigates how mobile health can provide real time, patient reported outcomes that can be rapidly integrated into individualized clinical plans to improve health related quality of life. Her PowerMom platform is an avenue to meet participants where they are, build community, and share information with them. With her research efforts, she hopes to diversify the standard of care provided to pregnant women and augment how we manage the symptoms prevalent in serious illness, with the goal of increasing the effectiveness of clinical care, decreasing patient distress, maximize patient empowerment, and ensure equity across the spectrum.
Dr. Ajayi lives in San Diego with her partner, Dr. Kyle Edmonds, their three children, Ayokárí, Tiwalolá, and Palmer, and a rambunctious Bernedoodle named Dùnní.
2023 Women of the District
Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh
Dr. Huma Ahmed-Ghosh has tirelessly worked for women’s empowerment in San Diego for over 30 years. For 25 years, Dr. Huma was a Professor of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University, mentoring students in feminism and gender studies, social justice, and women’s rights. Most recently, she has been empowering Afghan refugee women through literacy. Perhaps Dr. Huma’s greatest contribution to the marginalized populations that she continues to serve are her tireless efforts to introduce the wider community to the humanity that exists within these populations.
Nicole Anderson, LCSW
Nicole serves as the Vice President of Assertive Community Treatment & Supportive Housing at Community Research Foundation (CRF), a non-profit behavioral health agency. Nicole is passionate about improving the behavioral health system of care, to better serve vulnerable populations, such as those experiencing homelessness, trauma, severe mental illness and/or addiction. She is the founder, and a current mentor, of Girls Rising, a program for underserved girls, as she believes prevention is more effective than treatment. Nicole and her husband have been foster parents for the last four years.
Leanna Denise Augustus (she/her)
Leanna Augustus is a Black, queer, reproductive justice advocate who is passionate about the intersections between racial justice, health care access, and the wellbeing of foster youth. She currently works in the External Affairs Department for Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, and serves as the Board Chair for the San Diego Coalition for Reproductive Justice. Her hobbies include baking, and nerding out over science fiction novels.
Makeda Dread Cheatom
Makeda “Dread” Cheatom is the Executive Director and Founder of WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park. She has had many accomplishments over the years, most recently having founded a low-powered FM station 101.1FM, and serving as a Co-Partner for the Noise Project, a national community-based project in collaboration with Cornell University, funded by the National Science Foundation.
Rev. Megan Cochran (she/her)
Rev. Megan Cochran is the pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church: where art+faith+nature meet in Point Loma. She believes that we are called to be co-creators with God to bring more love and creativity into the world. Finding God in the midst of this wild world, social justice, art, and building community are a few of her deepest passions.
Carla is a trailblazer, passionate about helping people, and supporting community organizations. Raised in Broadway Heights, Carla has served over four years as Treasurer of the Broadway Heights Community Council (BHCC). She is a graduate of UC San Diego, bilingual, and translates for the organizations and communities she serves. Carla worked from groundbreaking to ribbon cutting of the (BHCC) MLK Promenade, including leading their second Busts Unveiling Ceremony featuring California Secretary of State, Dr. Shirley N. Weber, and Mrs. Rosa L. Parks. She also serves on the board of several nonprofits.
Clarissa Reyes Falcon
Clarissa Reyes Falcon is an influential leader throughout the region focusing on equity in infrastructure, economic development, and quality of life for the region's most underserved communities. Aside from running her own business, Clarissa is a member of many non-profit boards, and serves as Commissioner on the California Transportation Commission. Clarissa's passions are faith, family, friends and cultivating the next generation of "badass" leaders who will change the world for the better.
Laura Ann Fernea
Laura Ann Fernea is passionate about keeping San Diego families housed by preventing evictions. In 2020, she founded the San Diego Eviction Prevention Collaborative which she currently directs at Legal Aid Society of San Diego (LASSD). Launched in partnership with LASSD and Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), the Collaborative brings tenant facing organizations together to coordinate resources, advocacy and data collection around housing and tenant rights.
Beryl Flom is a 50-year member of the League of Women Voters. She has served in many positions on League boards, including having served as president of three boards. Beryl currently chairs the LWVSD Immigration & Deportation Committee, the LWV CA’s Immigration Interest Group, as well as serves on the steering committee of the LWV US Immigration Interest Group. She has organized immigration-related tours and parties for children in Tijuana waiting for asylum, and has introduced members to many fascinating speakers from agencies working to assist or improve life for migrants.
Jenn French is an attorney, singer, and volunteer. She is passionate about increasing access to justice and advancing the status of women in law and society. Jenn represents plaintiffs in class action litigation, including consumer protection, privacy, and employee rights. She also volunteers as pro bono counsel for victims of human and civil rights violations, and survivors of domestic violence. Jenn also serves on several boards, and coaches a local high school in the San Diego County High School Mock Trial Tournament.
