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Powerful City & State Officials Salute CUNY Women’s Leadership

By Sybil Maimin

It was mutual admiration all around at the Women’s Leadership Conference as some of the most successful and powerful women in the city and state saluted the city’s future leaders, the fourteen female student participants in the 2007-2008 CUNY Women’s Public Leadership Internship Program. Speakers honoring the young women included four female City Council members as well as the Speaker, four female members of the State Senate and Assembly, seven female presidents of CUNY colleges, and female executives from The New York Times and the financial community. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn explained, ‘When recruiting for workers in city government where it is important to have real life experience as New Yorkers… when we want to get work done in a New York way, we go to CUNY to get fast, efficient employees with a little bit of attitude.” The audience chuckled. To the young women being recognized, she exclaimed, “You will be a powerful example…as you take real life experiences as New Yorkers and bring it out there into your fields and into the workplace.”

In a keynote, Sheryl McCarthy, print journalist, TV show host, and Distinguished Lecturer at Queens College, gave advice to the student leaders: Being successful is not the same as being a leader. Leaders listen, recognize talent, delegate responsibility, and give credit. The way to get back at detractors is to work hard and do well. Ask for what you want or you won’t get it. When seeking a job, find people who see something wonderful in you. Getting hired is about chemistry between prospective employee and employer. Getting ahead is about doing your job well, not about playing politics. If a woman has to work harder than a man, work harder. Take work seriously, but take yourself lightly. Don’t let ego interfere.

CUNY executive vice chancellor and provost Selma Botman explained, “The university has a long history of educating leaders” and counts many among its graduates. In 2005 it held its first conference focusing specifically on how to prepare women for leadership. Botman noted that women outnumber men at the polls in this country and a woman is presently a serious contender for president. The goal is no longer “fitting in” or simply advancing politically and economically. The current discussion is more comprehensive and asks how women can transform the nature and structure of power and impact values previously informed by men. To the interns, she said, “I see here the faces of women who are the future of New York City.”

A panel of female state assembly and senate members tackled, “Women’s Leadership for Change: Building a Better New York State.” Moderated by President Regina Peruggi of Kingsborough Community College and President Jennifer Raab of Hunter College, the group agreed it is particularly difficult to elect women to top positions (such as governor or speaker) in New York because of the state’s profile as a financial and media center, high costs, and entrenched power. There has been a steady growth of women in government, but the numbers are “still pitiful,” explained Assembly Member Deborah Glick. “Recruitment is one of the keys,” advised State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky, and “We haven’t done a good job…Encouragement from other people is what makes people run.” Pheffer spoke of “pushing people forward and grooming people…we need a farm team.” Assembly Member Michele R. Titus spoke of the importance of mutual support by women in government as they try to balance complicated lives. Focusing solely on women’s issues is a mistake, warned Stavisky. “We should not forget our roots, but should also take on budgets and finance. Women’s issues are really “people issues,” declared Glick, and women do have a special perspective.  Albany is leadership driven, they all declared. “To make a difference you must be part of the action,” advised Assembly Member Audrey Pheffer.  Chairing major committees is key to success. Young women interested in politics have many options. Internships, district political clubs, and election campaigns are some entry points. “The bottom line is you have to get involved in politics,” offered Stavisky, and “you have to love it.” Another panel, of female City Council members, discussed “Women’s Leadership for Change: Building a Better New York City,” and a panel of female executives in finance considered “How Women are Transforming the Practice of Leadership.”

Catherine Alves, a bright and enthusiastic junior at the prestigious Macaulay Honors College at Hunter, works 12 to 15 hours a week as an intern for State Senator Liz Krueger. All CUNY students, female and male, may apply to the internship program and, if selected, are placed with a mentor (mainly in politics) of the same sex for a one-semester paid position. At the conference, Alves was pleased with the opportunity “to hear from women active in public life and to learn about the various ways women can influence other women.”  She is interested in policy-making and is “still learning a lot of things” at the center of activity in Krueger’s office.

The conference was a special opportunity for Jay Hershenson, senior vice chancellor for university relations to announce publication of the CUNY/New York Times Knowledge Network 2008 calendar, Let Freedom Ring, an endeavor in which he played an instrumental role. The fourth in a series of annual handsome hanging calendars, it is packed with information celebrating freedom and rights in the United States, ranging from slavery and emancipation to women’s equality and the Cold War, all beautifully presented through historic documents, pictures, and text. A treasure trove of materials, including some from CUNY and New York Times archives, it is a readily accessible teaching tool available to all on-line at www.cuny.edu/letfreedomring.#



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