BOSTON — Hundreds of women across Massachusetts work in the shadows, improving the lives of their local communities without much fanfare or recognition.
This year, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed.
State legislators nominated 125 women to join the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women’s 20th Annual Commonwealth Heroines Class of 2023, a collection of change-makers, leaders and activists who are finally getting their flowers — literally. In the theme of unity, the honorees received purple flowers and congratulations during a ceremony at the State House’s Hall of Flags Friday morning.
Unity holds a significant, personal meaning for Lowell’s Lura Smith, a proponent nonprofit figure and organizer who joined the Heroines this year. Having lived through segregation, Smith acknowledged the power of women coming together from across regions and backgrounds “for a common good.”
A strong education advocate, Smith formed the Middlesex Community College Lura Smith Fund, which has gifted students more than $50,000 since 1999. She’s lived in Lowell for more than 50 years and said she was excited to be “recognized with Lowell, Massachusetts” beside her name.
“It’s always wonderful to be recognized not as an individual, but for the body of the work, and for that I’m indeed honored, and I’m flattered by it all,” Smith, who was nominated by state Rep. Vanna Howard, said. “But I also know that there’s so many other heroes, not just those who’ve gone before me, but who walk among me, and I just encourage us to someday acknowledge them as well.”
Simply walking into the hall filled Lowell School Committee member Stacey Thompson with “the general feeling of pride.” Thompson, who also serves as the director of workforce and learning development at Lowell Community Health Center, became the first Black elected official in Lowell, which she said could not have been possible without Smith laying down her legacy in the city.
For that reason, Thompson said she was honored to stand alongside Smith and represent the same cohort of accomplished Massachusetts women. Together, they are “uplifting sisterhood,” she said.
“I think that when we do the work we do, we do it because we felt the passion to do it, not for the recognition,” Thompson said, “but it is nice to stop and tell people that what they do matters.”
Thompson’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and overall engagement within Lowell motivated state Rep. Rodney Elliott to nominate her for the recognition, calling her “an unsung hero.”
“I think she is a shining example of people that are working behind the scenes,” Elliott said of Thompson.
MCSW Chairwoman Sarah Glenn-Smith, alongside other commissioners, read each of the 125 names aloud before breaking for a group photo and lunch. Glenn-Smith applauded the “incredible women who are here today” and now compose a distinguished group.
“The Commonwealth Heroines are women who don’t make the news, but make all the difference in their communities,” Glenn-Smith stated in a press release. “Thousands of women in every community across the Commonwealth perform unheralded acts on a daily basis that make our homes, neighborhoods, cities, and towns better places to live. Commonwealth Heroines use their time, talent, spirit, and enthusiasm to enrich the lives of others in their community. They are mentors, volunteers, and innovators – they are the glue that keeps a community together.”
For Westford’s Emily Teller, the honor came as a bit of a shock. She’s not often speechless, she said, but the email informing her of her nomination left her without many words.
“I’m just amazed and thankful,” Teller said. “And [state Rep.] Jim Arciero is just a hero of mine.”
Teller has served on the Friends of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail for nearly 20 years, where she recently succeeded in expanding the path to Sudbury in July. With Westford Climate Action — which she calls the “ninja group” in town — Teller advocates for Westford’s adoption of clean energy and sustainability practices. She also fought hard against the proposed Walmart several years ago.
Maribel Cruz, the director of housing and development for the city of Fitchburg, received her nomination from state Sen. John Cronin for her devotion to underserved communities in the city. Cruz supports young minority businesses, planning out their future and helping them visualize their hopes and dreams.
Her work is incredibly satisfying, Cruz said, but it’s something that flies under people’s radar. Because of that, to be named a Commonwealth Heroine came as a surprise.
“Honestly, I got down on my knees and was praying,” Cruz said. “It was one of those things where you don’t expect to get noticed for just doing what you love, and so it was exciting.”
Other local women represented in the Heroines Class of 2023 include Maritza Cedeno of Leominster, Gay Corey of Dracut, Mary Cringan of Fitchburg, Sandra Giroux of North Billerica, Stella Ko of Acton, Stephanie Marchetti of Ashburnham, and Carolyn Perkins of Groton.
While the name recognition is appreciated, it all comes back to the work itself and the reward of seeing one’s own impact on the people they serve.
“It’s amazing,” Cruz said of her job. “My cup overflows.”