[ Fighting for you ]

Conference empowers young women


early 40 teen and pre-teen girls learned about financial literacy, self-defense and a host of other topics at the Young Women’s Empowerment Conference, held at the William Floyd Middle School in Suffolk County on Long Island.

The March conference was the first large-scale event held by Learn and Lead, a girls leadership club for Patchogue Medford-area students in grades 6–12. NYSUT Women’s Committee member Rahana Schmalacker and her daughter Lena Schmalacker started the group last year after Rahana attended a women’s committee meeting. A committee goal was forming empowerment groups for school-age girls to explore issues like fairness, safety, equity, access and representation.

Learn and Lead partnered with Caitlyn’s Vision, a not-for-profit founded by William Floyd student Caitlyn Michiels to help children and families suffering from vision impairment and blindness, to stage the event.

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“It was awesome!” said Rahana Schmalacker, Central Islip Teachers Association, of the conference. Lisa Macko, a carpenter Schmalacker met at a summer workshop hosted by the United Association for Labor Education, spoke about the challenges of working in a male-dominated field. “Connecting with women from lots of other unions really opened my eyes to the on-the-job challenges they face that I don’t,” said Schmalacker noting that something as basic as bathroom facilities can be challenging for women on an outdoor worksite.

Several NYSUT members also lent their expertise. Certified personal trainer JoJo Lopez, a Middle Island TA member, led a self-defense workshop. Central Islip TA member Gina Cramer, a high school social worker, discussed healthy relationships. Fellow NYSUT Women’s Committee member Stephanie Eberhard-Holgerson, Bayport-Bluepoint TA, helped facilitate the event.

Conference highlights included resume writing, CPR and first aid workshops, and a giveaway of two books by Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala and Malala: My Story of Standing Up for Girls’ Rights.

“One of the coolest parts of this conference is that although it wasn’t strictly a union event, it came together because of union women,” said Schmalacker of her fellow NYSUT members; speaker Macko, a member of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America; and fellow event organizer and CSEA member, Kimberly Swicicki.

The conference was funded in part through a NYSUT Mosaics of Sisterhood Grant. The NYSUT Women’s Committee created the grants in 2019 thanks to a donation from retired NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino. The grants fund short-term projects, women’s committee startups or professional learning opportunities that move the women’s agenda forward.

For more information about the NYSUT Women’s Committee, visit nysut.org/Women.