For at least one April night in Las Vegas, there was no higher roller than Shelvy Young Abrams.
In the latest "jackpot" in her storied career, Abrams received the prestigious Albert Shanker Pioneer Award — the highest individual award given by the American Federation of Teachers to a School-Related Professional — at AFT's recent Paraprofessionals and School-Related Personnel Conference in Las Vegas.
Abrams, a NYSUT Board member, heads the para chapter for the United Federation of Teachers, NYSUT's affiliate in New York City schools. She had no idea she was winning the award until her name was announced in front of colleagues from across the nation.
"I just jumped out of my seat," Abrams said. "I couldn't speak. My mouth was wide open."
Abrams, also a vice president for national affiliate AFT, began her career as a classroom para in 1968, after serving for years as a community activist. Soon after, she was asked to organize the school's SRPs.
By 1998, Abrams was working full-time for the UFT, but she remained in touch with children in routine visits to New York's classrooms. As her role in UFT grew, so did her profile in the statewide and national unions.
Abrams is a member of the NYSUT SRP Task Force; Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance; AFT Black Caucus; UFT Women's Rights Committee; AFT PSRP program and policy council; and the central labor council.
Loretta Johnson, chairwoman of the AFT's PSRP program and policy council, praised Abrams for her "work representing her co-workers and fighting to improve the working conditions of paraprofessionals."
Abrams said the award was special because it was named for one of her mentors, Shanker, the late UFT and AFT president. Abrams, who was raised on a farm in the South, said she knew very little about unionism until she got a first-hand education from Shanker. She continued that education under the tutelage of NYSUT President Emeritus Tom Hobart and UFT President Randi Weingarten.
"Shelvy is an amazing leader who every day exudes compassion, caring and tenaciousness on behalf of our students and the paras who work with them," Weingarten told delegates.
"SRPs in New York City and throughout the state have better working conditions and more respect because of the work of pioneers like Shelvy Young Abrams," added NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue. "We're excited to see AFT recognize her valuable contributions."
While the Pioneer Award caps Abrams' 40-year career, she says she still has much to accomplish, including raising the profile of paraprofessionals through more professional development opportunities. The Pioneer Award, she said, further propels her advocacy on behalf of SRPs.
"It gave me a sense of worth," she said. "It was nice to see that someone noticed how long I had been out there in the trenches."
— Kevin Hart