By Rodney Lane
On March 26, NJEA held its first ever Celebration of Women Luncheon at the Grand Marquis in Old Bridge. The event was organized by NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson and the NJEA Women in Education Committee. Over 250 members attended the extravaganza hosted by Robertson and NJEA UniServ Field Representative Fatima Hayes.
The gala honored influential women who have helped our state’s public schools and our union serve as models of excellence in the nation. Prior to entering the main hall, NJEA members were greeted with a reception that included a live band featuring a female saxophone player and vendors predominantly represented by women-owned businesses and organizations. “Table centerpieces included photos of and quotes by famous women.”
The theme of the celebration was “A Woman’s Place.” Six women were honored for their work in health, leadership, legislation and service.
The event opened with the nationally recognized Nu Theta Omega Step Team. Step dancing involves clapping, stomping and making noise to produce a beat as dancers perform in unison. The performers set the tone and energy for the afternoon.
Lauren Spiller, a teacher and proud Wayne Education Association member, was among several speakers who delivered remarks at the event.
“Today the list of inspiring women who navigate public leadership is endless, especially in this association, this unbelievable association,” Spiller said.
The celebration was punctuated with three brief dance breaks that consisted of 30 to 60 seconds of exhilarating music. Members were encouraged to stand and dance near their seats, but many members spontaneously hit the dance floor. The breaks created a contagious vibe of pure joy that permeated the event.
NJREA President Joan Wright, recited “Phenomenal Woman,” a poem by Maya Angelou. This poem is an empowering tribute to the strength and confidence of women. The biggest applause during this recitation came when Wright read the classic words, “I’m a woman, phenomenally/Phenomenal woman/That’s me.”
Leadership in school health care
Robin Cogan a school nurse in Camden was honored for her leadership in school health care. Cogan has been interviewed and published in nursing and education journals. She has been a leader in public health, especially since the pandemic began in March 2020. She also writes a blog known as “The Relentless School Nurse,” which can be found at relentlessschoolnurse.com. Cogan is recognized on both the state and national levels for her work in improving health care policies.
“Robin is someone with a keen sense of communication and creativity,” Robertson said. “She knows the value of amplifying a voice.”
Leadership in legislation
“Women have consistently been the force that has moved important bills through the New Jersey Legislature,” Hayes said as she recognized Damita White-Morris and Susan Maurer for their leadership in supporting pro-public education legislation.
White-Morris is an attendance officer at Quarter Mile Lane School in Bridgeton. A building rep and membership chair for the Bridgeton School Employees Association, she represents Cumberland County on the NJEA Congressional Contact, Membership, and Youth Services committees. She holds two bachelor’s degrees. Active in her community and a champion for education, White-Morris is the Cumberland County Educational Support Professional (ESP) of the Year and serves on the NEA Resolutions Committee.
“Nothing happens in Cumberland County politically unless Damita is involved,” Hayes said.
NJREA member Sue Maurer is one of the most recognizable faces in spaces where policies that have an impact on educators in New Jersey are discussed. She is currently the co-chair of the NJREA Government Relations Committee after a career of leadership in Sayreville Education Association, the Middlesex County Education Association, NJEA and NEA.
“If you have Sue Maurer as a friend, you have a friend forever,” Hayes said.
Since its inception, this union —our union— has been led by women,” Robertson said as she recognized Marijean Andl for her work as a union leader. “Even without holding the traditional positions of power, women have been the heart, soul and muscle that have moved our goals from ideas to policy changes.”
Andl has been president of the Lenape District Support Staff Association for five years and is the 2021-22 Burlington County ESP of the Year. She has helped raise over $30,000 for those serving in the military, an effort that was featured in the June 2021 edition of the NJEA Review.
“Marijean is a community icon and loved by so many,” Robertson said. “She is a bus driver, a pioneer and a leader who has helped unite not only her association, but an entire community.”
“Upon meeting Carmen and Sharon, you will find that they really focus on the needs of our members—listening to them, empathizing with them, and looking for ways to empower our members,” NJEA President Sean Spiller said as he honored Sharon Allen, a recently retired NJEA UniServ Field Rep in Camden County, and Carmen Torres-Izquierdo, an administrative assistant in the Region 7 UniServ field office in Toms River. Torres-Izquierdo previously worked in the field office in Jersey City.
As a local association leader in the 1970s, Allen played an instrumental role in several strikes in Camden County. She broke barriers in NJEA by becoming an NJEA consultant and UniServ field rep during a time when there were almost no African Americans, men or women, in those positions. Allen’s work in the community is legendary, Spiller noted.
“Sharon is a force to be reckoned with,” Spiller said. “Don’t underestimate her quiet strength, intentional thoughtfulness, and whole-hearted generosity.”
Torres-Izquierdo has been influential in communications with the Latinx community both among members and in the broader community. She has worked to ensure that the association provides workshops and material and is a strong advocate for social justice within the association for staff and members.
“Carmen is a roll up your sleeves kind of leader, and the members in Hudson and now Ocean county know that Carmen will never ask of someone something she hasn’t already done herself,” Spiller said. “She leads by example, and she leads with her heart.”
Following the celebration, many attendees noted that this was among the best NJEA events they had ever attended and that they look forward to next year’s celebration. For more photos from the Celebration of Women, visit flickr.com/njea/albums.
Rodney Lane is an NJEA Communications consultant.