Women’s Leadership Network Toasts 5th Anniversary, Endows Scholarship Program
The Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) had much to celebrate at its five-year anniversary gathering. Besides mixing and mingling in person, attendees heard inspiring words from alumnae who are advocates for reproductive and LGBTQ rights, and Brooklyn Law School students who expressed appreciation for the scholarships WLN provides.
The WLN is led by the Women’s Leadership Circle, a group of 36 alumnae who oversee and guide the activities of the larger WLN, which has expanded its influence and size since launching in 2017—a feat the Law School’s leadership has noted.
A key update at the anniversary celebration, which took place in the Forchelli Conference Center, came from Debbie Epstein Henry ’94, chair of the Women’s Leadership Circle, who said the WLN scholarship program, which already had raised $115,000, plans to support students even more.
“What I’m excited to announce tonight, is given the excitement and the success of the scholarship over the last five years, we at the Women’s Leadership Circle have voted to endow the scholarship, and that will now ensure that we have scholarship recipients every year,” said Henry, who added that the goal is to raise another $100,000 for the endowed scholarship. “This is about paying it forward. This is about creating opportunities for women and making a huge impact as we continue to grow as an organization, as a school and as a community.”
Dean Michael T. Cahill, in opening the event, described WLN as “one of the central groups tying our alumni and our students together,” and prompted applause after noting that women students comprise 60 percent of the Law School’s latest incoming class.
“So, the students that we have now will be literally changing the face of the legal profession in the future and we are deeply appreciative to the alumnae who are going to help them grow and flourish as lawyers in the profession,” Cahill said, adding that Henry is chief among them.
“What we do at the Women’s Leadership Network is everything we can to influence and impact alumnae and women law students,” Henry said, outlining four key activities, including: programming (Nov. 2nd anniversary was its 10th event), networking; mentoring, including six mentoring circles; and philanthropy, providing student scholarships.
The programming for the evening, Empowerment through Advocacy, Obstacles and Opportunities for Impact, was moderated by Sonya Smith-Valentine ’97, CEO of Financially Fierce, and a member of the Women’s Leadership Circle. Panelists were Julie F. Kay ’95, women’s rights attorney, activist and author and Carol Buell ’80, principal of Carol L. Buell Law & Mediation and cofounder of the LGBTQI Family Law Professionals of New York.
In discussing advocacy and obstacles in their work, Kay and Buell both pointed to the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which upended Roe v Wade. Kay, who co-authored the book, Controlling Women: What We Must Do Now to Save Reproductive Freedom, said one way to move forward is to reframe the discussion as a human rights issue as well as a women’s health issue.
“The abortion issue itself is often described as a religious debate, or a philosophical question about when life begins,” Kay said. “Those are pieces of it but for so many of us, it really is about the fundamental human right and deciding when and with whom to parent…As we’re working towards reproductive rights, reproductive freedoms, we need to bear in mind the horrific maternal mortality rates in this country. Particularly for women of color and for black women in New York City, we are not much better off than rest of the country.”
For Buell, her work has changed with an expansion of LGBTQ rights over time, notably with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act in New York State, legalizing gay marriage and changing the nature of the work she does for clients. Before the Act, she helped LGBTQ clients with the “papering of relationships,” providing legal documents to ensure their rights since they did not have next-of-kin status. That included documents for guardianships, healthcare, and funeral arrangements, as well as dissolution and parenting agreements and, in the last 15 years, adoption papers.
“So, 10 years ago, when Marriage Equality was finally passed in New York, it was an amazing moment and I noticed that first of all, I had to figure out what marriage was all about, because I didn’t really know what marriage was all about,” Buell said. “I had to use (my own) prism for my client base of people who had been together 40 years and are thinking ‘Do I want to marry? Do I not want to marry?’ And quite frankly, these were lesbian feminist clients who wanted nothing to do with the patriarchy and nothing to do with marriage….I became a ‘marriage pusher,’ which was a profound experience that I had for almost every client to do that deep dive into the pros and cons of marriage, and, what do they get from it.”
Now, with the conservative Supreme Court, and fears that marriage equality could be removed, Buell is facing clients with questions, once again.
Both Buell and Kay urged attendees to stay active in their communities to ensure all voices are heard.
“I talk a lot in the book about how everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing, but everybody can do something with activism, and I think particularly in a group like this where there are women who are bringing new voices and bringing their life experiences into the workplace in positions of power, that de-stigmatizes [conversations around reproductive rights],” Kay said. “I do a lot of speaking in law firms, and sometimes you can see when you actually start talking about abortions and people’s experiences, it opens the door to people talking about that they actually have families outside of work and what does that mean? And I think particularly supporting the next generation in the way this leadership network has done, and the way people are doing within the workplace is really important, both within those private conversations and also in [the area of] who do you bring into your workspace.”
On hand to demonstrate the impact were three scholarship recipients: Anastasia Kyriakos ‘23, Chelsea Daniel ’23, and Jara Jacobson ’22, each of whom embody WLN’s mission.
Jacobson, who graduated in May and recently passed the bar noted that she started a position at Winston & Strawn a month ago. As a second-year law student, she had met an alumna who was a partner there: Katie Chastaine ’06, who served as a mentor as she was seeking employment.
“It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I hoped that I got [the position] on my own merits, but it does not hurt to have someone in your corner, cheering you on and supporting you from the background, and I think that’s what this organization does for so many of us,” Jacobson said.