"If you're a paraprofessional, please stand up," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said to the crowd at Teacher Union Day on Nov. 6. As scores of paraprofessionals stood to thunderous applause, he turned to Shelvy Young-Abrams, their just-retired chapter leader, on the stage beside him.
"I think they love you," he said, and dozens of voices erupted from the floor: "We love you, Shelvy!"
"I love you, too," she replied.
Young-Abrams was accepting the Charles Cogen Award, the UFT's highest honor, to recognize 53 years of service to the union. Her tenure started in 1969 when she was a full-time paraprofessional and single mother involved in the organizing campaign that unionized paraprofessionals. She retired this fall, leaving in her wake a strong, engaged chapter.
After growing up on a tobacco farm in South Carolina, Young-Abrams moved to New York City as a teenager. Taking her mother's advice to join a union, she worked in a factory and joined the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. A single mother "coming from the welfare row, two kids," she said.
Young-Abrams volunteered at her children's school and was hired in 1968 as a paraprofessional.
"Albert Shanker said to me, 'We have all these paras in the classroom. Let's organize them,' and so we did," Young-Abrams said.
Once paraprofessionals became part of the UFT, Young-Abrams became a union para representative at her school and then — in short order — a district coordinator, a Manhattan borough coordinator and a first vice chairperson of the UFT Paraprofessionals Chapter. In 2006, Young-Abrams was elected the chapter leader, a role in which she has overseen the chapter's growth from 18,000 members to nearly 30,000 members today.
Mulgrew attested to Young-Abram's focus on enrolling new paraprofessionals in the union and supporting them. He said she would come to Friday meetings of the union leadership "always with a stack of new membership cards, always talking about how she made sure she was there to help paraprofessionals come into the system, which is treacherous and difficult at times."
Young-Abrams helped expand the career ladder for paraprofessionals called the Career Training Program, which has made college affordable for thousands of paraprofessionals over the years. She also helped launch the UFT Workers' Compensation Project, which assists UFT members who have been injured on the job. In 2021, capping a 30-year fight, a new state law guaranteed that all UFT-represented full-time paraprofessionals automatically become members of the Teachers' Retirement System.
"She's always working really hard," said Nancy Holub, a paraprofessional from PS/IS 192 in Brooklyn who attended Teacher Union Day to celebrate her longtime chapter leader.
Even though Young-Abrams represents about 30,000 members, Holub said she gets an "immediate" answer every time she asks Young-Abrams a question. "It takes a lot of patience" to represent so many paraprofessionals, Holub said.
As Young-Abrams took the stage to accept her award, she danced and clapped with her colleagues to the dance hit "Let No Man Put Asunder." The refrain, "It's not over," was a nod to her message to all UFT members to carry on the fight she started in 1969.
"I am calling on you to stand up. To be effective, we need to be mobilized," she said. "Know that we have the power."
Teacher Union Day 2022
UFT members showed up in force for Teacher Union Day on Nov. 6 to recognize their colleagues' dedication to the union and to unite in solidarity to face the battles ahead.