Minnesota Muslim Women Are Showing Up, Taking Charge

“What is holding you back from leadership?”

Women ask each other this question a lot. The answers are many and varied. There’s institutional politics, prejudice against capable women, distrust and micro-aggressions towards women who have the ambition to lead. But there’s also the answer that testifies to women’s capacity to be compassionate and effective leaders, fully aware of these obstacles – “Nothing is holding me back. I am ready to be engaged and to engage others, no matter what. Show me how.”

Two women leaders and recent Mary’s Pence Grants recipients, know the “how” and are working to inspire women to be there for one another as they become leaders in their communities. Fartun Weli is the founder and executive director of Isuroon, an organization that champions health promotion and civic engagement for the Somali women and their communities in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Nausheena Hussain is the leader of Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE), a leadership resource that creates a safe space for Minnesotan Muslim women. As stand-alone organizers and as part of a network of Muslim women, they cultivate women’s equity from the bottom up.

Isuroon: An Emergency Room for the Community

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Muna Mohamed, Fartun Weli and Waris Mohamed of Isuroon

Fartun works with the Somali community on the ground, listening to the needs of those who come to Isuroon. “We are like an ER, a walk-in for the community,” she says. The organization juggles four primary facets of work – research, culturally competent health promotion, system literacy and civic engagement, and advocacy. Twice a month, Isuroon runs a food shelf for up to 300 visitors, with donations from Second Harvest Heartland, University of Minnesota and Seward Co-op. The food shelf offers nourishment to underserved Somalians and gives them a space to connect. From her conversations with Somali women at Isuroon public events, Fartun observes: “Cultural loneliness is often part of the Somali Minnesotan experience. People feel isolated, challenged by communication barriers, faced with negative stereotypes against Muslims that appear in the media. Somali women feel a particular loneliness within this loneliness.” According to Fartun, Somali women want to express themselves within the Islamic tradition and follow the Somali cultural norms on reproductive practices or wearing a hijab, yet they often feel judged by non-Muslims. In addition, Somali history and internal conflicts have created political divisions within the community.

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Mustafa Jumale, an Isuroon activist, explains polling place directions to a Somali voter

To find a way forward, Fartun uses the power of listening. The Isuroon office has an open door policy – anyone can come in and join the conversation. “Our community is resilient,” Fartun says. The Mary’s Pence Grant is helping Isuroon focus on sustainable engagement of Somali women in local and national political processes. Isuroon held caucus trainings and helped teenagers understand the voting process so that they are able to fully participate when they turn 18. Isuroon is a space where women gather and share their stories, ultimately recognizing that they are not alone. Fartun hopes to make participation in politics part of the everyday Somali Minnesotan culture. She believes that it’s important to encourage women to articulate their needs and communicate them through advocacy. More importantly, she shows them how to use their skills and talent to shape their communities.

RISE: Women Bring Other Women Along

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RISE event at Daybreak bookstore in Minneapolis (from revivingsisterhood.org)

When Nausheena was starting out her efforts with RISE five years ago, she noticed that the Twin Cities were already brimming with over 60 active Muslim organizations. But of those 60, only a handful had women on the leadership board, and even fewer were led by women. Nausheena realized the need to shift this statistic by organizing female leaders for sustainable change. She believes that women’s movements can and should take charge.

“Leadership means helping women understand the skills they need to engage with the community,” Nausheena says. To accomplish this vision, RISE holds workshops on networking, financial literacy, on how to tell your story and participate in politics. Their social media series on “Muslim she-roes” of Minnesota is a RISE project that highlights Muslim women — “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

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Nausheena Hussain (from engagemn.com)

“It’s important for Muslim women to talk to women leaders who look like them, who share their Muslim identity or a common cultural identity,” says Nausheena. She invites speakers, role models who tell their stories at RISE public events. The speakers are diverse – they are corporate and nonprofit leaders, social entrepreneurs, women who are balancing home life, work life, and religious life. RISE challenges the negative narratives about Muslims by letting Muslim women own the narrative, bringing active Muslim women to the forefront.

“The negative narratives harm Muslim women, but they also chip away at gender equity for all women,” Nausheena says. Women do show up. They have been and are engaged, and people need to see them. “Have you heard that the Royal Brunei airlines have an all-women pilot crew? Do you know of Benazir Bhutto? Or Fadumo Dayib, the woman presidential candidate in Somali?” Nausheena asks. They – and many other she-roes – are creating a ripple effect, a revolution, working to combat and overcome discrimination.