AJ Galka, EdD
For over two decades, AJ Galka has been a housing and supportive services advocate for vulnerable populations. As the Director of Resident Services & Permanent Supportive Housing, she leads in the creation and development of more affordable housing while overseeing supportive services within a 10,000-resident affordable housing portfolio. AJ also serves as the President of the Junior League of San Diego, making her their first openly LGBTQ+ leader in its 94 years of existence.
Ruth Hayward has lived, worked and volunteered her entire life in San Diego. Her engineering career at General Dynamics involved projects aiding defense and saving lives. Her second career, sculpting, has introduced historical San Diegans of note to current citizens and visitors. She has served on state and city boards and worked with nonprofit organizations for decades. Currently she is Vice Chair of the State’s San Diego River Conservancy. She currently is on the Board of Pawsitive Teams, whose mission is training service dogs for the disabled.
A serial entrepreneur and passionate advocate for women, Alessandra is a bold voice in the need for innovation and new thinking. As CEO of TOOTRiS, she is revolutionizing child care through a unifying tech platform that breaks barriers and allows parents, providers, and employers to achieve greater financial freedom. Alessandra is a ReadyNation CEO Task Force appointee and serves on several boards.
Peggy has a passion for community involvement while serving in the United States Navy. She mentors youth as a cheerleading coach with Tierrasanta Cougars Youth League. Her cheer team recently won the 2023 JAMZ Nationals in Las Vegas. She serves in support of Junior League of San Diego’s mission of effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Participating in leadership roles, training, fundraising, and volunteer service that align with the JLSD focus areas of human trafficking, transition age youth (TAY), and food insecurity.
Tazheen Nizam currently serves as the Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of San Diego (CAIR-SD). For over a decade, she has worked as an activist and an organizer on civil rights, human rights, and immigration issues. She serves on many boards working to uplift and empower immigrants. Tazheen has deep roots in the San Diego Muslim community and works extensively with the interfaith community.
Ileana Ovalle was born and raised in CA Senate District 39. From the San Diego Public Library to Google, Ileana is a government, nonprofit, and corporate executive, and an active trustee at the Museum of Us, Ocean Discovery Institute, and serves as an advisor to UCSD’s Chancellor. Ileana was nominated for her unwavering leadership and advocacy in providing equitable access, education and technology to diverse populations in both her professional and volunteer service.
Charlotte Perry worked for more than 40 years as a children’s librarian. Since retirement, she has become a full-time volunteer giving back to the community in various activities, her favorite of which is working with children. She volunteers at the La Jolla/Riford Library Preschool Story Hour, and the Light One Little Candle Foundation, which gives books to cancer patients at UCSD Moores Cancer Center that can be taken home to share.
A native San Diegan, Jennifer Petrie is one of the city’s most successful and accomplished coaches — in any sport, at any level. Named the 2022 AVCA National Coach of the Year after leading University of San Diego volleyball to the Final Four, she has steered the Toreros to the postseason 21 times since 1999 and has mentored 11 All-Americans while setting an example for women in college athletics.
Julia L. Richards
Julia Richards currently serves as the Executive Officer of the San Diego River Conservancy, a state agency whose mission is to preserve, restore and enhance the San Diego River watershed. Her dedication to duty and innovation are vital to her success. She advocates for disadvantaged, low-income, and tribal communities. The 2003 Cedar Fire destroyed her home and now she is a proponent for increased fire safety and preparedness in the San Diego area.
As Executive Director of the Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA), she has overseen the organization’s growth and prominence as it skyrocketed in a few short years to become one of San Diego’s most important civic engagement and advocacy organizations. Ramla believes in the power of people, and that engaging in authentic partnerships with community, is the foundation for creating the change necessary for our communities to thrive.
Stacy Sakamoto (she/hers)
Stacy is passionate about creating community spaces and opportunities for LGBTQ+ individuals, and dismantling systems of inequity and oppression that plague the philanthropic sector. She is the Deputy Philanthropy Director at the ACLU Foundation of San Diego and Imperial Counties; Outgoing Chair of She Fest, a volunteer group centering the diverse experiences of LGBTQ+ women and non-binary people; former Vice President of the Association of Fundraising Professional’s IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and access) committee; and a founding member of QAPIMEDA, an LGBTQ+ API empowerment coalition.
Holly Shaffner is a community leader, retired military veteran, and local business owner. As an advocate for her fellow military brothers and sisters, she works with several organizations to support active duty and military veterans, and ensure their service is never forgotten. She is most proud of her volunteer work with Honor Flight San Diego and senior veterans.
Nicole Verdés (she/they)
Nicole Verdés is an administrator and advocate for Queer arts and culture programs and organizations. She serves as the current Board President of Lambda Archives, where she has dedicated nearly eight years of volunteer service, and presently works at San Diego Pride where she also oversees the Art of Pride program, highlighting the works of Queer artists in the region.