December 9, 2014
By Amanda LoMonaco

The late Betty Powell.
The late Betty Powell.

NEW YORK, NY – Last summer, Betty Powell, one of the most stalwart proponents of child care workers in the city, succumbed to cancer at age 74. On December 6, District Council 1707 AFSCME held a moving ceremony celebrating their longtime treasurer’s life and legacy. 

For nearly 40 years, Powell championed the cause of public day care workers. While at the helm of Head Start Employees Local 95, Powell fought tirelessly for higher wages and expanded benefits for members. 

“Betty was the pioneer of the unionized childcare industry,” said John English, area director, NYS AFSCME. “Her commitment and passion for health care and pension benefits led to local 95, still to this day, having the highest wages for Head Start workers. She worked hard to make that happen.”

Those privileged to work alongside Powell, remembered her as a dynamic union advocate whose demonstrated leadership abilities helped shape the careers of many others. 

“Betty was known to have all the answers,” said Lorraine Guest, president, DC1707. “Nothing was too hard or too difficult for her – and she always stepped up to the plate. She was an incredible mentor to me. I came here knowing nothing more than I wanted to fight for collective bargaining rights. I decided I wanted to run for office through [Betty’s] guidance. She said, ‘If you lay out your options, then you are going to succeed.’”

Throughout her stellar career, Powell traveled the nation relentlessly as a special delegate and spokesperson for the Head Start program.

“Betty Powell taught me what it meant to be a leader,” said Victoria Mitchell, executive director, DC1707. “She traveled to Washington and met with congressional leaders to get rights for her members, and she was devoted to them. She was simply an impeccable woman, a friend, and a mentor.”

Carolyn Cox, current president of Head Start Employees Local 95, said that she can only hope to continue to build on Powell’s impressive legacy. 

“Betty Powell went to every rally, convention, and conference that there was,” said Cox. “The most important thing she taught me was that you should never tell anyone about the labor movement – unless you believe in it yourself.”

NYS AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento called Powell a true leader who possessed incredible foresight.

“Betty was committed to a cause, but most importantly, she inspired others to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Cilento said. 

Cilento further recalled Powell as someone who always understood that all working people share a common bond. That no matter what gender, race or job sector we may be in, we all want to achieve the American Dream; to work hard to support ourselves, our families, and to have each generation do a little better then the one before. 

“Betty always understood better then anyone else, that if we could stand together and fight together, collectively we could deliver that American Dream,” Cilento said. “She gave childcare workers the opportunity to fulfill that dream.” 

Lester Crockett, executive director, CSEA Region 2, recalled how his own family directly benefitted from Powell’s work.

Betty Powell in her younger days.
Betty Powell in her younger days.

“When I started school, there was no Head Start,” Crockett said. “But I saw how my younger sisters came up behind me when Head Start started. They were much more educated than I was because they had the opportunity to start much earlier. Betty Powell’s  legacy will live on, as well as everything else she accomplished. She was a woman who consistently fought for the program that she believed in.”

Powell’s daughter Cheryl said her late mother was not only an advocate for education at work, but also at home where she considered herself, “CEO of the household.”

“Things were her way – and she loved her way,” Cheryl said.  

Family friend Chaplain Aisha McCord, noted that Powell was also a devout Sufi follower who worked hard to support an extended family in West Africa.

“Besides being a president here, she was a president with us,” Chaplain McCord said. “One thing she instilled in us, was leadership through example. Anything she asked or questioned us about, she was able to do first leading by example.” 


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