Deaf Women's Leadership Seminar develops participants' skills in a variety of areas

July 09, 2011

Fourteen women from across the nation were on campus June 20 to 24, 2011, to gain skills in becoming leaders in their respective communities by participating in the annual Deaf Women's Leadership Seminar offered by the Gerald "Bummy" Burstein Leadership Institute.

The seminar focused on helping women develop leadership skills, while taking into account the varying backgrounds and interests of the participants. These individual interests were addressed with the guidance of 10 presenters, each with her own area of expertise, such as networking, fundraising, self-awareness, confidence-building, and assertiveness. The presenters included Evon Black, statewide coordinator of Technology Services for Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deaf-Blind Services with the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services; Nancy Bloch, president of Touchpoint Group; Shilpa Hanumantha, affiliate officer for  Deaf Women United;  Vicki Hurwitz, Gallaudet University's first lady; Janna Montagnino, district manager of the Southeast Region for Purple Communications, Inc.;  Francisca Rangel, ASL language arts teacher at Kendall Demonstration Elementary School and founder of Deaf People of Color; Julie Rems-Smario, CEO of Deaf Hope; Suzy Rosen Singleton, Gallaudet ombuds and an attorney who has practiced disability law; and Stephanie Summers, president of Deaf Women United.

Facilitator Melissa Draganac-Hawk, who also led the seminar two years ago, calls cultivating leadership her hobby. Draganac-Hawk, an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an ASL specialist at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, has held many positions of leadership, including being a board member of the National Association of the Deaf and serving on the National Council of Hispano Deaf and Hard of Hearing Board of Directors. She first became interested in teaching leadership when she was 20 after giving a presentation on the topic to students at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind. The experience led to the realization that she loved to encourage people and instill self-confidence.

After working for Deaf Women United as a board member, then as executive director, Draganac-Hawk realized that she wanted to narrow down her passion to helping women, specifically, and began by leading the 2009 Deaf Women's Leadership Seminar.

When asked how she would characterize this year's group, she said she was impressed by their motivation. "They get things done," Draganac-Hawk said. "For example, during the seminar, we discussed holding a fundraiser, and they actually went to Hall Memorial Building and invited faculty to a brief fundraiser that same day." The impromptu fundraiser, a performance by seminar participants named "Chica Lipstick," raised more than $300 for Deaf Hope, an organization whose mission is to end domestic and sexual violence against deaf women and children.

After completing the seminar, Evon Black of Birmingham, Ala., who was a participant as well as a presenter, said she looks forward to developing her networking skills. "The most important piece of information I am leaving this seminar with is to have a passion," Black said. "To aim for excellence in what we are about to do." 

Daisy Rivenbark of North Carolina, who helped set up North Carolina Kids of Deaf Adults (NCKODA), plans to continue to encourage other women to come to future seminars. Using what she learned during the week, Rivenbark aims to reassess NCKODA and her other commitments, as well as improve communication with her husband.

Using her newfound knowledge, Amy Stornello of Rochester, N.Y., hopes to help empower others. She admits that, being young, she doesn't have much time to go out and meet people, but she now feels more confident about approaching people and speaking up.

"My deepest wish is for the seminar to become widespread across the United States, because many women don't have the time to make it all the way to D.C. for an entire week," Draganac-Hawk concluded. "They have families and jobs to worry about. If this seminar can spread out and be held in different locations across the United States, then more deaf women can be empowered."

--Tanya Sturgis, student writer