Confronting Conflict with Community

Mary’s Pence Funds Women’s Empowerment in Central Ohio’s Somali Community
by Javan Williams, Mary’s Pence Volunteer

Women of the Capital Park Empowerment Project attend a sewing class.

Women of the Capital Park Empowerment Project attend a sewing class.

It all started during the summer of 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. The Women of Capital Park apartment community had enough of the violence. But instead of mobilizing out of fear, they came together, empowered. Following an intense summer of violence at the apartment community, a group of Somali women formed the Capital Park Women’s Empowerment Project. Capital Park is home to 380 households, 360 of them are Somali.

The women then partnered with Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association. CMAA was founded in 1980 by a group of Cambodian refugees to meet the needs of Southeast Asians, and all other refugees being settled in Franklin County, Ohio. CMAA provides recent immigrants with English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, employment counseling, and interpretation/translation, among other services. CMAA also helps integrate new immigrants into American culture and workplace etiquette.

Ohio is home to the second largest Somali immigrant population in the United States. Following the collapse of the Somali government, and subsequent civil war, the United States began to admit Somali immigrants into the country in greater numbers. CMAA has a long history of partnering with Somali community organizations. The first initiative for the women of Capital Park was to improve safety, and stem the violence taking root in their community. CMAA was there to help.

According to Beth Stock, Director of CMAA, “There was a huge series of issues.” Stock went on to explain that people were being assaulted on and around the Capital Park apartment community. An old man seriously beaten. A woman accosted. Domestic violence and burglaries became a trend, with no resolution in sight.

Before relocating to the U.S., Somali families sought refuge in neighboring countries. “They have horror stories of being in refugee camps in Kenya, then to come here, where they’re supposed to be safe, and be afflicted with more violence is just terrible,” Stock says.

The trauma of war, refugee camps, relocations, and poverty transformed Capital Park into a dispirited community, troubled by their own misguided youth.

“[The apartment community's] management didn’t believe there was a problem because there was no documentation, no one called the police and no one talked to management,” Stock explained.

The women who founded the Capital Park Women’s Empowerment Project came together and reflected on the situation and their community. At first, they didn’t think they had the skills to deal with Capital Park’s management, or the police.

Despite the challenge, “They started the empowerment project, reached out to Columbus Police, received training in basic self defense, and learned to call the police [without fear of retaliation],” Stock says. “[The Empowerment Project] began documenting issues, and was able to prove that problems existed.”

As a result, CMAA was able to get grants to clear brush between the neighboring community garden and Capital Park buildings, a place where youth would loiter and engage in criminal activity. They were also able to secure better security lighting, and a part-time security officer.

The students practice their newly learned sewing techniques.

The students practice their newly learned sewing techniques.

With the success in executing their first initiative, the Capital Park Women’s Empowerment Project continues working to improve the lives of women in the Capital Park community.

“Most of the women are going to school for the first time,” Stock says, “Those who have jobs have been cleaning day cares and offices.” There is a gap in economic autonomy for these women, as it is very difficult for them to find meaningful work. Recently, CMAA has been blessed with several sewing machines, and a new initiative was created.

“They’re learning how to repair clothes,” Stock explains, “Three grandmothers in the group grew up in the bush. They learned the art of weaving rice sacks.” The women plan to use these skills to create a cooperative business, making distinctly Somali shoulder bags. They have created patterns for bags that can be sold not only in their own community, but others as well, including college students.

“[The women have] a major entrepreneurial spirit,” Stock says. With a fresh impetus to work towards a greater sense of economic autonomy for those involved in the Capital Park Women’s Empowerment Project, Stock applied for a grant from Mary’s Pence. In line with Mary’s Pence values and mission, the funds will be used to purchase more sewing machines, fabric, and supplies; some of the funds will be used to pay a sewing teacher’s stipend, and some will be used to pay an instructor to teach business skills.

Stock explains that several of the women in the group are heads of their households. Some have ill husbands. Others have husbands that have died. “They are forced to take charge,” she says, “These women are strong people, what they have been through is unbelievable.”

