By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
With a packed audience of family and mentors to cheer them on, the Woman’s Leadership Academy graduated a diverse group of 17 working women from a dozen locals, DC 37’s first class of future labor leaders, at a Feb. 23 ceremony celebrating the milestone event.
“One hundred women in Congress, the Women’s marches, and now you graduates are poised for leadership– these are exciting times for women!” said Executive Director Henry Garrido. “Leadership means fighting for what you believe to be right. This union is leading the way fighting for better pay, for funding for libraries, for public hospitals and vital public services.”
Garrido along with Education Fund Administrator Diallo Shabazz brought the AFSCME women’s leadership training to DC 37 in 2018. Chosen from dozens of applicants, the 17 WLA participants enrolled in an intensive six-month training that focused on organizing, communications, strategic planning and political activism.
At Saturday’s graduation was special guest Lillian Roberts, the union’s retired union chief, who addressed graduates: Juliet White, Local 154; Denise McLain, Wanda Nunez, Trina Prior and Vashti Valerius, Local 372; Elizabeth Eastman, Local 375; Belinda Medina, Local 420; Daysha Padia, Local 768; Marlena Poelz-Giga, Local 983; Wanda Harrison, Local 1113; Stacey Payton, Local 1359; Claire Mayers, Local 1407; Chrystle Bullock, Dorothy Bunche, Debbie-Ann Gutierrez-Quint and Theresa Ramos-Villega of Local 1549, and Amanda Ayala-Castro, Local 1930.
As a labor and organizing trailblazer, Roberts offered sage advice: “This is a calling. Your job is a weighty responsibility. You are saving people’s jobs. You can stop management from mistreating people. Respect others and talk to both sides. There is no room for partiality when you are trying to do what’s best for everyone at the table.”
Surprising attendees, Garrido renamed the training program in Roberts’ honor with an official ribbon cutting.
With a curriculum designed especially for working women by DC 37’s Field Operations Director Barbara Edmonds, the Ed Fund’s Claire Menelas and White Collar Division Assistant Director Madonna Knight, and AFSMCE’s Education and Leadership Director Yolanda Medina De Jesus, WLA pairs students with experienced mentors from AFSCME’s and DC 37’s leadership.
“It is incumbent on us to grab onto younger members and Next Wavers and lead them by the hand, mentor and guide them—they are the future of this movement!” said Local 420 President Carmen Charles, a WLA mentor who serves on the union’s executive board and chairs the DC 37 Women’s Committee.
“Because we are a union… we lift up groups, not just individuals,” said keynote speaker Elissa McBride, secretary-treasurer of AFSCME. “The most important role as a leader is to develop others. You have to recruit others to join us.”
Despite last years’ U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus, union membership is growing. McBride said: “We turned Janus into a rebirth for unions with greater membership, activism and PEOPLE participation. Since AFSCME Strong began, we’ve had one million one-on-one conversations with members and potential members. We defied corporate billionaires who want unions to disappear. We are in a battle for hearts and minds. We are winning despite the odds.”
“DC 37 added 5,000 members and lost about 27 since the Janus decision,” McBride continued. “People are choosing to join. We need women in leadership to lead not just women but to lead our movement.”
WLA is riding a wave of women empowerment. Unions and women are building power on the job, in City Councils and state legislatures and in Congress, electing leaders like Letitia James in the 2018 midterm elections. Unions are a positive force in society responsible for closing racial and gender wage gaps.
Garrido noted the need for more women leaders. “While the Municipal Labor Council represents 432,000 city employees, it has only three women on its board,” Garrido said. “It starts at home. You now have the training. Find opportunities to engage and demand a seat at the table.”