Rising to the Occasion

Fartun and Nausheena spoke about the ways Isuroon and RISE encouraged women voters’ participation in the latest election. Many women underwent training and served as election judges on November 8th. Even more women participated in caucus trainings, where they gained a better understanding of all the different political positions and learned how to write resolutions. Both organizations want women to understand the policies that are affecting them, so that they can be an active voice for the needs of their communities.

There is a perception that Muslim women aren’t competent or active enough, or politically active at all. Often it extends to non-Muslim sisters as well, and that’s not true. “Women are already powerful. They are ready to do important things within their communities, they just need somebody to push them into believing it’s possible. I’m here as a connector for them, and I’m also figuring it out with them,” says Nausheena.

2017 will be different for both RISE and Isuroon. The organizations are growing, expanding, creating interfaith and intercultural partnerships — Mary’s Pence is proud to be one of them. Truly, RISE and Isuroon are about growing a network where women create opportunities for other women, care for themselves, and build sisterhood.

Postscriptum

We asked Nausheena and Fartun to share their thoughts in light of the November 8 election and subsequent turmoil. They both call for dialogue and for community involvement in the lives of Minnesotan Muslim women.

Fartun expressed a sense of betrayal. “There’s a harsh psychological impact upon those who viewed Minnesota and the United States as an inclusive place,” she says, in the wake of the news about racist incidents happening post-election. Fartun is also cautious about groups that step in with allegedly ‘better’ models of social action and overlook the existing power of communities to self-organize – “I don’t think a Republican government is the biggest challenge now – it’s the people who are empty shells, those who make fake promises and still claim to be allies.”

As communities experience disillusionment that spans across political and social divisions, Fartun offers Isuroon as a space for solidarity and action. Isuroon co-organized Sambusa Sunday last weekend – anyone in the Twin Cities was welcome to join the Somali community at Loring park to have sambusas (traditional Somali baked goods), and have conversations warmed with a cup of tea. Isuroon will continue to promote the message of inclusion and serve as a veritable ER, a crisis line of support.

Nausheena talked about reports of abuse as well – people from the Muslim community were contacting her, telling her about bullying incidences in school and harassment on the streets. RISE has immediately mobilized the community. “We asked everybody who came in touch with us – ‘what are you feeling?’ It’s important to not dismiss feelings, to let people know they are not alone, and that others are feeling similarly,” says Nausheena. RISE has rebounded from the initial shock and has already organized quick trainings and conference calls to help people in the community understand their agency to resist hate.

“Do you know who your district or area representative is? Let them know who you are, that you exist. There’s a gap between politics and people that needs to be bridged. People need to show up. If we vote and then go back to our daily lives and do nothing, change will not happen. It’s up to us to engage with our elected officials and galvanize our community,” says Nausheena. She gives a message of hope, recognizing that cycles of change and rebound have happened throughout history. “God is still in control – there is good in the world, and we need to see it and look for it. No longer are we going to be silent. Now is the time to take action.”

We stand in solidarity with Fartun and Nausheena, and all communities that are experiencing fear in this time of uncertainty.

– Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker

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“The desert is hot, but we are the rain”

Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker, shares her reflections on SOA Watch Convergence-2016

Last month, Mary’s Pence connected with supporters at the annual SOA Watch Vigil and Convergence. In the years past, this event was held at Fort Benning, a combat training facility that is part of the School of the Americas. This time, the SOA Watch Convergence moved to the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. I joined Katherine and Grace, other Mary’s Pence staff, and Sr. Pat Rogucki, a former Mary’s Pence board member, for this first-time SOA Watch event at the border. From October 7-10, we adventured together and contributed the voice of Mary’s Pence to the Convergence. In the shadow of the border (quite literally), the gathering brought up many questions about the plight of refugees and migrants escaping severe hardship in their home countries.

Local Organizations Work for Migrant Justice

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Los Desconocidos

Upon our arrival, we attended an exhibit by the Migrant Quilt Project, a group of activists who narrate the stories of migrants through quilting. The quilts we saw were made out of clothes abandoned in the Sonoran desert, embroidered names, and scraps of fabric. Many names were replaced with Desconocido or Desconocida, meaning Unknown, unidentifiable, as the desert swallows a human body whole in two weeks’ time. The quilting project patches together these untold stories.

From the exhibit we proceeded to Casa Alitas, a shelter for migrants in Tucson. img_9226Casa Alitas primarily hosts mothers and children passing through Tucson to reunite with family members elsewhere in the United States. Many of those staying at the house are facing immigration hearings. Casa Alitas is a temporary safe space for asylum seekers, capable to host only up to 10 people at a time – all five rooms of the house are almost always filled. We were inspired by the kind staff and volunteers of Casa Alitas, a small group doing impressive work, not unlike the organizations Mary’s Pence partners with through the Mary’s Pence Grants program. Our short visit there affirmed the need for social justice efforts on the local scale.