“These women are so community minded,” Stock says. “Everything they do, they are a community of women; they’re a group. And I think this project is an outgrowth of that sense of community. Already, they’re taking it to the next level to really work together for something that really matters, and they’re all so excited about it.”

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Empowerment and Economic Autonomy Survey Results!

It’s been an exciting month – we’ve celebrated International Women’s Day and heard from many of you about your thoughts on empowerment and economic autonomy. We have been inspired by your vision of a better world – a world where women, working together in solidarity, flourish in their communities of justice and peace. Thank you for your participation! And we want to share with you the final results of the survey:*

A: Having the confidence and freedom to direct my own life
B: The readiness and willingness to use my own power, for and with others
C: Being an active, respected participant in orgs. and institutions that affect my life
D: The ability to see and challenge injustice and violence
E: Feeling supported to use my gifts and talents as I wish in the world
F: A process of internal, personal growth
G: Fully understanding the broad array of choices available to me
H: An understanding of my rights and responsibilities
I: Having the support of a community to follow my dreams

A: Having adequate income and resources to provide for the basic needs of myself and my family
B: The opportunity to participate in a just and sustainable economic system
C: The freedom to make decisions about how to spend, save, and share my own money
D: Being in a position where my needs are met and I have time and energy for other things that are important to me (family and friends, relaxation, work for the common good)
E: Having the ability and skills to take care of myself in changing or uncertain circumstances
F: Not being co-opted by a culture of consumerism – making decisions based on my values
G: Participating in a community that supports my economic choices and aspirations
H: Having the power and ability to decide what I need for my own well-being                        I: The ability to save for things I want or need

And some of your open ended answers included:

  • The ability to live with a sense of abundance rather than a fear of scarcity
  • Both empowerment and economic autonomy are found in interdependence. We are stronger together!
  • Specific goals for education of women in basic financial knowledge leading to personal growth and direction.
  • My voice counts and is needed
  • A sense of myself as a woman as a citizen of the world connected with my sisters (and brothers) across borders….
  • Freedom to be who you are

Your wisdom and words will be used, together with those of the women in Central America, Mexico, and Haiti, to shape the future of the ESPERA program. Your support ensures that women will be able to invest in their families, futures, and communities for generations to come!

*Survey results indicate the percentage of respondents who selected a response. Participants were asked to choose as many as four responses per question.

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Finding Inspiration from Isabel

Isabel  with CIS staff

Isabel (center) with female leaders of her community and members of the Concertacíon.

by Pat Rogucki, Board Member

Isabel Calderón taught me what it means to live life unafraid and with a deep sense of determination.

During the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s Isabel survived bombs that rained down on her community. She survived being in the crossfire of bullets from warring forces. And she survived the death of “un monton de familia – ” an awful lot of relatives . But Isabel never let her spirit be crushed by violence or injustice, she confronted it.

After the war, Isabel returned to her home in Palo Grande, El Salvador, a community that had been further impoverished by the conflict, to rebuild. As an original member of the Concertacíon de Mujeres de Suchitoto, Isabel worked tirelessly organizing the women in her community to eradicate violence, increase economic justice, and gain recognition of the rights of women. That’s where I met Isabel, over 15 years ago, when I began spending summers in El Salvador working in a local parish. As a Mary’s Pence board member, I was fortunate enough to deepen my relationship with Isabel when she became part of ESPERA.

Thanks to you, and the entire community of our supporters, Mary’s Pence was able to begin partnering with the Concertacíon six years ago through our ESPERA program. Working with Isabel, and other local women leaders, we invested in the community – providing funds for a lending pool and giving support through accompaniment.

For Isabel, however, involvement in ESPERA wasn’t just about an increase in her income. She was a driving force in her community, a visionary who ensured that

a sense of solidarity and empowerment was present among the women. Isabel led capacity building workshops about successful business practices, communications, and self-esteem.

