Women’s History Month Kickoff Celebrates Women’s Right to Vote

Rutgers Claretta Bellamy reports

The Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) community kicked off the beginning of Women’s History Month 2020 with this year’s theme of “The Right to Vote, The Right to Run.” The third annual campus-wide celebration titled “No More Hidden Figures - Continuing to Honor and Recognize the Sheroes Among Us” took place in the Essex Room of the Paul Robeson Campus Center on Wed., March 4. In addition to honoring women leaders of the Newark community, this event celebrated the 100-year anniversary of women’s right to vote in the United States.

The event began with a welcome from Lori Scott Pickens and Shanida Carter, co-chairs of the 2020 Women’s History Month Committee. The program was led by Sharon Stroye, director of public engagement in the School of Public Affairs and Administration.

“Today we gather here at Rutgers University– Newark, where access meets excellence to celebrate the year of the woman,” said Stroye.

Following the opening statements, the afternoon included an array of presentations, including a spoken word performance by Kira Jones from Healing Sounds of Newark. One of the major highlights of the event was the keynote conversation with RU-N senior Kaity Assaf, Graduate School–Newark Dean Taja-Nia Henderson, and Andrea McChristian. McChristian is the law and policy director at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), where she leads the implementation of the strategic vision and the direction of the law and policy program.

During the keynote conversation, McChristian discussed barriers to exercising voting rights. Although women have the right to vote, she said there is a continuous struggle of systematic racism and discrimination, which is displayed through mechanisms like voter identification laws and polling-site closures that are in place to deny the right to vote. Although women have the right to vote on paper, she said it is important for them to continue to fight for the right to vote for everyone, including those who do not have resources or who are not educated.

“I say fight to vote because, since the Constitution was first written, there has been a continuous struggle of women and people of color to fight to gain access to this precious right,” stated McChristian.

In addition to discussing the importance of voting, McChristian also discussed her involvement in the “1844 No More” campaign, an initiative at NJISJ that aims to establish voting rights for those who are incarcerated. The number 1844 refers to the year during which New Jersey began to deny the right to vote to individuals with criminal convictions. It also is the year that New Jersey amended its constitution to restrict voting to white men only.

“We see that the ability of many states to take away and strip the right to vote of people with criminal convictions is racialized,” McChristian said.

Although there are many barriers preventing individuals the right to vote, McChristian stated that NJISJ is launching a major education campaign that would help break down these barriers. The campaign includes providing accurate information to residents, holding town hall meetings, and working with groups to register people to vote. Also, if voters have any problems at polling sites, they can call 866-OUR-VOTE, which would provide them assistance right away.

McChristian also indicated that it is very important for the young generation to vote as well. She believes the next wave of leaders will bring fresh ideas, their voices, and the energy needed to affect policies and pass laws. 

“It’s our young people who are going to be the next phase of the movement,” remarked McChristian.

 Following the keynote conversation, Shennell McCloud, executive director of Project Ready, reminded the audience to register to vote. Project Ready provides the Newark community with a platform to engage in actions that support high-quality education. The organization also has worked to increase the power of women in communities of color through voting.

“We registered more than 1,000 Newark men and women to vote by mail with a strong focus on women of color, enabling them to use their voices and cast their ballots when they can’t physically make it to the polls,” said McCloud.

The celebration continued with the recognition of notable women who have made a difference within their communities, both past and present. Posthumous honor was given to New Jersey State Senator Wynona Lipman, the first African-American woman elected to the New Jersey Senate. At the time of her death, she made history as the longest-serving member of the State Senate, representing Newark for 27 years. Known as the ‘Steel Magnolia,’ Senator Lipman was instrumental in passing almost every key piece of legislation for women, children, families, small businesses, and minorities.

 ‘The First’ honors were awarded to South Orange Village President Sheena C. Collum, who is the first female to hold the presidential role in a municipality of 16,000 residents. Dean Henderson also received honor for becoming the first African-American female dean of a Rutgers-Newark school.

The final portion of the celebration recognized the unsung sheroes, which included: Melissa Dones, landscape technician for the Rutgers-Newark Department of Facilities; Lori Van Walters-Truell, senior counselor in the Rutgers-Newark Equal Opportunity Fund; Assatta Mann, president of Rutgers-Newark College Democrats; Haneefah Webster, parent teacher organization president of the George Washington Carver Elementary School/Bruce Street School for the Deaf; and Tonya Veltz, director of Tree House Cares. 

All guests were encouraged to bring donations for the Wynona’s House Child Advocacy Center in Newark. The center was founded and dedicated in honor of Senator Lipman. In addition to donating items, the Women’s History Month Committee has set a goal of 1,919 hours of service to encourage individuals to volunteer on campus or in surrounding communities. The challenge commemorates the 1919 passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote in the U.S.

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