By Rodney Lane
On March 26, the NJEA hosted its first-ever Women’s Celebration 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. More than 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 country. Before entering the main hall, NJEA members were greeted with a reception that included a live band featuring a saxophonist and vendors primarily represented by women-owned businesses and organizations. “Centerpieces included photos and quotes of 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, tapping, and making noise to produce a rhythm as the dancers play in unison. The performers set the tone and energy of the afternoon.
Lauren Spiller, a teacher and proud member of the Wayne Education Association, was among the speakers who delivered remarks at the event.
“Today, the list of inspiring women navigating public leadership is endless, especially in this partnership, this incredible partnership,” Spiller said.
The celebration was punctuated by three short dance breaks consisting of 30 to 60 seconds of uplifting music. Members were encouraged to stand and dance near their seats, but many members spontaneously took to the dance floor. The breaks created an infectious atmosphere of pure joy that permeated the event.
NJREA President Joan Wright recited “Phenomenal Woman,” a poem by Maya Angelou. This poem is a powerful tribute to the strength and confidence of women. The biggest applause during this recitation came when Wright read the classic words: “I am a woman, phenomenally / A woman phenomenal / This is me.”
School Health Leadership
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 called “The Relentless School Nurse”, which can be found at relentlessschoolnurse.com. Cogan is recognized at the state and national levels for its work in improving health care policy.
“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 always been the force that pushed important bills through the New Jersey Legislative Assembly,” Hayes said in acknowledging Damita White-Morris and Susan Maurer for their leadership in supporting legislation in favor of public education.
White-Morris is responsible for attendance at Quarter Mile Lane School in Bridgeton. A building representative 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 an education champion, White-Morris is Cumberland County’s Education Support Professional (ESP) of the Year and sits on the NEA’s Resolutions Committee.
“Nothing happens politically in Cumberland County unless Damita is involved,” Hayes said.
NJREA member Sue Maurer is one of the most recognizable faces in spaces where policies that impact New Jersey educators are discussed. She is currently Co-Chair of the NJREA Government Relations Committee after a leadership career with the Sayreville Education Association, 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,” said Robertson recognizing Marijean Andl for her work as a union leader. “Even without occupying traditional positions of power, women have been the heart, soul and muscle that moved our goals from ideas to policy change.”
Andl has served as president of the Lenape District Support Staff Association for five years and is Burlington County’s 2021-22 ESP of the Year. She has helped raise more than $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.
“As you meet Carmen and Sharon, you will find that they are truly focused on the needs of our members – listening to them, empathizing with them, and looking for ways to empower our members,” said the president of NJEA Sean Spiller in paying tribute to Sharon Allen, a recently retired NJEA UniServ Field Representative in Camden County, and Carmen Torres-Izquierdo, Administrative Assistant at the UniServ Region 7 Field Office in Toms River. Torres-Izquierdo previously worked in the Jersey City field office.
As a local association leader in the 1970s, Allen was instrumental in several strikes in Camden County. She broke NJEA barriers by becoming an NJEA consultant and a UniServ field representative at a time when there were almost no African Americans, male or female, in those positions. Allen’s work in the community is legendary, Spiller noted.
“Sharon is a force to be reckoned with,” Spiller said. “Do not underestimate his quiet strength, his intentional thoughtfulness and his unreserved generosity.”
Torres-Izquierdo has been influential in communications with the Latinx community both among members and in the wider community. She has worked to ensure the association provides workshops and materials and is a strong advocate for social justice within the association for staff and members.
“Carmen is kind of a leader roll up your sleeves, and the members of Hudson and now Ocean County know that Carmen will never ask anyone for anything she hasn’t already done herself,” said said Spiller. “She leads by example and she leads with her heart.”
After the celebration, many attendees noted that it was one of the best NJEA events they have ever attended and are looking forward to next year’s celebration. For more photos from the women’s celebration, visit flickr.com/njea/albums.
Rodney Lane is an NJEA communications consultant.