LHS’ Sixth Annual Women’s Conference: Recap and Thoughts of an MC

Alejandro Bonilla

On Tuesday, March 22, Lowell High School hosted its sixth annual Women’s Month conference via Zoom, courtesy of the event’s planning committee and technology instructional specialist, Ms. Malinda Pires. The event featured eight women, all of whom are prominent figures in the Lowell community, as well as the difficulties they fought as they adjusted to the major changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic within the past year. I was approached by Dr. Vejar, the overseer of the event, with the opportunity to be one of the student MCs. I can say with certainty that asking questions and listening to the speakers has been one of the most impactful experiences I’ve been able to be part of. All eight women have had to fight valiantly over the past year. Each of them come from vastly different backgrounds and walks of life.

Mrs. Eileen Donoghue is the city manager for the City of Lowell and has served in a number of government positions including state senator, mayor, and city councilor. Her position “as the manager running a four-hundred-million-plus dollar corporation, essentially” is a very busy one, and the pandemic was able to bring all of the city’s projects and initiatives to a halt as the focus shifted to prioritizing public health and safety. The switch to a virtual format for conferencing was a steep learning curve for Donoghue but virtual communication allowed for more frequent meetings with city and state officials, which she sees as a major bonus. “We have learned what is important in life,” Donoghue explained. “This pandemic has taught us that we have to work much harder, we have to be much more thoughtful and intentional about every single thing we do… At the end of the day, you know, those things that we, maybe, took for granted… you could see what it’s like when that ability is taken away. Going forward, I think we are renewed with the spirit of valuing all those things that we missed.”

Ms. Vanna Howard is the state representative for the 17th Middlesex District, which covers Lowell and Chelmsford. Much like Donoghue, Howard had to face the challenge of suddenly accustoming to a virtual life. “We need to remember that there is hope… Don’t forget to call friends, check on friends, check on family members who are very isolated.” Howard believes strength is defined by keeping your eyes on the goal, no matter what. “Last year, if you haven’t heard, I decided to run my first campaign in the middle of a lockdown… [there] was such a pressure, but to have the trust in the community for me to represent them… I couldn’t have done it alone without the community, without people to be there… That gave me the strength to go forward.”

Major Tahina Montoya is part of the United States Air Force and was the first Latina to graduate from Lowell High School’s Latin Lyceum program in 2004. One of the biggest challenges she had to face during the pandemic was caring for two children in Panama with very few resources available. “Being in the military, you learn grit, you learn how to suck it up, but how do you explain to two young children who didn’t have a decision in moving to another country?” Her ability to persevere came from her children, by whom she is inspired to continue to fight and push forward despite the difficulties she faces in Panama.

Ms. Magaly Rodriguez is the assistant principal of the Greenhalge Elementary School. The pandemic has been very challenging for Rodriguez and many of the things she endured enforced her lifelong credo: “You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can choose to overcome them.” Rodriguez explains how, over the course of her life, she’s had to endure homelessness, growing up in a household that experienced addiction and abuse, and breaking apart from her own abusive relationship while taking care of her 10-year-old daughter. Her motivation is fueled by her fight to become her best self and to be acclaimed on her own merit. “I was the first Puerto Rican lifeguard in the city and I was told that at an interview in 1994… I was so mad and those types of comments are what’s driven me along the way, like, ‘Oh, you’re the first, so I have to give you this lifeguarding job because you’re the first Puerto Rican…’ You choose how you’re going to react. Don’t let people press your emotional buttons.”

The Honorable Judge Joanna Rodriguez sits in the Lowell Juvenile Court. “The positive that I’ve made in my home is that I definitely appreciate my family more… it’s just so nice having dinner with my kids and talking to them every single night, it’s like a beautiful thing.” Judge Rodriguez is motivated by the knowledge that the current situation we are facing is soon to end. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. We’re getting closer— we’re not there yet, so we can’t necessarily keep our guard down— but I know that the end is near and that gives me hope.”

Ms. Kendra Bauer is a member of the Lowell High School faculty. “The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the disparities between where I live and what my children are having access to and where I work and teach… it’s like, we know that and we work against it and we work within the system, but sitting in it every day has been quite painful and hard.” Even with these systemic challenges, Bauer uses these to inspire her to be vocal, to be educated on the welfare of our community, and to allow her to connect with her students on a daily basis. “[The pandemic has] given me a whole other level of platform with technology to share videos, to share current events, to be of the here and now, to make change within our community to stand up and have a voice.”

Ms. Latifa Philips is the Chief Equity and Engagement Officer for Lowell Public Schools. One of her major challenges over the pandemic was taking care of her sister’s children for the summer while her sister got a job at a veterans’ hospital. From the experience, she learned to continue to fight even in situations she can’t control. “Because of my position I was always in-person and so I was juggling taking care of the kids and also trying to do my job… [you] Really learn that you can’t control some things and so you do your best, you be your best person, and you just keep hope that we’re gonna get through this.”

Ms. Linda Chan Flynn is the Program Director at the Lowell Community Health Center. She had to face being furloughed during the pandemic while being a new mother. “I think that for purposes of growth and how we connect with one another, I learned very much, so much more than before, like ‘community is everything.’” As we approach the end of the pandemic, Flynn believes that the challenges we have faced together as a community will make us stronger for the future. “I think [we’ll] be coming out stronger, more challenged, maybe a little bruised for sure but I feel more united than ever in certain regards.”

The central theme of the event was resilience before, during, and after the pandemic. Every speaker on this panel today demonstrated that quality in many situations, many of which others have experienced but also some which have been unique to them. Despite the diverse backgrounds of every panelist, everyone shared a strong desire to push forward, to fight harder, and be more conscious of what’s available to them, and be able to use their resources. The strong wills of the eight women who spoke at the event should be admired by not just other women, but by everybody, especially after having been successful while enduring the pandemic alongside us for over a year.