Empowering themselves through lessons learned

From left, Jane Richards, Lydia Shepherd, Emma Teodoru and Social Studies teacher Michelle Corbett at the League of Women Voters program “Running and Winning” last month in Water Mill.

Three 11th graders from the Shelter Island High School, along with their Social Studies teacher, attended a groundbreaking workshop entitled “Running and Winning” last month at the Water Mill Community House.

The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, was designed to give young women in high school the opportunity to explore public service as a career. Shelter Islanders Jane Richards, Lydia Shepherd and Emily Teodoru, accompanied by teacher Michelle Corbett, joined some 40 other young women from South Fork high schools, as well as a roster of local elected women office holders, for a day that allowed them to explore their own leadership abilities and develop their teamwork skills.

Working in small groups, the young women took part in the capstone of the day, planning a voter registration campaign that the participants could take back to their schools. As of January 2020, 16-year olds in New York State will be allowed to pre-register to vote when they turn 18, so the focus was on instilling awareness of this new law as well as explaining the mechanics of the voter registration process.

“The whole experience was very helpful and educational,” Ms. Teodoru said. “I didn’t know much about the voting process and this program taught me everything I need to know. Everything I learned are things I can apply to the real world for important matters.”

Ms. Richards, the current secretary of the high school’s Student Council admitted, “I was confused at first. I don’t pay close attention to what’s going on in politics or government so I was confused as to what ‘registration’ means.”

Ms. Corbett concurred that there was indeed a learning curve. “We need to do a bit of education about the process and what it all means,” she said. “But it’s great that this change in the state law is coming during a Presidential election year. Our Social Studies classes will be doing a lot of education on the election process.”

Voices of Experience
One of the most surprising “aha” moments of the day for Ms. Richards came from listening to the women officials talk about their career paths.

“Being in politics wasn’t their first career choice,” she recalled.

Ms. Shepherd agreed, “At least half of the speakers didn’t want to go into politics until some opportunity occurred” or an issue about which they were passionate presented itself. “One of the women was a ballerina before she ran for office,” Ms. Shepherd said in amazement. “They made ‘later on’ in life choices” about their careers.”

Listening to the speakers “made me feel much less stressed out about a career. I learned that your career isn’t necessarily one straight line. It doesn’t all have to connect and make sense. That was a great life lesson,” Ms. Richards said.

In their League
This event was the first in which the Shelter Island League of Women Voters participated under its new auspices as part of the greater organization now known as the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork.

Shelter Island League President Lois B. Morris was excited about the students’ participation in the workshop and the possibilities offered by this new alliance. “It’s important for young women to learn how to lead,” she said. “To learn what it takes, to understand the steps in the leadership process. And to be mentored by local women leaders is key.”

“I didn’t expect to meet as many elected women,” Ms. Shepherd said. “I hadn’t known what kind of positions they held or what was even an ‘elected’ position.”

The officials attending included newly-elected Sag Harbor Mayor Kathy Mulcahy, who gave the keynote address, as well as East Hampton Town Councilwoman Kathleen Burke-Gonzalez and Family Court Judge-elect Andrea Schiavoni, among others.

A long way to go
Despite the much-heralded gains made in the mid-term elections, women make up less than a quarter of the senators and representatives in the 116th Congress. And in New York state politics, the track record is amazingly dismal.

The State Senate seat held by Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) since 1976 has never been occupied by a woman. The 1st Congressional District, of which Shelter Island is a part, has sent only white men to Washington, D.C. since 1789 when William Floyd was first elected. New York State’s Attorney General Letitia James became the first woman in state history to occupy that post when she was sworn in this year, and Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac), the Suffolk Legislator, who represents the Island, is the female trailblazer for District 2.

In an interesting — and perhaps hopeful — contrast, young women make up two out of the four executive positions on the Shelter Island Student Council. Led by president Maria Carbajal, the vice-president is Luca Martinez, Ms. Richards is secretary and Theo Olinkiewicz is treasurer. This line-up is all the more impressive given that the current 11th grade class is comprised of 14 young men and only five young women.

“Our girls are leaders,” said Ms. Corbett. “You can’t hide growing up here. You must be vocal and be a participant.”

The other lesson the students took home was the importance of getting involved. “Don’t complain if you know you can make a difference but choose to do nothing,” Ms. Richards said.

Ms. Shepherd agreed: “If you want change, be that change.”