Eleanor Roosevelt. Eudora Welty. Julia Child. Barbara Bush. When you hear this list of women strung together, you picture activists, trailblazers, women who believed in civic engagement and women who took on the issues of their times. All of these well-known women and many more like them, including other first ladies, CEOs, board chairs of international companies, professional athletes and famous actresses are, or were, members of the Junior League.
The Junior League of Syracuse (JLS) was established in 1920 and has played a crucial role in the educational, cultural and philanthropic life of the city through its mission of developing the potential of women. In the spirit of the founder Mary Harriman, the JLS has taken on the issues of the times from prenatal care to domestic violence to human trafficking. The focus, as it was for Mary Harriman, is always on training the women of the JLS to be effective leaders and volunteers to better serve the community.
Currently, the JLS has a partnership with Chadwick Residence, a nonprofit that provides homeless women with longer-term housing and helps them achieve their goals of independent living and permanent housing. So far this year the women of the JLS have organized a fall festival, joined the women and children from Chadwick in decorating gingerbread houses, and hosted a financial literacy seminar, in addition to sponsoring three families for the holidays.
JLS continues to work with other nonprofits across Syracuse throughout the year including the YWCA on an annual Valentine’s Day tea and shopping event, It’s All About Families and Children’s annual Inner Harbor Run, the Food Bank of Central New York on packing food, and We Rise Above the Streets Outreach and Recovery’s Sandwich Saturday.
The JLS also hosts and sponsors signature events throughout the year, most notably, the annual STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) event at Danforth Middle School. This event, entering its seventh year, is intended to excite girls about careers in science. Recently, the event has been focused around an annual theme rather than just careers in science — for example in 2016 when NASA astronaut Dr. Jeanette Epps spoke the themes for the stations involved space, meteorology and windmills. This year, capitalizing on the expertise of a JLS member, the event will have a CSI focus with students learning about the collection and processing of evidence for police work.
None of these events would be possible without the fundraiser that perhaps the Junior League is best known for in Syracuse: Holiday Shoppes. This annual event isn’t just a fundraiser, but is also a training opportunity for the members. Every member is involved throughout the weekend but many also spend the months leading up to the event recruiting vendors, working with the NYS Fair on set up, soliciting sponsors and raffle items, creating advertising and decorating the space to make it feel welcoming and festive.
Training is always integral to the events and fundraisers that the JLS participates in but the organization also goes out of its way to make sure that every member has the opportunity to attend focused training throughout the year. The last two years the League has sponsored the Salt City Summit, a weekend-long training that is open to community leaders and nonprofit partners as well. This year’s speaker was Vicki Clark, a nationally recognized presenter on leadership development, board development, and diversity and inclusion.
To demonstrate the League’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, the board recently voted to approve a statement promising the League will be inclusive in membership, the organizations it works with and the communities it serves. This year the League has formed a committee to review current practices and look for areas where diversity and inclusion gains can be made. Fostering this area of growth in the JLS has been a primary focus of President Jessica Murray.
“Diversity and inclusion has been spotlighted by the Junior League as an area of tremendous importance,” she said, “not only at the level of our international association, but also locally, so individual Leagues can better serve their members and communities.”
Murray and other JLS leadership have also been concentrating on preparing the League for its upcoming Centennial. The JLS hopes to make its Centennial year one to remember by executing a signature project in the community. The League has been a part of the establishment of some major cultural landmarks in Syracuse including the Erie Canal Museum and the MOST. For its Centennial the League is focused on a project that will benefit women and children in the community and lend visibility to the League.
President-Elect Audra Mueller said she is concerned not only with having a splashy Centennial year, but also on setting the League up structurally for the next century through a number of changes.
“The lives of the women who belong to the JLS are very different now than those who joined 99 years ago and the League is constantly striving to adapt to these changes,” Mueller said.
The JLS was one of the first Leagues to abandon requirement of an invitation to join or voting on potential members, which created a more inclusive League in Syracuse earlier than other places.
All women interested in developing civic leadership skills are welcome in the League. Four month-long new member classes are held twice yearly so more women have the opportunity to join.
“This program for new members is comprehensive while also being succinct to allow faster on-boarding and participation as an active member,” Membership Development and Recruitment Chair Kate Zwecker said. “It will also eventually be made to be self-paced for those wishing to take longer to complete the program.”
Members join the JLS for a variety of reasons from meeting other like-minded women, to structured volunteerism, to networking, but they all grow through the JLS’s focus on training and leadership, often taking on roles in both the League and the community they never thought possible.