“It’s appropriate somehow that our meeting tonight takes place the same night as the State of the Union, because the state of our union is strong,” said Donna Downing, who moderated an event titled “Beyond #MeToo” at Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth on Jan. 31.
As she attempted to begin a new sentence, a female-dominated crowd interrupted her with a rush of applause.
Raising Voices USA, a Rockville Centre-based network of community members who promote civic engagement, organized the event. Downing, co-chairwoman of the group’s women’s rights committee and an adjunct professor at St. John’s University, introduced the panel of six woman leaders, which included Rockville Centre’s own Laura Gillen, who became the first Democratic Town of Hempstead supervisor in more than a century last month, as well as Kathleen Baxley, the village’s deputy mayor, who is involved in many community groups.
“Our panel tonight seeks to engage, educate and empower women at this watershed moment in American history,” Downing said. “2017 was a tumultuous year for women. From the awesome power on display at the Women’s March to the #MeToo and the ‘Time’s Up’ movements, there has been and continues to be a reckoning. Women will no longer be silent on a spectrum of issues: abuse, assault, intimidation, discrimination or silencing.
“Our call for equality is not because women are someone’s daughters, sisters, mothers, wives,” Downing continued, “but simply because we make up half of the human race. And that’s enough.”
Other panelists included journalist Meta J. Mereday, who advocates for entrepreneurial opportunities for veterans; Helen Dorado Alessi, executive director of the Long Beach Latino Civic Association; and Erika Duncan, the founder and artistic director of Long Island’s Herstory Writers Workshop.
Gillen referenced the #MeToo movement, which began spreading virally last October with the help of the two-word hashtag used on social media after a series of sexual misconduct allegations against male celebrities became public.
“It was kind of like, is anyone surprised that this has been happening?” Gillen said. “I mean, this has been happening forever. The difference is that finally we said, ‘We’re not going to accept this anymore, and we’re going to do something about it.’”
She also discussed women’s tendency to underestimate and judge themselves harshly, noting that anyone can create change by simply showing up and working hard. “Don’t sell yourself short,” she noted. “There’s so many things that you have to offer.”
Unlike Gillen, panelist Karen Blitz-Shabbir, a neurologist who recently ran for Nassau County legislator against longtime District 7 incumbent Howard Kopel, lost her election. But she said the campaign opened her eyes to new ways to contribute to the community and make her voice heard.
She implored her listeners to step out of their comfort zones, as she did as a candidate who didn’t know much about politics and law. “You don’t have to be an incredible public speaker,” Blitz-Shabbir emphasized. “You don’t have to be really knowledgeable. You’ve got to have heart . . . and you can do it.”
She said she was proud to have received 44 percent of the vote on Election Day, and that she learned much about asking people for help through the process. Blitz-Shabbir noted that the dozens who came for the important discussion enlightened her. “Some days I watch the news and I’m so unhopeful,” she said, “but when I come to a meeting like this, I cannot believe how lucky we are. There really is a path forward.”
Kathleen Baxley shared her history as a teacher, and how she put her education career on hold to raise her children. Wanting to participate again, she got involved with local PTAs, serving as president of the Rockville Centre Council of PTAs and of those of Hewitt Elementary School, South Side Middle School and South Side High School.
“There’s a lot that [PTA moms] do,” Baxley said. “There’s a lot of change. Luckily, in the Rockville Centre School District, the administration is very open and supportive of all the work we do.”
In 2012, Baxley said, her sister urged her to start a community Facebook page. She did, calling it RVC Moms, and invited 20 mothers to join. Today the group has about 2,700 members. “It’s a place for sharing, it’s a place for helping, it’s a place for communicating,” she said. “I want it to remain positive. That’s pretty much what I’m all about, and through that, the changes, the help, the community work, everything that has come out of that group has just been great.”
Baxley’s involvement in the community moved former Deputy Mayor Nancy Howard to recommend her for the role she left last year. Downing noted that Baxley is an example of improving the community you live in through action, which summed up the purpose of the event.
“I have now taken my experiences on a very small level, and now it’s community-wide,” Baxley said. “It’s not just Hewitt, it’s not just PTA, it’s not just RVC Moms. Now it’s Rockville Centre.”