Just as strong as her dream of empowerment for all women, was her dream of an economically just society. She saw how capitalism could serve the rich and further impoverish the poor. She encouraged the women in her community to confront this problem by gaining economic autonomy.

I cannot say thank you enough, for your support of Isabel, and all the women of ESPERA. I wished you could have met Isabel. Her smile always brightened my day. Her hardworking attitude and deep humility left a remarkable impression on me.  She was a spirit-filled woman, who used every moment of her life to improve the lives of the women around her.

Isabel CardIsabel passed away last year after a long battle with cancer. She met death as she lived her life – with strength, determination, and a fearless attitude. And I share her story to offer a memorial to her life and work.

But Isabel isn’t gone. Her influence continues to ripple through her community and the lives of the women she touched. With 129 participants, the Concertacíon is thriving today. The women have used the $25,000 grant from Mary’s Pence incredibly well – they have made $90,256 in loans to numerous women-owned businesses in their community, and collectively they have earned interest of $10,770.
Sadly, the needs Isabel tirelessly sought to fulfill continue as well. The poverty, the inequity, and the injustice she sought to alleviate are still too large, too present in her community – and many like hers across Mexico, Central America, and Haiti.

Over 700 women in 9 groups are involved in ESPERA, but there are many more women who need an increase in their income, who need respect from their spouses, who need to improve their family’s nutrition, and who need to send all their children to school.

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Women of the ESPERA group, Asociación de Mujeres Sembradoras de Esperanza, in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, stand proudly by the oven they use to make baked bread they sell in their community.

March 8 is International Women’s Day and the official theme this year is “Inspiring Change.”  This is what Isabel did every day of her life. And inspiring change is what the women of ESPERA continue to do for themselves, their families, and for each other. They set an example to the world of how empowered, economically autonomous women can confront injustice and poverty.

Thank you for your support as we continue working for Isabel’s dream of a world of economic justice and gender equity.

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Share Your Wisdom and Shape the Future of ESPERA!

ESPERA women speak about Economic Autonomy Six years ago, with the support of our donors, we launched a unique and successful community lending program. As you know, since then we’ve grown to 9 women’s groups in 6 countries, with over 700 women participating.

We’re excited about the future of ESPERA and we want you, our Mary’s Pence supporters to participate in our next steps! 

When we gathered with ESPERA participants and coordinators in Guatemala last year we had a fruitful discussion around the concepts of empowerment and economic autonomy. These are words that are used often in our work, and we wanted to know what they really mean to our ESPERA women.

With that input we began building a definition of empowerment and economic autonomy to guide the work of the ESPERA networks into the future, and tell the story of our important efforts.

Click here to listen to what we’ve heard so far from the ESPERA women and Mary’s Pence supporters about empowerment and economic autonomy!

Now it’s your turn! Share your wisdom with us by answering one, or all, of these questions:

  • To me, empowerment means…
  • To me, economic autonomy means…
  • My personal sense of empowerment and/or economic autonomy is limited when…
  • I feel empowered and/or economically autonomous when…

You can send yourESPERA women speak about Empowerment answers by posting a comment below, e-mailing us, or calling 651-788-9869.

Your input will help us build cross-border, cross-cultural, and cross-generational definitions of these concepts that will shape the future of ESPERA! Thank you for sharing, and thank you for standing in solidarity with women across the Americas!

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“The Sun” Magazine Features Former Mary’s Pence Board Member, Sr. Louise Akers and Her Views on Female Empowerment

Sr. Louise Akers, Mary’s Pence Board Member 1997-1999 and champion of gender equality!                                     (Photo courtesy of catholicsofconscience.com)

A recent article in the November 2013 edition of The Sun, spotlights Sr. Louise Akers, of the Sisters of Charity and a former board member of Mary’s Pence (1997-1999). Sr. Louise has most recently made headlines for being “silenced” by Cincinnati archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk in 2009. In a course for religious educators Sr. Louise presented both sides of the debate over women’s ordination. After a student relayed this information to the Archbishop, he asked Sr. Louise to make a public statement agreeing with the Church’s teaching against women’s ordination. Refusing to act against her conscious, Sr. Louise said no, and the Archbishop proceeded to bar Sr. Louise from teaching “in any Church structure directly related to the archdiocese.”

