UNION, NJ — With the issue of women’s rights recently at the forefront of national politics, a few Union residents have taken on the issue with an initiative that has slowly taken on a life of its own.
Robert Perara, co-owner of Van Gogh’s Ear Cafe in Union, along with community leader and local activist, Jason Krychiw, recently joined forces to set up a special screening of the movie, “Hidden Figures,” to show young girls throughout the township that they are capable of achieving just about anything.
According to both Perara and Krychiw, the event was meant as a way for girls to see a film that shows women — specifically women of color — in prominent roles that led to some of the most important scientific accomplishments in our country’s history.
Krychiw, who has experience in research science, said that he saw this as an important teaching moment to encourage girls in town.
“With my background in STEM, I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it can be for women to break into that field, have role models of their own and make their own way in the sciences,” Krychiw told LocalSource. “Today, more than ever, it is essential to show young girls that they can achieve anything they set their mind to and that they have stories like these to look to for guidance.”
Together, Perara and Krychiw helped organize the project by coordinating with Union’s local theater and sought out donations from residents around town. More than $1,000 was raised in just five days.
Perara told LocalSource that he was inspired to create the event after he read about a similar initiative.
“I read an article on Huffington Post about a science teacher that was raising money to send her students to see the movie and I thought, “that’s a good idea, we could totally do that here,” Perara said in an email.
The first showing of the film took place on Jan. 21, the same day as the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., but high demand necessitated multiple screenings.
“Early on, Robert and I decided that even if donations fell short, we would front the money so that anyone who wanted to see the movie could,” Krychiw said.
“Thanks to the generous people in town, that wasn’t an issue. By this weekend, we will have had our second sold-out screening in as many weekends and it was fully paid for with the money that was raised.”
According to Perara, 40 girls attended the first screening of the film, including members of the local Girl Scouts, as well school groups. The second screening boasted a similar turnout.
Feedback from the project was so positive that the two are looking to set up a panel discussion to reinforce the message of the film. Possible speakers include women from different STEM fields and civic leaders from around Union.
Austin Thekkumthala, who also helped plan the event, said the film screening was coordinated with the Women’s March in mind.
“This event was created so that the movie could serve as a reference for young girls, and show them that they, too, can accomplish similar, if not greater feats,” Thekkumthala told LocalSource in an email. “Unfortunately, we still live in an age where various stereotypes and barriers exist for females interested in the various STEM fields. This is especially true for females coming from disenfranchised racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
The goal of this event, said Thekkumthala, was to empower young girls and show them that not only are these stereotypes unfounded, but that these barriers can be surmounted.
“This lesson is especially critical in a town as racially and culturally diverse as Union,” he said.
Perara said when it comes to barriers for women in specific fields, he sees parallels between STEM fields and the business world.
“There are definitely parallels, although it’s crazy that there are still ‘fields that are hard to break into,’” Perara said. “I’m the only male in a leadership position in my business. My sister, Sarah, who is the other owner of Van Gogh’s Ear, is amazingly good at her job, but I see gender bias crop up all the time. She’s owned that place for seven years, and sometimes salesmen will still not believe her when she says she’s the owner. Let’s just say that last week, I held the flashlight while she fixed the washer machine at the cafe. I’ve spent my life around strong, competent women and nobody should ever tell anyone that they can’t be whatever they want to be.”
Krychiw said that speaking with people after the event brought with it another call to action.
“We talked with a lot of people after they saw the movie,” Krychiw said. “Whether they were from the Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Club, school science clubs or other youth groups around town, we all agreed the message to be taken away from this should not and would not end once the film was over.”
Plans are currently in the works to incorporate a panel discussion to discuss the topics and issues brought up by the film. Any leftover funds from both events will be used to fund that panel discussion, with 100 percent of all funds going back into the project.