On Sunday, March 18, the eighth annual Women's History Month took place in the Wilkins Theatre from 3 to 5 p.m.
The Human Rights Institute took the pleasure of honoring New Jersey women for exceptional achievements by co-sponsoring Evangelina Menendez Trailblazers Awards alongside U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
These awards were created in tribute to the senator’s mother, who came to the United States from Cuba to give her children a better life and who passed away in 2009 after a long, courageous fight with Alzheimer’s disease.
This is an opportunity every year to honor his mother as well as women who have made great strides throughout the state.
"My mother Evangelina, for whom this award is named showed me the meaning of courage, integrity and the importance of fighting for what’s right every single day of her life,” said Sen. Menendez. “She blazed that trail for me, and I will continue to honor her and all of the women whose strength, wisdom and tireless determination to stand up for the people they serve, which make our country and our state a better, safer, cleaner place to live, work and raise a family.”
At 3 p.m., Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin welcomed the guests in and spoke a few words about the importance of this event. She then introduced the Passaic High School NJ The Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) Regiment to help the audience as they stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Next, Kean University Gospel Choir graced the stage by performing the Star Spangled Banner.
Marin then introduced President Dr. Dawood Farahi to the stage where he gave his opening remarks.
"I have known Senator Menendez for a long time and he is a great human being, terrific person and outstanding supporter of education. Kean University is one of the top five universities in America with women at 62 percent, majority of our students are women and some of the women at Kean achieve amazing things," said Farahi. "When we started the New Jersey Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM), they told us women and minorities in sciences was not going to work. Up until today the 50 percent women and 62 percent minorities has a successful four year graduation rate. I'm here as an immigrant from Afghanistan, and I have a special commitment in support of many of you."
Dr. Farahi then proceeded to introduce Sen. Menendez where he explained the importance of this award and why celebrating exceptional women is necessary.
"I'm glad to celebrate Women's History Month with all of you and today marks our eighth annual Evangelina Distinction Trailblazer Awards. I want to thank all of the leaders, volunteers and organizations — some including Girl Scouts of New Jersey, Women's Council of Realtors, New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault and so many others who have joined us to make this celebration so special," said Sen. Menendez. "I would like to give a warm welcome to this year's keynote speaker Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver, a trailblazer in her own right and the first African American woman to serve as governor of New Jersey. Today we honor six incredible women across New Jersey for the Distinction Trailblazer Awards. They are Amy Anderson, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Teacher of the Year; Wilda Diaz, Mayor of Perth Amboy; Uyen Khoung, Co-Founder of Action Together; Audrey Meyers, president and CEO of Valley Health System; and Tiffany Williams, founder of The Esther Project Rev."
Sen. Menendez then presented Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver to the stage where she spoke of her relationship with Sen. Menendez and the importance of sticking together as women.
"Last week as we began to read so much about women's history someone posted on social media that while many women have crashed the glass ceiling there are still many other women down in the basement sweeping up the glass. With all of the strides, accomplishments and achievements of women across the world, as women, we can never forget the women who are down in that basement," said Lieutenant Governor Oliver. "There are so many things that are important to us like equal pay or capital and credit for women. We have our own battles to win and we must lock ours with women all over the globe."
Later, the Ocean City High School ASL performers came on stage where they interpreted and signed the lyrics to the audience in a powerful and meaningful way to which Sen. Menendez acknowledged them as a wonderful performance. He then introduced the first honoree Amy Anderson.
"Thank you for recognizing women around our state who have courage, passion and unwavering commitment to forge new plans and allow so many women to reach their dreams," said Anderson. "The classroom is a place filled with stories where I witness the inspiring and unforgettable moments when students believe their voices have value or feel hope for the future for the very first time. I've learned this is only possible in a classroom where teachers nurture relationships, where there is enough laughter and learning to build a community free of judgement."
Diaz was then introduced where Sen. Menendez spoke of her being the first female to hold the office in Perth Amboy and being the only Latino mayor.
"Thank you for the honor of being presented with the Evangelina Menendez Trailblazer Award. I'm so humbled to be joined by women who in all fields have been so successful, whether in education, entrepreneurs, community leaders and women who take care of their families and homes," said Diaz. "Years ago our contribution as women never made it or stood out enough to be recognized publicly. In fact, that is how women's month came to be. Throughout hundreds of years we've inched our way to recognition for our work."
Uyen Khuong was then introduced for her efforts as co-founder of Action Together in New Jersey.
"I don't know how they let an accidental activist in here, but here we are! Imagine your first memory of the ground shaking and a large explosion, but you don't know what it is. Imagine if you are on the floor playing with dirt and a bomb had just gone off, and this memory lives on over and over. That is my experience living in Vietnam," said Khuong. "So that was the Vietnam War, and this time in history can be compared to the Vietnam War. I am a child of the Vietnam War, and my family gave to and fought for democracy. My family gave a lot to democracy, so Senator, I was thinking about how I became an accidental activist; it really isn't an accident. I feel like it's in my blood to defend democracy."
Sen. Menendez then introduced Ruth Mandel as a woman who strives to close the gender gap in government.
"I am thankful to be given this title, and I am thankful for this honor. My gratitude extends to your outspoken leadership and dedication for fighting for immigration, as a person who sailed passed the lady with the lamp. My parents escaped the Nazi oppression and I have an immigrant appreciation of the unparalleled opportunities of foreign Americans," said Mandel. "Public education has allowed me to accomplish whatever has earned me this award. The achievements of myself, Lieutenant Governor and those of my sister honorees remind us that New Jersey women make powerful contributions to strengthening our state. Now is the time to RIPE which means to resist, insist, persist and enlist. We resisted skepticism from colleagues who did not regard women and politics, we insisted that it mattered that women stepped forward as candidates, we persisted when resources were almost non-existent and we always recognize enlisting more women."
Sen. Menendez then introduced Audrey Meyers as an accomplished leader of New Jersey's Healthcare industry.
"We are lucky to have the senator who has been a great friend to the healthcare industry since 1992. He has been fighting for New Jersey families in Washington and has been widely recognized for his leadership in promoting safe and healthy families. He has sponsored legislation, increasing access to healthcare," said Meyers. "Women's History Month became a national event in 1980 when Jimmy Carter issued a presidential proclamation and in 1980 because I began my career at Valley. Thank you so much to my wonderful Valley family."
Rev. Williams was then welcomed up to the stage after the introduction of her project, The Esther Project.
"I am so passionate about women's empowerment and about The Esther Project because I feel it is my purpose. Through The Esther Project we encourage women to find their purpose, build their leadership skills and launch their purpose into the world," said Williams. "We go to seek out women who are in crisis and that's my purpose. So I have to thank the senior senator for representing me and supporting me."
Members of the Kean community left this event inspired by the women who were being honored, and they were reminded that it is important to be active participants in our communities.
For anyone who might have missed the event or would like more information on Sen. Menendez and his cause, visit menendez.senate.gov.