In “Sisterhood: Sister Louise Akers Challenges the Church Patriarchy,” The Sun writer Barbara Lyghtel Rohrer details Sr. Louise’s confrontation with the Archbishop, as well as her other disagreements with certain institutional church teachings. Sr. Louise laments that many of the church teachings still emanate from theologians who often had mysogyny-laden views of the world. However, Sr. Louise also sees a place for the Catholic Church – both the Church of the hierarchy and the Church of the people – to play a role in the liberation of women. For example, Sr. Louise cites the “preferential option for the poor” found in Catholic Social Teaching as an important foundation for alleviating poverty. And addressing poverty is intricately linked with improving the situation of women, as well. As Sr. Louise states, “Two-thirds of the poor people in the world today are female, so liberating women begins with economic justice….[E]mpowering women lifts them and their families out of poverty.”

Not only does the teachings of the Catholic Church offer guidance for improving the lives of women, to Sr. Louise, feminist movements and theories also offer important “critiques of our way of living. They name the root cause of women’s pain as patriarchy.” Quoting Rosemary Radford Ruether, a founding board member of Mary’s Pence, Sr. Louise explains how patriarchy is a system “that has created wars, vast injustices and ecological disasters, and the Catholic Church is one of the strongest remaining bastions of it.”

Mary’s Pence is proud to have had Sr. Louise on our board. Today, we continue her legacy of working for gender equality and economic justice through our ESPERA program. ESPERA addresses issues of poverty and patriarchy by working with women’s groups in Central America, Mexico, and Haiti who manage community lending pools. Through needed funds the women are able to improve their economic situation, and through the strengthening of community, leadership development, and business entrepreneurship the women grow in their own empowerment. To learn more about ESPERA, click here.

For the full text of The Sun’s article about Sr. Louise Akers, click here. We highly recommend this read, both informative and inspiring. Thank you Sr. Louise for the change you make in our world!

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The Future Begins with Writing Your Name

by Kelsey Tape, Mary’s Pence Volunteer

How often do you write your name in one day? For some people, writing their name is an act that’s easily taken for granted. For other people, it’s an act they aspire to complete-it means a better and brighter future for individuals, but also a stronger future for countries.

Haitian Connection, a non-profit organization dedicated to a compassionate response to the poverty many Haitians encounter, and a partner of the Mary’s Pence ESPERA program, is strengthening literacy education of a small Haitian community.

In March 2013, Renate Schneider, Maryknoll associate and founder and coordinator of Haitian Connection, joined Mary’s Pence board and staff members, as well as representatives from other ESPERA groups, at our Encuentro meeting in Guatemala. At the meeting, Renate brought before the group the struggles and hopes of responding to poverty in Haiti. Through conversations and deliberations these women concluded that literacy education was a necessary response.

Almost 40 percent of the Haitian people are unable to read and write. The Haitian illiteracy rate is nearly four-times that of other Latin American countries. The ESPERA group in Haiti is located in the community of L’artiboliere near Jeremie in Southwest Haiti. With the support of Mary’s Pence, Haitian Connection has started a literacy program in this community. There are 33 students enrolled in the six-month program. Initially, the program only included 20 students, but it has far overshadowed that number due to high demand for the program. Renate Schneider said, “It is amazing to see the enthusiasm with which students come to class.”

Haitian Connection, through these literacy classes, ESPERA community lending pools, and additional programs, such as building houses, seeks to support women’s empowerment and economic autonomy. For Haitian Connection this work is an investment in the future of the people of L’artiboliere.

