Community Works Explores Women in Poverty at the Schlesinger Library

@ The Radcliffe Institute
November 18, 2013
By Mary Murphy

The number of homeless families in Massachusetts seeking shelter in hotels and motels is at an all-time high, while one in seven in Massachusetts relies on food stamps. Yet the Massachusetts legislature is considering a wallop directed at people in poverty—a welfare reform act aimed at fostering economic independence but which make access to cash assistance even more difficult.

Fran Froehlich, director of Community Works, an umbrella organization of 34 nonprofits that come together with a common vision, opened a panel discussion with these facts on November 12. She went on to describe Community Works and its membership as groups that “imagine what the world would actually look like if it were just, fair, and inclusive.” Together, the social justice organizations that make up Community Works work toward realizing that vision.

Marking seven years of collaboration between the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library and Community Works of Boston, the library hosted a program, “Women Living in Poverty,” with brief presentations from seven activists who lead organizations combating poverty and its cruel effects. The annual event remembers Kip Tiernan, founder of Rosie’s Place, with speakers and a panel discussion around issues affecting women. Kip Tiernan’s papers are among many treasured collections held by the Schlesinger Library that document women’s work for social justice.  

The audience learned and shared experiences about domestic work and domestic worker’s rights; the Massachusetts Welfare Reform Bill; the relationship between domestic and sexual violence and poverty; senior women forced to choose between food and medicine; and the way that gender differences distinguish women’s experience of poverty from men.

Each presentation was peppered with statistics: 85 percent of domestic workers do not earn overtime pay, and 25 percent report experiencing five hours or fewer of sleep per night because of interruptions in their in-home work conditions. A representative from Jane Doe, Inc., reported that one in two women experiences some form of sexual violence in her lifetime, while one in three is a victim of rape—crimes that often discourage women from working, traveling, or otherwise exposing themselves to unsafe conditions but which also leave them vulnerable to isolation and poverty.

Another speaker described how her personal experience growing up in foster care motivated her to become political and seek social justice by dedicating her career to improving the lives of impoverished seniors, especially senior women. Yet another speaker addressed her work in welfare reform and creating opportunities for work: she said that when told welfare recipients should get a job, her response is, “What job?”

A discussion of how to move forward prompted Froehlich to explain that a movement toward social justice requires an infrastructure that unites, coordinates, and supports the work of many groups like those in the room. Community Works provides that infrastructure. Since 1982, Harvard University has offered the opportunity to support this work by including Community Works in its charitable campaign, through which Harvard employees have donated thousands of dollars of support over 30 years. Once again this year, Community Works is part of the campaign for giving either directly or through payroll deduction.

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2013