SOA: Walls, Words, and Actions

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On the way to Eloy

SOA Watch events commenced in the evening with a concert and a vigil at Eloy, a detention center for ‘illegal migrants’. A man came on stage and told his story of battling cancer as a prisoner at Eloy, without proper medications or healthcare. Actors put on prisoners’ garb and handcuffs, re-enacting arrests by the Border Patrol. Joining the voices of spoken word artists and poets, supporters sung songs of hope and prayed for those who have suffered from violence.

The next day, various activists ran ongoing workshops about a range of issues centered around the border and affecting communities across the Americas. The speakers discussed international policies that negatively affect El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and other Central American countries. Mary’s Pence also had a booth – we were able to connect with many of our supporters and friends who were at the vigil.

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Our table for Mary’s Pence at the SOA Watch venue

Some of the conference talks could have been taken out of the daily conversations at the Mary’s Pence office. For example, one workshop discussed the role of women farmers in indigenous communities, bringing to my mind the women who participate in the ESPERA community lending program. These women farmers generate locally grown produce that doesn’t harm the environment. On the other hand, agricultural corporations cut the farmers’ sources of income and contaminate the soil with chemicals. Thus, helping the women find confidence in their business models is essential both to their own prosperity and for the good of the land.

“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us”

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Performers and speakers used a split stage, set on both sides of the border wall

As one of the last acts of the Convergence, we sang ‘Presente!’ to the long list of names of those who fell to cruelty at the border. The iron border wall split the stage between Mexico and the U.S., but the people who gathered on either side cheered and mourned in unison. Everybody kept chanting the lines of a song, “the world we want is right here”…”the desert is hot, but we are the rain”.

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St. Joseph Workers from Los Angeles, CA attended the convergence too!

Some attendees could walk freely across the checkpoint to join at one side of the stage or another. For some, such a journey would be one-way only, or impossible altogether. But the energy of the crowd showed that the wall was only an imaginary, arbitrary division. The Puppetistas closed the Convergence, staging a scene of hope – a blooming desert overcoming human greed, migrant butterflies settling after their journey.

Reflecting on Hope amid the Desert

One moment stayed with me in a most potent way – the nighttime Vigil at Eloy. I put my camera and my phone away to experience it fully, without anything that would create protective distance. Distance was already there, in the form of a barbed-wire fence and thick walls of Eloy. We stood at the bottom of a dried-out sea, tiny shells crackled under our footsteps and dry dust rose with the slightest movement of air. We lit candles for all those who perished or suffered from the cruelty of border patrol or ICE. It took me a couple of attempts to light my candle in the wind. Then I stood motionless, trying to protect the flame. Hot wax burned my fingers. The candle melted down to a tiny stub. We moved as close to the walls of Eloy as we could, separated by a fence and a yard, screaming out chants in solidarity with those within the walls. I saw silhouettes of those imprisoned – they were signaling to us, drawing their window curtains up and down, letting us know that they heard us. The prison turned into a lighthouse in this extinguished sea. I felt the need for action then, and a conviction that the world of militarized borders and thick walls is in need of organizations like Mary’s Pence, a little lighthouse in its own right.

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Mary’s Pence traveling to the SOA Watch Convergence – Sr. Pat, Grace, Svitlana, and Katherine

 

Past and Present Mary’s Pence Grantees Working With Migrant/Immigrant Women and Their Families:

Wishwas – New York, NY (2016)

Centro de Recusos Educativos para Adultos (CREA) – NY, NY (fall 2016)

Milwaukee New Sanctuary Movement – Milwaukee, WI (2016)

Welcoming the Stranger – Warminster, PA (2016)

We Are One Family/ Somos La Misma Familia – Cochise County, AZ USA/Sonora Mexico (2015)

Austin Tan Cerca de la Frontera – Austin So Close to the Border – Austin, TX (2015)

Asylee Women Enterprises – Baltimore (2014)

CMAA Refugee Services– Columbus, OH (2014)

 

For More Information and to Get Involved, Go To:

http://www.soaw.org/

https://www.facebook.com/Schooloftheamericaswatch/?fref=ts

Endorse the Convergence

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Meet Mary’s Pence – Kathleen

Autumn is my favorite time of the year. I enjoy watching the trees turn into multi-colored works of art. Each day brings a new palette of colors to my garden. Autumn also represents a cycle of change and loss to me. My mother and my husband Mike passed away in this season, several years apart, and every fall I face the grief of no longer having them with me. But this time, I decided to approach the season with hope and renewal. I sold the home I had lived in for 32 years, retired from my long-time job at Catholic Charities and moved from Saint Cloud to the Twin Cities.

img_9553For the last couple of years, I have been longing to find my center of gravity again. Without daily commitments to my job and my family, I felt like something was missing in my life. I missed the kind of work I was part of with Catholic Charities and other nonprofit organizations I had worked at. I realized that service to others is my passion. As I grow older and in wisdom of the years, this passion is more important to me than ever.

