Kean Hosts Senator Menendez's Women's History Month Celebration
This month Senator Bob Menendez hosted the 8th annual Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Awards to honor 6 New Jersey women creating positive change in their community. Hundreds gathered in the Eugene G. Wilkins Theater to celebrate women who embodied the spirit of the Senator’s late mother Evangelina Menendez, a woman who worked steadfastly to support her family and care for her fellow human-beings. The day’s honorees included Perth Amboy’s first female Mayor Wilda Diaz, Ocean City teacher Amy Andersen, Eagleton Institute of Politics director Ruth Mandel, co-founder of Action Together Uyen (Winn) Khuong, Valley Health System President and CEO Audrey Meyers, and The Esther Project Founder Reverend Tiffany Williams.
When introducing the Senator Kean President Dr. Dawood Farahi remarked how much the University relied on the power of women. He pointed out that when the school opened their STEM program “they told us women and minorities in sciences that’s not gonna work.” He went on to share that today “That center which is 50 percent women and 60 percent minorities has a 4 year graduation rate second only to Princeton.”
Senator Menendez referred to the honorees as “trailblazers, glass ceiling breakers, and history makers.” He expressed how happy he was to be able to honor his mother who passed away after a battle with Alzheimer’s. He told the audience that “as a young boy I saw my mother blaze trails for me” and “she never got a raise she never was paid the same as her male counterparts it wasn’t fair it wasn’t right.” He said her struggle was part of why “I’m fighting for my mother for my daughter for my granddaughter and all of our daughters.”
He deemed the day particularly important “at a time when women across America are dissing up speaking out and making history in every way.” He noted that in recent perilous times “It was women across America who gave us hope.” He happily passed the microphone to the event's keynote speaker saying that “having recently learned the term mansplaining the last thing I want to do is mansplain the women’s movement to all of you. It’s not my job to speak for women for fight for women it’s my job to listen to women.”
Giving the keynote address was New Jersey’s first black female Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver. A graduate of the country’s oldest Historically Black University Oliver’s speech revealed that even when she was in an environment dedicated to educating and elevating black people her sex was still an issue. As part of one of the first co-ed graduating classes from Lincoln University Oliver was subject to bullying with one male student taunting her for raising her hand in class. While standing strong in her hot pink shift Oliver recalled that his name was “Jerry” and told everyone that she would “never forget” how he would follow her to her dorm imitating the Nigerian accent of the professor saying “Miss Oliver is correct. Miss Oliver is correct.” She ended her speech instructing the young women in the audience to not be afraid to speak up and “own being correct.” She went on to remind everyone that her willingness to “be correct” allowed her to make history as the second African American woman to lead a state legislature in the country as well as the first black woman to be New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor.
Reverend Tiffany Williams continued to demonstrate her commitment to uplifting women and girls by using her time at the podium to raise awareness. “Esther was a queen so I’m wearing a crown today” said Williams. The crown was intended to be symbolic of young women who are not able to get an education, are victims of human trafficking, and are “suffering from intimate partner violence” as well as those “who are in the shadows” and “who won’t even seek medical attention because they’re afraid.”
She also stated that “women empower other women by encouraging other women” and thanked Lieutenant Governor Oliver “for giving me the Shirley Chisholm Award” and “empowering me among her staff to be one of the highest ranking woman in the Department of State.” She ended by acknowledging the work of those who participate in The Esther Project and the Evangelina Menendez herself who was “Bold enough to empower a legacy that would take her child to the United States Senate.” When the program was over she embraced the throngs of people who wanted to connect with her after hearing her moving remarks smiling and hugging everyone who came in her path.
When accepting her award Uyen (Winn) Khuong insisted that her tremendous efforts were just apart of her legacy saying “It’s in my blood to defend democracy.” A refugee whose “mother was assassinated by the communists for what she knew” she knew that “there’s got to be more than just bellyaching” and sprang into action when she had opinions about public policy. She wasn’t alone. She went out of her way to acknowledge her fellow Action Together participants in attendance asking them to stand and highlighting the efforts of “first time civics.” She too acknowledged the Lieutenant Governor saying “Thank you for being a modern day pioneer thank you for opening the door for all of us.” She also called her speech ““So inspiring” and shared that “I’m so glad that my kids were able to hear you."
Wilda Diaz, who Senator Menendez commended on her efforts to “fight to bring the city back after superstorm Sandy”, stood firm in her assertion that “We can govern, we can manage municipal budgets, we can lead we can build projects, and create programs that even benefit the multitude of citizens.”
Amy Andersen, who teaches American Sign Language, watched with glee as her students performed an interpreted musical selection that led everyone to clap and cheer as they walked off stage. The Kean choir performed as well.
Senator Menendez ended the celebration of these “6 remarkable women from across New Jersey” in the spirit of the afternoon by thanking the remarkable women who had helped make the program possible pointing out that like many things in the state of New Jersey “these events don’t just happen they take a lot of hard work.”
To learn more about the Esther Project check here.
To learn more about Action Together check here.
To learn more about Wilda Diaz's work in Perth Amboy check here.
To learn more about the Eagleton Institute of Politics check here.
To learn more about American Sign Language check here.
Photo Credits: The Office of Senator Bob Menendez