Passionate, prepared and pumped up.
That’s how many of the 150 participants at NYSUT’s first-ever conference on women's priorities left this weekend - revved up and ready to organize and mobilize.
The two-day conference - "Speak Up, Stand Up, Step Up!" -was conceived by NYSUT President Karen E. Magee's Ad-hoc Women's Steering Committee, a group that includes NYSUT board members, local leaders, grassroots activists and NYSUT staff. Members of NYSUT's Civil and Human Rights Committee also took part in the event.
Although in the planning stages for more than a year, the conference’s timing proved to be a perfect extension of the many women’s marches held around the country the day after President Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.
“It was an inspiring day and reminded me yet again why it’s so important to be sure women’s voices are heard,” said Magee, who attended a women’s march in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the suffragette movement and now home to the Women’s Hall of Fame.
As the first woman to be elected NYSUT president, Magee told the audience she was asked early in her presidency what she wanted her legacy to be.
"For me, it was making sure women’s voices are heard — in the union and beyond,” Magee said. “Making sure we are helping to set the agenda and moving it forward … After all, more than 70 percent of our members are women."
The conference addressed a wide range of issues important to all NYSUT members, including domestic violence, retirement security, communications, political engagement and more. Participants also enjoyed a lively open space “un-conference” session near the end of the event, where attendees selected their own topics for small group followup discussions that ranged from how to help fearful immigrant students to "The Trump Effect in the Classroom."
Mayor Stephanie Miner: Finding Solace in Solidarity
Keynote speaker Stephanie Miner, the mayor of the City of Syracuse, offered an inspirational lunchtime address on the importance of keeping up the fight for justice and equality — especially in these troubling times.
Miner credited a long line of public school teachers with giving her a great love of reading and history, noting how the lessons learned from history offer a road map for the continued march toward progress.
“When FDR said ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ keep in mind he did that at the heart of the Great Depression when citizens were thinking about whether American democracy would survive,” Miner said.
She urged activists to follow in the footsteps of the persistent women who fought so many years for the right to vote; the courageous marchers in Selma who fought for civil rights; and the brave people who stepped up for World War II to fight Fascism and genocide.
“The time for silence and complacency has ended,” Miner said. “Our voices — your voices today — must be heard so that fear and mischaracterizations are not allowed to stand.”
Miner said she has never seen the kind of “grassroots, genuine action” that continues to rise up and counter the spewing hatred that is boiling up across the country and to speak out on behalf of immigrants, refugees, transgenders and other marginalized people.
“There is solace in solidarity for all of us,” Miner said. “There are thousands, if not millions, who feel the way we do.”
When audience members asked the best ways to fight back, Miner urged activists to get involved in their union, volunteer in political campaigns, keep in constant contact with elected leaders and perhaps, even run for office themselves.
“Please come,” said Miner, the first woman elected to lead one of the state’s big five cities. “The water’s warm and we need you!”
Start the Conversation: Moving Beyond Bias
In other conference sessions, White Plains Teachers Association’s Kerry Broderick and Dante Morelli, Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College, challenged participants to recognize their own bias — and overt and covert ways perceptions of women, people of color and member of the LGBTQ community are shaped and presented as fact.
Carol Slotkin, a retiree from the Western Sullivan United Teachers and SRPs, said one key to addressing concerns of bias in the classroom or the community actually starts a little closer to home — maybe even in the faculty room. "It's no longer OK to sit silently,” said Slotkin, a member of the Women’s Steering Committee. “We have a responsibility to define the dialogue as we go forward."
Christina Bosco, FASCC member, has found success in her classroom by simply listening and sharing and telling stories. "Stories help students to see and put a face on it."
She shared the experience of a male African-American student who is frequently pulled over and ticketed. A conservative-leaning student was quick to point out the male must have been doing something wrong. The black student then shared why he wears a suit to school every day — to avoid the extra police attention, and tickets. "Hearing stories (from someone they know in class) is helpful in getting people to change their minds," Bosco said.
Nancy Perini of Albany Public Schools TA agreed. "You can't underestimate the power of listening to people. At some point when you're respectfully listening to them they might see another point of view."
Selina Durio, North Babylon Teachers' Organization; Serena Kotch, Cleveland Hill EA; and Wayne White of Bellport Teachers Association, all members of the NYSUT Civil and Human Rights Committee, said active listening is a powerful way to start the conversation. The trio performed a skit and shared tips on how to start the conversation on a host of topics — racial diversity, equality, tolerance, labor rights, and more — in a respectful way. NYSUT "Why in 5" cards are one tool available to members to help get discussions going.
"If you don't start the conversation sometimes that means there will be no conversation," Durio said. "You have to start somewhere even if that means active listening."
Rob Lamoureux, Magee’s assistant, highlighted why it is important to prepare financially for retirement and to preserve the retirement safety net through union activism. His interactive presentation allowed participants to answer a series of retirement-centric questions in real time using their smartphones and a web-based application.