Spirituality also matters to me. Jesuit values were part of my education from first grade through college. As early as elementary school, I learned to ‘look to find God in all things’ and that there was good in all of humanity. I graduated from Creighton University, a school with a strong Jesuit tradition in Omaha, Nebraska. I left Creighton with a strong sense of compassion for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalized. Only a few months ago, I received a letter from my alma mater about an active Jesuit/Lay person collaborative in the Twin Cities, founded years ago by two Jesuit priests. I thought that this letter might just be what I was looking for. It motivated me to contact the Ignatian Volunteer Corps.

I reached out to Kathleen Groh, Regional Director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps (IVC), an organization for retired persons over the age of 50 who are interested in sharing their life skills, wisdom and compassion with organizations focused on social justice. I learned that spirituality and an ongoing reflection process with a spiritual advisor are at the heart of the IVC experience. The advisor is trained in Ignatian Spirituality and has the experience to guide new volunteers like myself both spiritually and analytically as we engage in meaningful work. Ignatian volunteers are committed to working two days a week throughout ten months at a service site in the Metro Area.img_9560

I recognized early in my application to the IVC that Mary’s Pence would be a good match for me. I interviewed with Katherine and the staff, and we all agreed that Mary’s Pence fits my needs, and that my skills will be useful here. My goal is to help the organization increase donor outreach in Minnesota and other Midwestern states with my background in fund development, volunteer management and public relations.

It has only been a couple of weeks since I started my work with the smart, dedicated and fun coworkers at Mary’s Pence, yet I feel welcome and needed here. I have found a way to live out my passion. The autumn season is bringing me new and exciting beauty.

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Reflecting on the Past, Rising With Dignity

The Mary’s Pence ESPERA program grew out of a desire to partner more deeply with women in Central America and Mexico. Through this partnership Mary’s Pence provides resources, including the lending pool funds and other financial support.  ESPERA staff from the region also accompany the women as they work for a better life. During their regular visits to each group, they balance stepping back to ensure the women take the leadership roles in managing their project, while providing holistic support and coaching on skills and tools that help them. This balance takes patience and practice, and is quite unique among NGOs.

Eva Martinez, the ESPERA Promoter, is from Suchitoto, El Salvador, and first worked for her local ESPERA group managing their fund. In 2012 she began working for Mary’s Pence as the staff liaison supporting four ESPERA groups in El Salvador and Honduras. To increase her capacity to support ESPERA participants, Eva was recently trained in leadership and facilitation by the National University of El Salvador.

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Eva (third from right) with workshop participants from Epifanía outside the Divina Misericodia church near Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Using techniques from the course, Eva facilitated two workshops for Epifanía, an ESPERA group in Tegucigalpa, Honduras to reflect on their experience with the ESPERA loans and their businesses, establishing a foundation from which to go forward with strength and clarity. Epifanía consists of 22 women. 13 people participated in the workshops which were held inside the Divina Misericordia parish church in the Fuerzas Unidas suburb of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Rio de la vida/River of Life

During the workshop in April, Eva lead the members of Epifanía through El Rio de la Vida (The River of Life) – an exercise originally intended to help people reflect on the emotions they have experienced throughout their lives. Eva adapted this activity to help the participants reflect on their journey from their first ESPERA loan to present. Beginning with personal reflection, each member created a timeline and drew their economic activities/businesses year by year, showing how it began, how it developed or changed, and what they hoped for and expected in the future. They also documented the changes in their personal life because of the investment in their business with the ESPERA loans. For example, some people were able to build or improve their homes. The participants then shared their drawings with the entire group, using them to talk openly about their experiences.

Eva had two goals for this workshop 1) that each member would recognize their abilities and the skills they have developed during their time participating in ESPERA and 2) to begin to think about business connections between members of Epifanía. The workshop was successful. “I confirmed that people’s abilities are often hidden,” Eva explained, “but with a little push they come out.” Eva celebrated that afterward “they recognized themselves as capable,” and began sharing strategies to balance work among themselves and the family members who helped run the business. She specially notes that “they also saw how the work of home tasks is more of the responsibility of women,” a good first step to sharing duties of earning money and taking care of the home equally.