Four years have passed since the earthquake left Haiti in ruins and wiped out the country’s higher education system. Haitian Connection, with the support of Mary’s Pence, has brought joy, pride and a hopeful future to the people of this community. It’s evident the pride these people hold once they can write their own name. It’s a small act that will lead to a brighter and better future for these women, as well as the community of L’artiboliere.

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Canadian Voice of Women for Peace Set Record: Youngest Canadians to Ever Attend UN Commission on Status of Women

by Diane Anastos, Mary’s Pence Volunteer

Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, a 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 Mary’s Pence grantee helped break a record this past year when they supported Maddy Murphy and Lara Von Maydell to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) Conference, held in New York in March, 2013. At 15 years of age Maddy and Lara are the youngest  Canadians to ever attend the Commission’s conference. The theme was “Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women and Children.”

The Ontario young women were first inspired by the concepts of peace and leadership by attending a peacemaking camp hosted by Canadian Voice of Women (VOW). And attending the Camp enabled their selection as delegates to the meeting in New York. Additionally, these two campers held a successful awareness event that helped them raise funds for their trip to the UNCSW, a cost that was partly funded by Mary’s Pence. Lara and Maddy were joined by 17 other VOW delegates.

To these two young women, however, peace is not an abstract concept – they felt propelled to attend the conference because they see the pressing need for peace in their daily lives. In a press interview before the conference, Maddy and Lara describe how they see disrespect for women and violence taking place, citing frustration with boys at their school and the poor way they treat girls. Maddy states, “Violence shouldn’t be in our culture. [O]ne in every three women…is beaten or abused. We could ignore it, but nothing is going to change.” Lara adds, “It could be us one day.”

The Canadian Voice of Women is an organization that is a “means for women to exercise responsibility for the promotion of world peace and justice…” Founded in 1960 as a response to the threat of nuclear war and the endangerment of children’s lives, VOW is comprised of a network of diverse women who work for peaceful resolution to international conflict, through peace camps and its consultative status at the United Nations. With its consultative status, VOW delegates, like Lara and Maddy, are given the opportunity to petition national governments and diplomats, attend UN Conferences highlighting the status of women, and prepare and present statements to heads of state about women and peace issues.

Not only does their work impact UN bodies and participants, but it impacts the women involved themselves, an effect that reaches out into their communities as well. As Lara states, I “want to take the presentations they make at the conference back and use it in Canada.” Through the work of Lara and Maddy, as well as the other delegates, VOW continues to promote world peace and justice in the world, as well as our own communities.

*Blogger’s Correction: An earlier version of this article had Maddy Murphy’s name incorrect (as Mary Maddy). Also, much of the information from this post was taken from this interview by Bill Metcalfe, which speaks about the young women being the youngest delegates. However, another young woman, Kasha Slavner, 14 years old at the time, was also in the delegation. She received funding from Mary’s Pence as well, and blogged about her experience while at the United Nations. You can read more about her experience here.

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Marking time…. Mary’s Pence 2014 Calendar of Women

This post is by Anna Alkin who served as Mary’s Pence Executive Director from 1997-1999. Now Anna lives on LunaSol Farm, located on 14 acres just 15 minutes Southwest of downtown, Eugene, where she and her family are creating a “handmade” life: growing a garden, starting fruit orchards, keeping bees and chickens, restoring habitat, playing in nature with children, writing, performing music, and building websites.  You learn more about Anna and LunaSol Farm at http://lunasolfarm.com/ (check out Chicken TV!)

“How we spend out days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” –Annie Dillard

As the hours of sunlight dwindle and the year 2013 draws to an end, I find that I must complete the chores on our small farm before 4:30pm, when a darkened landscape obscures my path home. There are metal fence posts here and there, holes our dog Sirius has dug in search of moles lurking in unknown locations, and slippery surfaces to navigate on these damp Oregon evenings between the field where the chickens roost and the cheery warmth of home.

Participating in the liturgy of nature by scooping chicken feed in the rain, in the heat of summer, in the dark cold of winter evenings, helps me to mark the passage of time in a way that I find to be strangely fulfilling, even holy.  I need to be immersed in rituals, steeped in habitual life-giving patterns of thought and action, so that Sacred Presence can walk through the gray cell walls of my busy, distracted mind, and surprise me with gifts of a deeply-felt sense of connection and wholeness.

