Shirley Chisholm’s Women of Distinction

The assembled in the Brooklyn Library’s Dweck Auditorium were raucous, at times.

They are the supporters of the honorees for the Shirley Chisholm Women of Distinction awards, women all excelling in their fields–community leadership, communication or entrepreneurship.

Last year, Councilman Jumaane Williams launched this award ceremony fittingly named for Brooklyn’s amazing Shirley Chisholm whose legacy is grit, leadership and integrity. Held on March 20, the Women’s Month celebration is a tribute to those who follow in Chisholm’s footsteps.

Shirley Chisholm served for seven terms — 1969 to 1983 — in Brooklyn’s 12th Congressional District, much of which is Bedford-Stuyvesant. She was the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

Laurie Cumbo co-directed the evening’s proceedings with fellow council member Williams, bringing youthful energy to what felt like one big community gathering.

The need for more women elected to public office was part of the keynote address from City Council President Melissa Mark-Viverito who pointed out that six out of the 15 women members of City Council have terms expiring in the next election cycle. “We need a crop ready to run.”

Congresswoman Yvette Clark was called upon, the only Black woman in the New York delegation to Congress. Her district encompasses in part what was Shirley Chisholm’s — the other part is represented by Hakim Jefferies.

“I get inspiration to push forward in a hostile environment,” she said on her return visits to Brooklyn and being among those who elected her. About Congress and its increasing conservative leanings, “It’s the belly of the beast.”

She continued, “Lives were give for rights and privileges for full-bloodied Americans. We expected to be treated with dignity that comes with us.” Equal pay for equal work is among the battles still going.

Assembly member Rodneyse Bichotte, among the new crop of women in the State Assembly, was acknowledged and spoke about an agenda that included pay equity and reproductive choices.

Martha Kamber, executive director of the YWCA of Brooklyn, with 30 years of social justice and nonprofit management experience was the first award recipient. She listed concerns from minimum wage, availability of day care, pay disparities, and violence against women–issues of importance to the empowerment of women. “Mothers must teach sons to respect women,” she underscored, along with the need to stop using women’s bodies to sell beer and cars. With less than 20 percent women represented in the national legislature, she encouraged women to run for office.

Award recipient Indian-born news anchor for the PIX Morning News Sukanya Krishnan paid tribute to Shirely Chislom and said, “Let’s keep the struggle. Courage is a muscle to use every day to make stronger.”

As awardees were recognized it was clear that they came from a wide spectrum of non-profit and commericial arenas and that they all were deeply embedded in advocacy for girls and women.

Social worker Haitian-American Joanne Smith founded Girls for Gender Equity with the help of the Open Society Institute to end gender-based violence and promote gender, race and class equality. She is inspired by Anita Hill in “speaking truth to power.”

Adding a bit of diversity and glamour to the recipients, VH1 reality series star of Love and Hip Hop, Yandy Smith was also recognized. As an entrepreneur, she is a part owner, president, and manager of the lifestyle brand Everything Girls Love.

Bajan-heritage recipient Monique Waterman told how her grandmother arrived in this country with seven children and had one more here. Her mom, obviously an inspiration, held three to five jobs. Waterman is co-founder of East Flatbush Village, A Community and Youth Development Organization focused on uplifting neighbors with neighbors. “I want a community center in Community Board 17 that serves youth, parents, adults, and seniors,” she said.

With a group of cheerleading fans in the audience, award recipient Aga Trojanik, Coordinator at Flatbush Tenant Coalition, spoke of people being pushed from their homes and gentrification and the need to build tenant power.

“Tenant power!” shouted Jumaane Williams whose background includes continued fighting for affordable housing as the Housing Director for the Flatbush Development Corporation.

Emerging “junior leaders” were also recognized during the evening.

Independent recording artist, singer Lydia Cesar added her own brand of soulful energy to the evening where recognition of distinctive women was conferred to those who add so much to the well-being of the community that serves all, not just women.

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