They also started thinking about how to share their work beyond their families. Three of the women manufacture curtains and bedlinens. These women and four others sell them. Thanks to this workshop they began a conversation about how they could coordinate their work, pool resources, and take advantage of each other’s skills.

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Workshop participants wrote down the positive traits they saw in other members of Epifanía to help each other recognize their abilities and strengthen bonds of the group

Reforzamiento del autoestima y reconocimiento del grupo/ Strenghtening of self esteem and appreciation of the group

In July, Eva connected with Epifanía for the second workshop, which focused on self-esteem and strengthening group relationships. Eva explained that “I wanted them to work with their feelings in a constructive way. The way people think and feel has a direct impact on the development of their economic activities.” Around the room, Eva placed pieces of cardboard around the walls, one for each member of the group, with their name written at the top. Each person went around the room and wrote either one word or sentence describing a positive attribute of each member. When everyone was done writing, each person explained more about what they wrote, and expressed how they felt about what was written about them.

Eva said that “these activities helped establish and strengthen links of trust between the women and ‘Centavitos de Maria’ (Mary’s Pence) so that we can work with them on topics other than economics and they can express their needs more freely. For example, they are now asking us to support them as they work for improved organization, administrative skills, mental health and techniques to combat and cope with violence.” The group even said that they would commit to spending longer periods of time with Eva to address some of these issues. She had been visiting them for two or three hours at a time, in order to manage time commitment. Now they are willing to spend the whole day participating in workshops and activities surrounding these themes.

One woman in particular impressed Eva with her strength. In addition to emotional struggles with her family, Lilian has faced many struggles with her businesses. When she used her ESPERA loan to begin selling firewood, a shortage prevented her from stocking and she was forced to begin again. She began a tiendita (a store) but because of the violence in her community, struggled to attract enough customers. Now she has begun again, buying and selling plastic dishes, as well as crocheting covers for water filters provided to members of Epifanía through a former Mary’s Pence grantee from 2008, Water With Blessings. Eva says, “I have seen her fall down and get up with dignity and courage.”

These discussions that Eva facilitated provided a same space for the women to explore their experiences as a group, to discuss the impact of ESPERA and show appreciation for each other.  Acknowledging progress and recognizing abilities in themselves and each other is fundamental to the women maintaining hope and charting a path forward.

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New grantees – Fall 2016

Here are the newest Mary’s Pence grantees!

Bridges: Re-Entry Preparation Project for Women Prisoners
São Paulo, Brazilbond-bridges-team-in-front-of-the-butanta-day-release-prison-2015

Mary’s Pence has supported Bridges since its inception in 2013. Kathleen Bond, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, helps women who have experienced incarceration attain agency through numerous workshops on health and skills for life post-prison. With the particular focus of Bridges on maternity in prison, Kathleen also teaches workshops that help mothers who haven’t finished their sentence build a healthy bond with their newborns. Bridges seeks financial and political support from prison administration to ensure that the program will continue advocating for systemic change within the often-dysfunctional Brazilian justice system.

Centro de Recursos Educativos para Adultos (CREA)
New York City

CREA provides educational resources for the Spanish-speaking adult immigrant community in East Harlem and Upper Manhattan, NYC.picture-32 Classes at CREA help immigrant adults attain full literacy both in their native language and in English, and offer culturally competent advice on how to navigate the resources of the city. Life skills workshops, seminars on leadership development, and computer skills classes supplement CREA’s focus on adult literacy, creating a platform for social mobility and networking. The center is sensitive to family and cultural needs. CREA has been in operation for three years, and will use the Mary’s Pence grant to improve the services for its expanding student body.

The Dreamcatcher Foundationdreamcatcher
“Reaching for the Stars”
Chicago, Illinois

Dreamcatcher was created in 2008 by and for survivors of human trafficking and substance abuse. Dreamcatcher reaches out to women involved in the sex trade industry in Chicago with a pressure-free, no-judgment approach while also offering opportunities to leave the industry. This year, the Mary’s Pence grant will fund “Reaching for the Stars,” a direct outreach program which responds to the immediate needs of the survivors for food, medicine, material goods, and psychological support as they develop a sustainable lifestyle.

Exodus Lendingcint0kvxeaa7f55
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Exodus Financial Services is a startup initiated by the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in 2015 to counteract predatory lenders in the neighborhood of the parish. Payday loans are in the $200-1000 range and require repayment in full upon the next payday. If not repaid on time, they can accrue interest rates of up to 273%. About 70% of those with payday debt are women. Exodus Lending provides Minnesotans trapped in payday debt with interest-free repayment options, personalized advice and financial counseling. The Mary’s Pence grant will increase program support as the client base of Exodus Lending continues to grow.

