Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama is on the lookout for crooks, “really slimy crooks,” con artists who prey on the elderly, the illiterate, the limited-English-speaking. People from other countries are easy targets, she says. They don’t know how the system of justice works in America.
Working out of Seattle, the director of consumer services for the Washington State Office of the Attorney General oversees consumer resource centers there and in Bellingham, Kennewick, Spokane, Tacoma, and Vancouver. Her staff includes 16 permanent employees statewide and as many as 130 temporary consumer representatives, typically college students and community volunteers. They work to provide the consumer resource centers with consumer information and to reconcile consumer and business disputes. Through initial contacts, they determine if complaints fall under the Consumer Protection Act, and under which agency’s jurisdiction. The complaint data collected is also used by attorneys to take legal action on behalf of the state. In 2001, Mendoza de Sugiyama’s staff answered 178,244 consumer calls, handled 21,054 complaints, and facilitated $5.4 million in restitution.
Mendoza de Sugiyama tells of seasonal scams and bogus holiday travel packages. People pay for dream vacation packages that turn out to be nightmares-cockroaches in the rooms, or perhaps no rooms at all.
While the 2001 western Washington earthquake proved to be an economic hit for many, it was an opportunity for others. Con artists drove the Seattle neighborhoods looking for houses where bricks had fallen away from the exterior. The charlatans promised to repair the damage. Instead, they took the money and ran.
Mendoza de Sugiyama is particularly sensitive to the vulnerable. “The elderly are easily preyed on,” she says. They are talked into purchasing expensive vacuum cleaners and other things they don’t need, including products promising wonderful health. One internet-based promoter claimed his special dietary supplements and herbs would cure cancer. The attorney general’s response was to send out an alert and take the owner to court to shut the business down.
Mendoza de Sugiyama wants people to know they have rights, too. They can file a complaint with the AG’s office by calling 1-800-551-4636 or by filing on-line at www.wa.gov/ago.consumer/forms.
“It [consumer fraud] is everywhere,” the director says. “Anything that was done door-to-door is now being done on the Internet, too.”
Her greatest frustration is that there are never enough people, never enough time or money to educate Washington consumers and businesses about protecting themselves from scams. An on-going effort is to recruit volunteers who have a public service interest to join the consumer resource centers as representatives.
There are rewards, as well, she says. “I’ve felt that in everything we’ve done in seeking justice for people who don’t have a voice, who are vulnerable, we are helping them gain the ability to make future wise choices. That’s meaningful to me.”
The bespectacled Chicana tends to look at her work, people, and life with her eyes wide open.
Last June Margarita Mendoza de Sugiyama (’74 Psychology) returned to Pullman as one of three faculty-in-residence for a five-day National Education for Women Leadership Institute. Thirty-two women, ages 18 to 40, attended. Most were college students from the Northwest. The workshop was designed to help young women become politically involved and to serve the underserved.
“These women are the future,” Mendoza de Sugiyama explained late one afternoon.
All her adult life she’s been an advocate of those who don’t have a voice. Her father and her mother’s family made their home in Moxee City and Yakima but worked in the fields throughout Washington. They instilled in their 11 children, including Margarita, the second oldest, the values of “justice and honesty,” the importance of giving back to their people and community. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were strong role models. She aspires to be like them.
“I’ll never make it, they were in life much nicer than me,” she said with a contagious laugh. “But I have the genetics of those incredible women.”
Her husband, Masao Sugiyama, holds a doctorate in mathematics from WSU.
After graduating from WSU, she directed the University’s Upward Bound program, a nationally funded education enrichment program for lower economic high school youth from the Yakima Valley. From that time on, she’s always chosen professions that involve her in social justice issues.
She worked for the Idaho Human Rights Commission in Boise in 1975. Later she worked for Washington governors Booth Gardner and Mike Lowry. Most recently, she was diversity program manager for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industry for five years. State attorney general Christine Gregoire appointed her to her current position in Seattle nearly three years ago.
Elaine Yoder Zakarison (’54 Sociology) of Pullman is a close friend. The retired director of the WSU YWCA remembers the “angry young student” when their paths first crossed in the YWCA office in 1969. Margarita saw things she thought needed to be done at WSU, and Zakarison provided a listening ear.
“Margarita is truly one of the most gifted, talented, and amazing young women I’ve worked with,” Zakarison says. “She is . . . completely dedicated to social issues and making this world a better place for people.”
“WSU refined what I am today, a person with a highly developed social conscience,” Mendoza de Sugiyama said proudly.” She found lifelong mentors like Zakarison and “clarified the family value most important to me-justice.”
“Elaine Zakarison radicalized more women on this campus to address issues of injustice,” she explained. The issues were important to male and female alike. In support of the United Farm Workers, students boycotted scab lettuce and grapes sold in Pullman grocery stores and served in WSU dining halls. In addition, students took a stand against apartheid and racism, and participated in racial justice training sessions.
In 1970, President Glenn Terrell closed classes for a racial justice workshop. Margarita and others attracted prominent speakers. More than 20,000 members of the University and Pullman communities packed Bohler Gym for sessions that ran two days.
WSU provided funds to bring in speakers and racial justice trainers. Later, the University formed a cadre of students of color to recruit ethnic minority students. Programs in Chicano Studies, Black Studies, and Native American studies were created.
“These were significant financial commitments by the University,” Mendoza de Sugiyama emphasized. Returning to WSU to participate in programs like the National Education for Women Leadership Institute is her way of giving back.
In fact, she considers herself “a gift to this University.” Not in a boasting way, but as a grassroots idealist wanting to make positive things happen.
“A university needs the energy and perspective of students who have a very different view of policies, procedures, and programs that are not inclusive,” she says. As a student insider, for example, she was able to provide “a broader awareness” of what the University could do to recruit students from ethnic communities in the state that traditionally don’t have large numbers on the campus.
She’s grateful for the University’s initial accomplishments in the areas of diversity, gender issues, human rights, and social justice. She acknowledges the efforts toward those ends of “extraordinary, ordinary women,” among them Zakarison, Felicia Gaskins, associate vice provost for human resource development, and Barbara Dingle, retired YWCA secretary. “They cared about students . . . were so down home and authentic. They gave us students the gift of seeing ourselves and our potential through their eyes,” she said.