“On average, women are living longer today, so it’s important to plan so you don’t outlive your assets,” said Lamoureux. To illustrate, he cited Ida May Fuller, the first citizen to receive Social Security. At the time of her first check, in 1940, the average life expectancy for women was 65 — Fuller lived to the age of 100. “Today the average life expectancy is 81.”
Overly cautious retirement investing, which can lead to thousands lost over a lifetime, and excessive debt and health care costs are pitfalls to a secure retirement. Allowing a spouse to be the sole financial decision-maker is also a problem.
“Following the death of a spouse, many women don’t know how to deal with retirement finances,” he said.
“The good news is that a lot of this can be mitigated or eliminated by the union,” said Lamoureux, who underscored NYSUT’s fight to maintain a strong pension system, eliminate the gender wage gap and preserve affordable health care. “The biggest threat to retirement security currently is the proposed New York State constitutional convention, which could jeopardize protections in the state constitution that keep our pension system strong.”
He encouraged members to stay abreast of their retirement savings, learn about the threats a constitutional convention poses and to educate themselves and others about the importance of voting no when the convention question appears on the Nov. 7 state ballot.
When Violence Hits Home
In a powerful presentation about domestic violence, two courageous survivors shared their personal stories about how they escaped abusive relationships and urged participants to spread the word about available support services.
The survivors explained how they were at first embarrassed to tell anyone they needed help, but eventually depended on their friends, family, faith and union colleagues to find the courage to get away.
“I remember how ashamed I was,” said Therese, a NYSUT staff member. She noted that statistics show the average victim returns to her abuser seven times before she leaves for good. “Aside from living in constant fear, I was afraid I’d lose my job. You learn to lie. You say, I fell down the stairs.”
“I was making $5,000 as a teacher’s aide,” said Sandie. “Why did I stay? Where was I going to go?”
Thanks to United Way, and her union friends, Sandie got into a shelter and lived three months there. “Thank God. It’s what I needed,” she said.
“Only about 34 percent of women receive medical care due to the ongoing stigma,” said Jeanette Stapley, a Schroon Lake TA leader who serves on the NYSUT Board of Directors and moderated the panel discussion. “If one-third of women have been abused, that means in this room, there are about 40-50 who have been impacted by domestic violence.”
Both survivors and Tabitha Dunn of Unity House in Troy urged audience members to look for warning signs: unexplained absences or sudden changes in behavior, such as a reluctance to participate in social activities, for example. Dunn explained how advances in technology allow stalkers to track victims, monitor their emails and text messages and know their exact locations using GPS coordinates.
Dunn told of one stalker who was able to access his victim’s bank records and turn on her cellphone’s recorder so he could listen to her counseling sessions.
“We need to spread the word about being safe with technology by not allowing other people access to your phone, by being careful with things like fitness apps and GPS location services,” Dunn said. “They want to control you, isolate you, keep you away from other people.”
When Utica TA’s Cherie Grant asked what activists can do to help members, Dunn suggested putting up informational flyers in bathroom stalls and faculty rooms. “One contact number can literally save a life,” Dunn said. “You may never even know you helped someone.”
“Give them a hug, say if you ever want to talk I’m here,” Therese said. “Offer to go to court with them, cook a meal, or take care of their child so they can go to counseling.”
“Reach out anyway you can, so they don’t feel so alone,” Sandie said. “The big thing is to shine a light on it. Not on that person, but on hope.”
To learn more about local and regional services available, Dunn urged activists to check with county officials or call the New York State Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-942-6906. For New York City, call 1-800-621-HOPE. Another participant noted the United Way’s 2-1-1 hotline can offer other local resources.
Major Takeaways and Next Steps
Magee concluded the conference by announcing the NYSUT Board of Directors has voted to bring a resolution to the NYSUT RA next month that would make the Ad Hoc Women’s Steering Committee a permanent standing committee of the union — one focused on advancing women’s priorities. “This would help ensure our work carries forward into the future,” Magee said.
Though Magee recently announced she would not be seeking re-election as NYSUT President, she will be working closely with AFT President Randi Weingarten and the New York State AFL-CIO on an exciting new initiative to advance economic opportunities for women.
“I embrace the opportunity to carry forward at the national level the causes near and dear to my heart,” Magee said. “And I look forward to continuing these conversations with all of you.”
As a closing activity, Magee asked participants to take a sticky note and write down their key takeaway that would turn their conference insights into action.
“We need to stay angry and constantly fight for what is just and right,” wrote one participant.
“I have the tools and the support. Now I need to put on my rollerskates,” wrote another.
And in perhaps the most concise response, three simple words: “Resist. Rest. Repeat.”
VIDEO: With post-its and persistence, conference participants write down key takeaways and next steps to turn conference insights into action.
'My Major Takeaway'
'My Next Steps'