Isuroonisuroon_0
“Somali Women Civic Engagement Initiative”
Minneapolis, Minnesota

The name Isuroon means “woman who cares for herself.” Isuroon grew from the personal experiences of its founder, Fartun Weli, who was struggling with infertility and the cultural pressures related to childbearing in the Somali culture. Since 2010, Isuroon has been an advocate for culturally competent women’s health care, providing resources on research, health promotion, and community and civic engagement. This first Mary’s Pence grant helps fund a project that will create social spaces and workshops for Somali women to learn about political processes in the United States, increase women’s presence and voice in their communities, and build leadership skills.

The Justice Project justicep3
Kansas City, Missouri

The Justice Project was founded in 2008 by Mercy Sister Donna Ryan, and Kris Wade, a survivor of crimes against women. Eighty percent of women they serve have been sexually exploited through prostitution, whose lives are unstable due to homelessness, mental illness, domestic violence, or addiction. A third-time Mary’s Pence grantee, the Justice Project will continue giving direct service to those in need, as well as educating the legal officials, police, service providers and community members on human trafficking issues.

Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment (RISE)
Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota

dsc_0755RISE is a new organization and a new Mary’s Pence grantee, started as a response to the need for connection within the community of Muslim women in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. The main goal of RISE is to make the underrepresented population of Islamic women activists more present in the political process. RISE seeks sustainability for women-led philanthropies and businesses through hands-on workshops, raising the visibility of Muslim women who are involved in civic engagement.

San Benito/San Andres Health Program
“For Women, By Women”
Petén, Guatemala

20150626_082422San Benito and San Andres parishes have led the Health Program since 2000. Last year, the Mary’s Pence grant funded projects on primary care and women’s reproductive health run by the San Andres parish. Based on conversations during health care visits, the program identified a need for mental health services in response to domestic violence in women’s homes. As Guatemalan culture favors a personalized approach to health care, an expert from the community will serve as a mental health promoter and therapist. She will initiate in-person visits, therapy sessions, and seminars on how to counteract domestic violence.

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Brave Communities Making Change

Katherine Wojtan, Mary’s Pence Executive Director, shares her impressions about the grantee organizations she has visited throughout spring and summer of 2016.  

Determination and courage are the words I would use to describe the Mary’s Pence grantees I have had the opportunity to meet in my recent travels. This year, I have been on the road a lot, meeting supporters and new friends at conferences. I also visited several grantees who shared their inspiring stories with me. Read on about these projects and the women involved:

wishwas

Wishwas is a group of immigrants from Bangladesh and other countries self-organizing to establish sustainable income.

Wishwas 
Queens, New York

I was impressed by the positive energy of the women in Wishwas. Many of them had struggled with issues of domestic abuse or controlling husbands and took upon a collaborative sewing project to generate income. Thus, Wishwas became a sewing circle and a space for sharing stories. Nivedita Chandrappa, the local coordinator, is an immigrant from India who faced abuse in the past and now supports women in Wishwas as a master networker, seeking training and market opportunities for the emerging sewing collaborative.

Worker’s Rights Center
Madison, Wisconsin

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The Worker Rights Center is a safe space for Latina workers to share their stories, learn their rights, and access resources.

Worker’s Rights Center is a group that embodies Catholic Social Teaching, with a passion for advancing dignity of all and the right to respectful work. They are dedicated organizers that respond with action to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, wage theft and other issues that Latina women are facing in the workplace. They have also created a just dining guide that points towards fair employers in the local food service industry, giving Wisconisinites a concrete way to support workers’ rights.

Milwaukee New Sanctuary Movement / Mujeres Lideres
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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The New Sanctuary Movement keeps immigrant families together by giving them legal defense against deportation and personal support.

The Mujeres Líderes course provides a chance for immigrant women to develop leadership skills in their own language and use them to create systemic change in their community. I met their staff, learned about their organizing efforts and witnessed their passion for making the challenges of immigrants visible to their neighbors.

Core El Centro
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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Core El Centro gives all individuals regardless of economic status an opportunity to experience natural healing therapies that address imbalances in the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of well-being.

What a treat, to connect with an organization that has greatly grown and matured since it received Mary’s Pence funding! Core El Centro recognizes that healing an individual means changing her family and community alongside. The space itself emanates healing and welcoming energy.

Amethyst Place
Kansas City, Missouri

Amethyst Place provides transitional housing and mentorship for women in recovery and their families, serving 50-60 families and over 100 children each year. This group received a grant from Mary’s Pence when it was much smaller than it is today. Their work changes lives! We’re pleased to have provided funding during an early critical time that helped them blossom.

