Lena Schmalacker might be 12 years old, but if she had her way, she’d already be a NYSUT Women’s Committee member.
“She wanted to attend the November meeting with me, but I said ‘no, it’s for grown ups’,” said mom Rahana Schmalacker, Central Islip Teachers Association, a steering committee member. “She sees me doing this work and wants to get kids her age involved.”
Schmalacker kept Lena in the loop throughout the meeting, particularly during a presentation about student empowerment clubs by Andrea McCue, Haldane Faculty Association; Rebekah Stoll, Valley Central TA; and Tenika Wilcox, Troy TA. “While I was listening to their presentation, I texted her about starting an empowerment club in our town,” said Schmalacker.
Empowerment groups offer students space to explore issues like fairness, safety, equity, access and representation. Thanks to the mother-daughter team, “Learn and Lead” will host its first meeting at the Patchogue Medford Carnegie Library for Young Adults in March, which is Women’s History Month. They plan to host monthly meetings for interested community students in grades 6 –12.
The Schmalackers envision club meetings that teach about history-making women, engage in community service projects and host community guest speakers like elected officials, female trade professionals, business leaders and other community members willing to serve as mentors. Empowering students like Lena is one of the goals of the NYSUT Women’s Committee, explained committee co-chairs Aisha Cook, New Rochelle FUSE, and Leslie Rose, Hewlett Woodmere FA.
“We want girls to grow into confident and powerful women, who are equal to the men around them … nothing can stop us if we do this work together,” said Cook.
A central committee focus is building relationships and empowering union women through local-level women’s committees. “It’s important to have a network in place when issues arise, so we know that we’re never alone,” said Rose.
Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president, whose office oversees the NYSUT Women’s Committee, encouraged attendees to use their collective strength to stand together in their communities, build coalitions and make their voices heard. “The loss of jobs, wages and childcare, due to the pandemic, has set women back financially for decades, and by association women’s equity and equality,” she said, noting that women must assume positions of prominence equal to men to “change the power paradigm” and make real change.
Creating more gender inclusive classrooms is key, said DiBrango, who discussed “Examining Curriculum Through an Equity Lens: Focus on Gender,” a new, two-hour NYSUT Education & Learning Trust seminar slated to launch March 29. The course will explore gender equity in the classroom and provide strategies for integrating diversity, equity and inclusion concepts into lessons.
DiBrango noted that educators’ actions, words and behaviors can have a big impact on student success.
“Starting an empowerment club, or enrolling in the new seminar are both great ways to celebrate Women’s History Month this March,” she said. For seminar information, visit elt. nysut.org.
To learn more about the NYSUT Women’s Committee, and get resources to celebrate Women’s History Month including the 2022 Women’s History Month poster, visit nysut.org/women. The site includes information on starting a women’s empowerment club at your school or in your community.