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A fight in her honor

Last December, just before the holidays, my union, United University Professions, lost a great leader, and a great friend. Rowena Blackman-Stroud was a warrior for justice, an inspiration to many, and a mentor to those who were lucky enough to know and learn from such a tireless advocate.

Rowena was UUP’s chapter president at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn for over 30 years. She served as UUP statewide treasurer for 23 of those years, while holding leadership roles at NYSUT, the New York AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers.

For Rowena, no fight was too small or too unimportant to win. She was driven by an unrelenting commitment to justice, to the duty we all have to make the world a better place—while never losing sight of the need to protect the rights of every individual, whether they be the rights of workers, the rights of people of color, the rights of women or the rights of any UUP member who has ever been a victim of unjust treatment.

She, like few I’ve ever known, lived the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

In the early 2010s, Rowena led a three-year fight to keep SUNY Downstate public, saving hundreds of jobs in the process. During the pandemic, she saved the lives of countless members by working with my office and other UUP affiliates to secure personal protective equipment for frontline workers.

But what was always central to Rowena’s work was her commitment to Downstate, our members that work there, and the Central Brooklyn community they serve. We will continue her fight, in her honor.

This is why I am so proud of UUP’s HEALS Legislative Agenda, which places as a priority advocating for SUNY’s public teaching hospitals and the communities they serve.

UUP is calling for the creation of a maternal and child services center at SUNY Downstate that would research and address material morbidity and children’s health care issues.

The Legislature took an important first step last year by directing the state Department of Health to study the need for a women’s and children’s hospital at Downstate. We will push for state support to expand these services.

We will also work to restore critical mission funding to Downstate and SUNY’s teaching hospitals in Stony Brook and Syracuse. The state chipped away at mission funding for 10 years before completely cutting it 2018—a loss of over $1 billion in state support for the hospitals.

Debt service relief for the hospitals in last year’s budget should be made permanent this year in the state’s capital budget plan.

Finally, UUP is urging the state to support and expand SUNY’s Pre-Medical Opportunity Program, which launched in 2021 to address health care staffing shortages and nurture a new generation of health care workers from all backgrounds to serve the diverse population of this state. The program is modeled after SUNY’s highly successful EOP program.

Our public teaching hospitals cannot be ignored. Not only do they train the next generation of health care professionals, they also provide essential services to the often under-resourced and underrepresented communities they serve. SUNY hospitals treat all who walk through their doors, regardless of their ability to pay for care.

The governor’s Executive Budget falls short of the needs of our campuses and public teaching hospitals. As we continue our work to advocate for our communities, we will do so with Rowena’s commitment to justice in mind.

Every time Rowena was faced with a challenge, she worked with passion, with unmatched energy, with love for the struggle, and with a force of will that would not brook defeat.

And that’s what we must do now—for our students, our patients, and our members at our teaching hospitals. We will not accept defeat. We will continue Rowena’s work—and honor her legacy.

Dr. Fred Kowal is President of the 35,000 member United University Professions, which represents faculty on 29 New York State Campuses. UUP is an affiliate of NYSUT, The American Federation of Teachers, The National Education Association and the AFL-CIO.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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