The Justice Project
Kansas City, Missouri

I am in awe of those who work with women on the margins, fighting barriers to a stable life, day in and day out. This visit reminded me of how safe and sheltered my life has been, and how much need there is on the street for real, visceral understanding and support.

justice-project

The Justice Project is a peer-based nonprofit human rights organization. It provides criminal justice and social systems advocacy and navigation for women in poverty who are suffering from challenges related to human trafficking.

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The Dreamcatcher Foundation fights to end human trafficking in Chicago, as well as educate the justice system about the dire experiences of women in the sex trade industry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
The Dreamcatcher Foundation
Chicago, Illinois

Brenda Meyers-Powell, one of the founders of Dreamcatcher, literally walks the pavement to connect with women who want help avoiding or leaving prostitution. In conversation, Brenda’s complete dedication to her work shines through. You can see more about her and her team in a feature length documentary Dreamcatcher, http://www.dreamcatcherfilm.com/, also available on Netflix.

We look forward to meeting two other grantees very soon. Mary’s Pence is hosting a gathering with Genesis in Oakland in October, and we are also partnering with The Kitchen Table of St. Louis to host a workshop at Albuquerque in November. See our calendar for details.

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Mary’s Pence Grant at Work in Cincinnati

Helping local women advocate for fairness in kinship care

In March 2016 Mary’s Pence awarded a grant to Cincinnati’s Contact Center to support their advocacy efforts to change Ohio law so that kinship caregivers (relatives raising children) receive the same financial support from the state as foster care providers. Kinship caregivers, mostly grandmothers, currently receive only 50 percent of what a foster parent receives to care for the same age child. Mary’s Pence Board member Karen Hurley lives in Cincinnati and visited the Contact Center to learn more about these efforts.

 The Contact Center is a community-based women-led membership organization that “works for a better life for all low- and moderate-income people through grassroots organizing, education and outreach.” “We got involved with this kinship care issue,” says lead organizer Lynn Williams, “because many of our members are taking care of relatives’ children or are seeking to take care of children due to a crisis in their family.”

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Contact Center Lead Organizer Lynn Williams welcomes political candidates and office holders to an advocacy event focusing on justice issues for women.

Memory Ryan, the president of the Contact Center Board, is a kinship care provider for her 2-year-old granddaughter. Angela Whitehead, also a member of the Board, has been caring for her 10-year old granddaughter since she was a year old. Both women are committed to their grandchildren for the long haul. “My granddaughter is my life,” says Angela, “but she is a handful.” Memory quickly adds, “I didn’t expect to be chasing a toddler at this stage of my life.”

A key focus of the Contact Center’s advocacy efforts is Ohio House Bill 458, which has sponsors from both political parties. It would provide the same level of support payments to kinship care providers as provided to foster care providers. This would be huge for Memory and Angela. It would mean their current monthly stipend of around $280 would double. Angela says she struggles to keep her growing 10-year old in shoes and school clothes, and routinely depends on supplements from St. Vincent de Paul and local food pantries.

The caregivers' organizing meeting.

The caregivers’ organizing meeting.

Since receiving the grant from Mary’s Pence, the Contact Center has held two events for local office holders and candidates to learn more about kinship care and other issues affecting women in poverty. A Mother’s Day Speak Out (held May 6) and a Women’s Equality Day Celebration  (held August 26) hosted a variety of local politicians and focused on the stories of women like Memory and Angela.

Both events were well attended. Democratic and republican candidates for Ohio house seats were in attendance along with candidates for Ohio’s First Congressional District, Hamilton County’s Juvenal Court and Hamilton County’s Court of Appeals. Besides advocating for House Bill 458, both events also focused on the need to provide social security work credits for caregiving of all kinds. Many contact center members who have spent their lives as unpaid caregivers for siblings and parents end of with no social security to depend on at retirement.

Mary’s Pence is proud to support the women at the Contact Center as they work to change this unjust system.

 

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Meet Mary’s Pence – Svitlana Iukhymovych

I step off the Green Line train onto the rustic pavement of downtown Saint Paul. The building I am heading towards is old yet stately, packed with bustling offices. This is the home of Mary’s Pence, also my new work-home for the next 11 months. I feel excitement and a hint of tension as I walk in the door, as I’m new here – the St. Joseph Worker for 2016-2017. Good day! My name is Svitlana.

for_blog_1St. Joseph Worker Program that I’m part of is a harbor for young women who are passionate about justice. SJWs spend a year living in an intentional community and serving at social justice organizations such as Mary’s Pence. Beyond that, the program helps us find a spiritual compass, exercise leadership skills, and build connections with professionals throughout the country. When I realized that Mary’s Pence was on the list of potential placement sites for SJWs, I knew that I would end up here. After all, Mary’s Pence brings into life the voices and imaginings of actionable change. My love of language will be of use at this organization.

