for Montclair Local

Women’s empowerment took the stage at the Wellmont on Tuesday, April 4, as a panel of local women offered evocative tips and insights into female strength and self-confidence.

The panel included five women: Masiel Rodriquez-Vars, activist and filmmaker Peg Cafferty, yoga instructor Omni Kitts Ferrara, radio host Joan Herrmann, and life coach Laura Berman Fortgang. Township Councilwoman Renée Baskerville had been scheduled to appear, but did not due to a scheduling conflict. The panel was moderated by Donna Miller, founder of Montclair’s C3 Workplace.

All the women had advice for the audience of a bit more than 100 people. The event was a highlight of Women’s Empowerment Week, organized by the Montclair Business Improvement District (BID). Women’s Empowerment Week took place April 1-9.Throughout the week, SAVE of Essex, a program of Family Service League, and the only rape care center in Essex county, collected funds and donations of clothing and other products in locations around town.

Rodriquez-Vars, describing herself as the shy daughter of a fierce mother, said she had to learn to be “passionate in my own way.” Her mother , Rodriquez-Vars said, was a crusader for public education. After a period as a stay-at-home mom with a law degree, Rodriquez-Vars took a post as executive director of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. “I can be vocal in my own way,” she said. “Empowerment is being comfortable in your own skin and letting that affect your judgment about what it means to be a strong woman.”

Several women in the audience raised questions about educating their sons about unequal treatment and expectations of girls and women. BID’s executive director, Israel Cronk, became choked with emotion as he described his sister’s struggle to come to terms with having been molested as a child, which she was unable to speak about until she identified the power within herself as a young woman.

Annette Johnson of the domestic violence prevention group S.O.F.I.A. asked the panelists to speak about how to help women who’ve been abused and simply need to regain a sense of their innate power, before even thinking about the “leadership track.”
Cafferty responded with an insight gained through her current work on a documentary film about women in India who have been victims of sex-trafficking. “In India, there is a concept of post-traumatic growth,” she said. “The attitude is they don’t necessarily want to tell their story over and over. They want to step beyond that,” and become part of a “global sisterhood” of women lifting each other up.

Kitts Ferrara offered this advice: “Recognize yourself, wherever you are and start there. Some women have been through hell. But no one has taken their power.” Kitts Ferrara said she started her business with “zero dollars, no business training, and an IOU.” But, she said, she gave it all her energy, and never “discounted” her own effort.

Herrmann said, “We need to eliminate the internal negative talk, and the external negative talk.” Several women on the panel — and among the questioners in the audience — called themselves out for apologizing too much, acknowledging that it is self-defeating. Miller described requiring an employee to put $1 into a jar every time she said, “I’m sorry.”

“We are all meant to shine, as children do,” Miller said, quoting from Marianne Williamson’s book “A Return to Love.”
Fortgang, who is a current candidate for the State Assembly in the 26th District, said she had to bat down her inner critic in contemplating a run for political office. “You must improve your relationship with fear,” she said. “Look at it and say, ‘There you are. You are going to bite me today, but I’m not going to give much credence to it.’”

Herrmann, who founded a networking organization called “Change Your Attitude, Change Your Life,” added that she believes in eliminating the words fear and failure from one’s vocabulary. “Then, everything is a learning experience,” she said. “There is no reason not to move forward.”