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HERstory celebration

Honoring the ceiling-breakers
New York Teacher
Two woman connect on a virtual meet while one wearing a blue scarf is talking.

New Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter (left) delivers the closing remarks. UFT Special Representative Bonnie Sepulveda (right) is among those attending the event.

“I’m proud to be with you and celebrate beside you,” Meisha Ross Porter, the new schools chancellor, told participants at the UFT’s third annual HERstory celebration, held virtually on March 26. “There are many more ceilings for us to break.”

Porter gave closing remarks at the celebration, with the theme of Ceiling Smashing: Honoring Women’s History Month 2021. It took 136 years for the first woman to be appointed chancellor of New York City public schools and 146 years for the appointment of Porter, the first black woman in the role. Porter said she was proud to have broken that ground.

Janella Hinds, the UFT vice president for academic high schools and the host of the event, saluted the women who make up 70% of the UFT’s membership for their contribution to the union, to schools and, as nurses, to the health care system. She traced the history of women union leaders and ceiling smashers — from those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911 to today’s women fighting for equity in women’s sports.

“Equity serves us all,” she told the 110 participants.

Guest speaker Jolene Di Brango, the vice president of New York State United Teachers, the UFT’s state affiliate, encouraged women leaders “to show girls who they can be” and stressed the need “to reach back and take another sister by the hand.”

Acknowledging the strides that have been made in gender equality, she emphasized the need to not simply replace each successful woman but to speed up the rate and diversity of women taking positions of power.

Attendees joined in with their own stories of smashing ceilings. Retiree Fern Berenberg remembered the day in 1967 when she wore pants to school, a first. “It drove the principal crazy but I wasn’t fired,” she said, “and the next day three more teachers wore pants.”

Nina Tribble beat out a male candidate to become the first Black and the first woman chapter leader at Forest Hills HS in 1997. And Kashan Robinson spoke of being the first paraprofessional elected chapter leader at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx in 2013.

As an Asian woman in a male-dominated institution, guest speaker Sherry Chan, the chief actuary for New York City, spoke of the need for diversity in the boardroom and said it was “essential to smash ceilings for our daughters.”

“The more we step up together,” Chan said, “the easier it will be in the future.”

Five women who served as UFT leaders were honored in memoriam: Elizabeth Langiulli, the first woman chapter leader and UFT director of staff; Eadie Shanker, an activist who helped found the UFT with, among others, her husband, Albert; Louisa Johnston, who served the union for 62 years; Lucille Swaim, the longtime coordinator of UFT contract negotiations; and Lila Ezra, the executive director of the union’s Member Assistance Program.

Related Topics: Women's Rights