RaisingVoicesUSA event inspires young girls through storytelling


“You have a purpose in your life that you haven’t yet finished,” Rockville Centre resident Deborah Dean said after reading aloud about Maya Angelou at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center on Jan. 18. “You don’t finish until you leave here. So continue to be the best that you can and live your best life.”

Dean was one of about 14 local women and community leaders, as well as young people, to speak that morning at the second annual “Raising Voices, Raising Women,” which aimed to inspire girls through storytelling. Each woman who participated read from a children’s book about influential women.

RaisingVoicesUSA, a Rockville Centre-based nonprofit organization that educates and empowers people to speak out about social issues, launched the event last year as a way to celebrate powerful women in lieu of attending the national Women’s March in Manhattan and Washington, D.C.

“When we talk about ‘raising voices,’ it’s nurturing, it’s growing,” said Emma Travers, co-president of RaisingVoices. “Central to our mission is to encourage and inspire people to raise their voices.”

Together We Will Long Island, a regional activist organization, co-hosted the morning’s activities, which included the presentation, crafts, writing postcards to inspire women and a bake sale. Sharon Golden, co-president of Together We Will, said she attended this event rather than the Women’s March because it was “more intimate.”

The workshop also drew inspiration from the saying “Strong women: may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.” Expressions of support and wisdom abounded as the women shared their stories and read from volumes 1 and 2 of “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: Stories of Extraordinary Women,” as well as “Women in Sports: 50 Fearless Athletes Who Played to Win” and “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History.”

Shelagh McGinn, principal of South Side Middle School, offered advice to the dozen or so elementary school children in the room. “My mom used to have this saying that sticks in my head,” she said. “She’d say, ‘You’re Shelagh McGinn. You can do anything.’ And that was a mantra that went on in my life forever and ever.”

Then, she read about Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education. In 2012, the Taliban shot Malala in the head in retaliation for her fight for girls to attend school in Pakistan. She was 15 at the time. After her recovery, she wrote a book and became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Vanessa Wagner, a board member for the Hispanic Brotherhood of Rockville Centre, talked about her upbringing in Washington Heights, N.Y. “Teen pregnancy was high, and a lot of boys wanted a sense of identity so they joined gangs,” she explained. “So I decided I’m not going to let my ZIP code determine who I am.”

Wagner, who has worked in finance for over a decade, read about Maya Angelou, the late poet, novelist and civil rights activist. Many other women spoke about leaders who broke boundaries and fought injustices in the United States.

Sharon Sheppard, assistant director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, read about Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress. “I chose her because I saw a lot of the traits that she has in me,” Sheppard said.

Deana Davoudiasl, a member of RaisingVoices, read about Ruby Bridges, a black woman who, at 6 years old, attended an all-white elementary school in New Orleans and helped push for school desegregation in the 1960s. Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, of Rockville Centre, spoke about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and reminded attendees to listen to others and practice patience.

Girl Scout leader Kim Lanzilotta encouraged the young people in the room to find a community where “you can give something to somebody.” Then, she spoke about Giselle Burgess, who started Girls Scouts of America Troop 6000 a few years ago. It’s the first Girl Scout troop for girls living in homeless shelters.

Lastly, 11-year-old Ellie Rubin spoke about Coy Mathis, a transgender girl who fought to use the girls’ bathroom in her Colorado elementary school.

“If you take anything from this, think about the woman who has inspired you,” Travers said, “and if she’s still with us, let her know.”