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League of Women Voters host East End high school girls and women office holders

Teen-age girls arrived at the Stony Brook Southampton University campus a bit nervous about interacting with students from other schools, but many left, they said, as confident young women, believing their voices were powerful and could be used to lead others to make changes in their communities.

The transformation was achieved by the League of Women Voters of the Hamptons, Shelter Island and the North Fork, who last Thursday invited the students to a “Running and Winning” workshop with women elected officials. The aim was to have the women share their experiences in getting elected, planting a seed with the students they hoped would sprout in the future, but also start them on the road now to involvement with their communities.

You don’t have to be an expert, but be willing to learn, said keynote speaker Minerva Perez, executive director of Organización Latino-Americana. Put yourself into the process and ask questions about what you don’t know, she advised. “If anyone makes you feel bad about asking, they have some searching to do,” she said.

“I was a person who happened to care,” she said about her activism, including efforts with police, school and elected officials, parents and students. There are 24 school districts on the East End and 45% of their students are Latino, Ms. Perez said. To achieve her aims, she keeps an open mind and creates opportunities for dialogues.

“For me, it was because they asked,” said Shelter Island Town Board member BJ Ianfolla about running for election last November. “Lean in and be present,” she advised as the key to being effective.

“I didn’t run to be involved in politics,” Southampton Town Councilwoman Cynthia McNamara said. “I ran to be involved in government,” adding that she saw problems and wanted to find solutions.

Southold Deputy Supervisor Jill Doherty was a Town trustee with a passion for protecting waterways when it was suggested she run for Town Board. She told the young women she was hesitant, but realized she could work to change codes for better protection of those waterways.

“Your work ethic has to be at the highest level,” she said. “You can’t do everything and sometimes you have to figure a way around to approach a problem if going at it directly doesn’t work,” she added.

Making new friends from other schools was one one aspect of the program. Getting to know one another are Isabelle Penny from Southold (left) and Angelina Rice from Shelter Island. (Credit: Julie Lane)

In breakout sessions where the elected officials met with students in small groups for further discussions, Ms. Ianfolla told them they wouldn’t get rich in government, but it would give them a voice to improve their communities.

“No matter the hill, you can climb it,” Councilwoman Sarah Nappa said about her decision to seek elective office despite naysayers who told her she couldn’t win on the Democratic ticket.

Greenport Village Board Trustee Mary Bess Philips credited 25 years of work with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Board of Directors, retiring as its chairwoman, as preparing her for local politics. Learn about your community and decide what role you can do best, she advised.

The students were led through the process of registering to vote, with League Voter Services Committee Chair Barbara McClancy telling them in New York State, they can pre-register to vote at age 16, even though they can’t cast a ballot until they’re 18.

The students also worked on ideas for a campaign they could bring back to their schools to get others to register.

Shelter Island senior Isabella Fonseca said the program was an excellent opportunity to inspire young women to get involved. “Younger people are more accepting of new ideas,” she said. She also had praise for her teachers, noting that because the school is small, there is a real bond formed with students.

“I was nervous,” Greenport senior Ayania Smith said. “But I really liked it and loved meeting elected officials,” she said.

“Going in, I didn’t think it was going to be fun,” Southold student Isabelle Penny said. “I’ve been enjoying this,” she said.