by Agueda Pacheco Flores
Silvia Giannattasio-Lugo remembers when the young girls would come into the office she works at to participate in leadership programs. She loved to see how they genuinely connected with each other. She especially loved open-mic nights, when young girls came together to celebrate with each other.
“I didn’t get to see a lot of that growing up,” she says. “It was lonely for me growing up not always having a community there to celebrate with me.”
Today, Giannattasio-Lugo is the director of development and communication at Young Women Empowered (Y-WE), a nonprofit based in Beacon Hill. Y-WE connects young women with leadership and skills programs, such as their community garden or summer camps. She’s a pillar in the organization’s fundraising operations, where she helps sustain relationships between sponsors and Y-WE.
“It’s hard for anyone to understand policy or big words and everything that’s being thrown at you, so I liked communications because it bridged that, it made things accessible,” she says in an interview with the Emerald.
Giannattasio-Lugo remembers she moved around California constantly as a kid — a result of ever-increasing rent prices. She says hers is a “typical immigrant story.” In 1981, her Argentinian dad moved to the L.A. area where he met her Nicaraguan mother. Both were searching for new opportunities they didn’t feel they could get in their homelands.
“They were learning English and met and I was the result of that,” she says, smiling.
Her dad saw classism in Argentina as a hurdle toward upward mobility. Meanwhile, Giannattasio-Lugo’s mother took off in the middle of the night with her two sons and fled Nicaragua during the Contra War.
She recalls the adversity her parents experienced as they learned to navigate the United States as new immigrants. It’s part of the reason she decided to study communication.
“Growing up as a child of English-as-a-second-language parents, I saw how hard it was for them to even be respected because of their accent,” Giannattasio-Lugo says. “I remember being at the doctor’s office or the grocery store and people looking at me when they were talking to them because they felt for some reason they couldn’t understand them.”
Giannattasio-Lugo credits a program she attended when she was 13, the Future Leaders Inland Empire, with helping her find her purpose. It was the first time she says she felt she fit in somewhere.
“I’ve always said I’m an outsider squared,” she says. She explains that being bicultural meant she never really felt like she was wholly Argentinian or Nicaraguan or wholly from the United States. “It always gave me this perspective that I never really fit in and it was easy for me to move around a lot.”
It was at the Future Leaders Inland Empire program she met Latinx people in the community that like her were planning to attend college. Before the program she had never met anyone who had gone to college and that sparked something in her. She knew she didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom like most of the women in her community. The program opened her eyes to the possibilities.
“I met many people who went to college and I thought they were just rock stars,” she says. “I wanted it.”
At 16, Giannattasio-Lugo saw the University of Washington’s Seattle campus on a trip to Seattle with her parents and eventually made her way there. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science and went on to study global communications at The American University of Paris in 2010.
She moved back to the King County area at 21 and, aside from a couple of brief relocations, has spent the last 18 years in the region.
“I think in a lot of ways, a lot of work she does is creating spaces she needed as a young person,” says Aisha Al-Amin, a former development coordinator at Y-WE. “She’s motivated by filling the gaps she saw as a young Woman of Color and supporting that for other young Women of Color.”
Giannattasio-Lugo says her Latinx upbringing also primed her for her role in fundraising. It’s the community spirit that formed a natural alliance with her work in development.
“It’s in our bones,” she says. “How often do we do potlucks and bring people in and help families that need the extra help? We didn’t have much, but what we did have we shared.”
Those around Giannattasio-Lugo, such as her coworkers, say it’s her humanity and work ethic that make her such a valuable asset at Y-WE. “I could just tell that she was intelligent and confident for a good reason,” says Al-Amin.
The two worked closely while Al-Amin was at Y-WE, and her leadership was vital in helping Al-Amin find confidence in her role and grow her skills in such a fast-paced environment.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold in Washington, Al-Amin recalls how Giannattasio-Lugo provided exactly the type of guidance she needed in that moment. Al-Amin had spent months planning a large fundraising event, only for it to be derailed by the global pandemic.
“We were so stressed and also really sad because you put so much effort into these events,” Al-Amin says, adding that she worried how it would look to Giannattasio-Lugo if their plans had to change. But, instead, she tried to relieve any stress her team was experiencing.
“She pulled us aside and said ‘We have no control over this and we just have to keep doing the best that we can,’” Al Amin says. “She’s like the champion of the pivot. That’s what I appreciate most about her in that situation and others — she’s quick to comfort the people she works with.”
Her grounding energy is one of the first things her husband noticed about her when they first met, as well.
Carlos Lugo met Giannattasio-Lugo on the campaign trail, when she was running Ron Bonlender’s campaign for state representative.
“I had been on the ground a couple of months and Ron had mentioned he had just hired a campaign manager and I remember being excited,” Lugo says. “And in walks Silvia and holy crap, I’d never met someone with a greater presence of personality … [I thought] this is someone with a vision and compassion and brilliance and just an incredible work ethic.”
Lugo says that after knowing her family for 15 years now, that her work ethic can be traced back to her parents. He recalls how Giannattasio-Lugo spent a good portion of her youth in the San Bernardino Valley, where shootings occurred on a “regular basis.” Despite the harsh environment, her father continued to work at a school district print shop while her mother sold Avon products and raised the children.
“She’s the child of immigrants and all of us who are the child of immigrants know that coming to a new country you have to have that grit and determination,” he says. “Her parents were incredible in the amount of work they did to move that family ahead.”
Agueda Pacheco is a journalist focusing on Latinx culture and Mexican American identity. Originally from Querétaro, Mexico, Pacheco is inspired by her own bicultural upbringing as an undocumented immigrant and proud Washingtonian.
📸 Featured Image: Silvia Giannattasio-Lugo. Photo courtesy of Y-WE.
Before you move on to the next story … The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!