Mary's Pence 2014 Calendar of Women

Some methods of keeping time work better than others for helping us to experience each day as a priceless gift, a thread with which we can continue weaving the unique creation of a lifetime. The Mary’s Pence Calendar of Women, not wholly unlike feeding a flock of chickens, provides us with a simple, yet profound way of remembering the holiness of this particular day in the turning wheel of the year.

By connecting the slender thread of our own lives to the lives of the women celebrated in this calendar, we can grow in awareness of our ongoing, connected efforts to weave a beautiful new story for our troubled world—a herstory.  The Calendar of Women is a daily remembrance and celebration of the compassionate herstory that has often silently, but powerfully, run counter to the dominant history of poverty, violence, and injustice.
Theresa Maxis Duchemin. Rana Husseini. Fannie Lou Hamer. Annie Sullivan. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. These women’s names and stories grace the days of the months to come. And with each new month, another inspiring Mary’s Pence grantee is featured.  As you walk through the year with the women of this calendar, think also of the other people reflecting on this same calendar with you, some perhaps known, most unknown. The threads and patterns of the herstory we are weaving together through Mary’s Pence will slowly become visible as we walk the spiral path through the year, 2014.
And as the circles of light and love expand, remember also those who make the world a more loving, fragrant, life-filled place, those whose names are certainly unknown to history, those whose importance in helping to craft a new world is often unknown even to themselves.

Recall also generations past who labored that we might stand on firm ground and draw breath today, and the generations yet to come, who are relying on us to weave a herstory with the stuff of our lives so that they might have fertile ground to stand upon and clean air to breathe. Remember all of these, both named and unnamed in this Calendar of Women for 2014. And as you make your way home this year, through dark and cold, may your path be lighted and your heart warmed by this cloud of witnesses who labor to weave a world of beauty with you, for you, and because of you.

Contact us at the office at 651-788-9869 or inbox@maryspence.org to receive your free Mary’s Pence Calendar of Women for 2014.

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Planning for Our Collaborative Future – My Notes from the Encuentro: Part 3

This is Part 3 of my posts about my experience at the Mary’s Pence ESPERA Gathering (“Encuentro”) earlier this year. Click here to read Part 1. Click here to read Part 2.

Vilma, an ESPERA coordinator from El Salvador, shares the Coodinators Group's vision of the "Ideal ESPERA Fund"

The third and final day of the Encuentro was extremely constructive. We focused on planning for the future of the ESPERA Program and setting next steps for our collaborative work towards our goals.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, throughout the Encuentro, we were often split into three groups to work as groups on specific topics. The three groups were: 1) the coordinators of the ESPERA Funds; 2) the women who received loans from the funds for their income-generating initiatives (we called them “the initiatives women”); and 3) Mary’s Pence staff and board representatives. On the third day of the Encuentro we again broke into these groups, first to discuss and describe our groups’ idea of an “Ideal ESPERA Fund” and then to discuss and present our “Commitments,” as a group, to each other and all the women of ESPERA.

As you can imagine, after the two and a half days of powerful group-work, trust-building and one-on-one relationship-building, this was an extremely fruitful final day. The descriptions and discussions that stemmed from the “Ideal ESPERA Fund” discussion are guiding our efforts today as we work to build consistent processes and tools across groups. Likewise, the commitments we each made as a group to each other are carrying us forward in our work in our home communities.

Among other things, each of us who participated agreed to bring our learning and our commitments back to our respective communities to share and discuss. The coordinators of each ESPERA group and the “initiatives women” representing each group are currently sharing and getting feedback from the other women of the ESPERA groups in their countries. Similarly, the staff and board of Mary’s Pence have been using all this information to create a framework for the collaborative development of the program (one of our commitments as the “Mary’s Pence group”).

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