A couple of months ago, I graduated from Macalester College with a double degree in English and Psychology. Throughout my senior year, I worked at a cognitive neuroscience lab, translated renowned and contemporary poems from my native Ukrainian into Engish, and breakdanced. Some of the translations I’ve authored were published in the anthology Letters from Ukraine, a volume that came out in honor of the Lviv-Wroclaw cultural exchange. My capstone in literature focused on translations from Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian dissident poet who had been imprisoned for his outcries against the brutalities of the Soviet system.for_blog_2 It’s a work in progress, as I am still compiling drafts and commentary. Vasyl Stus’ work carries as much intensity as his life story, and is kindred to all who seek and express a true voice even in the middle of political turmoil. This awareness I’ve built for the intersections between the personal and the political within every human story will enrich my experience at Mary’s Pence.

The mission of Mary’s Pence to support community projects for women resonates with important aspects of my identity. As a graduate of Emma Willard, the oldest all-girls’ boarding school in the nation, I recognize how vital it is to empower women. Collaborations among women do have the tremendous power to bring innovation, non-violence, and progress into the world. As someone who grew up in rural Ukraine, a land traversed with patchwork of private gardens, I know that the dearth of resources for local start-ups and small projects can be lethal to communities. With that, the focus of Mary’s Pence on smaller-scale projects initiated by women conjoins the values I hold dear.

Perhaps just like Mary’s Pence grantees, I feel vulnerable to the realities of non-profits, conferences, constant noise of money and power. I am honored to start my work journey, encouraged by the stories of women who keep up their stubborn pitch of kindness.
 

 

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Mary’s Pence Summer Reading List 2016

Mary’s Pence recently sent out our Summer Reading List. Each summer we enjoy sending out this list because we know that you, our supporters, are intelligent and curious people who seek to know more about the world around them. In growing our understanding of the world we discover injustices, but we also discover innovative solutions to these injustices. Most importantly, we find hope and healing in community. This is what our Summer Reading List represents.

The books on this year’s list were placed in four categories: Powerful Memoirs, Truth in Fiction, Global Change-Makers, and Peace and Hope . Click here to see the full list.

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ESPERA Women Have a Will to Thrive

Gabriela Bandini de Unánue reflects on her first year working with women participating in the ESPERA community lending program as the ESPERA Business Facilitator.

Reflecting on the year since I joined the Mary’s Pence team, I would like to share with you what has happened so far and what this experience has meant for me.

I’ll begin by thanking every one of the people that is part of this great team for the confidence, comradery, constant support, positive energy, dedication and talent that has gone into all of our activities. From the beginning of my work in June of 2015 I have felt welcomed and supported in a process of continuous learning and growth, as much personal as professional. To know each one of the women and men that are part of this team – office staff, donors, ally organizations, volunteers, and the board – makes me more proud every day to be part of this work.

Grace, Development and Communications Liaison, and Gaby, ESPERA Business Facilitator, visit some women in their home near Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Grace, Development and Communications Liaison, and Gaby, ESPERA Business Facilitator, visit some women in their home near Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Each meeting with the women who are part of the ESPERA program in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico has confirmed for me the positive impact that the program has in the daily lives of every one of the women. The organizational process that entails managing the community-owned fund involves open spaces of sharing and moments to make decisions collectively. This ensures that each one of the women plays a role in the process, considers the needs of the rest. They all join in their capacity to support something with the others, which leads them to operate in full solidarity and empathy.

Access to loans and the flexibility of the payment system together with the delivery and allocation of funds that each one of the groups establishes favors autonomy. The ESPERA model gives each one of the women participants new opportunities to improve their quality of life. They mobilize financial resources that they normally do not have access to and create new sources of income that are better adapted to their hopes and needs. With the loan pool they not only look to cover the basic needs like nutrition, housing, healthcare and schooling for their children and contributing to the circles they want to influence, but also, as women, they develop their skills and the self-esteem to make their voices heard in their families and communities.

Gaby (left) and Eva (middle), ESPERA Promoter visit Esther, who raises chickens and sells eggs.

Gaby (right) and Eva (middle), ESPERA Promoter visit Esther, who raises chickens and sells eggs.

The ESPERA program is made up of women who are fighters, creators, workers, generous and resilient with a tenacious internal force that is reflected in their refusal to be defeated in spite of constantly confronting difficult situations that at every moment remind them that they are also vulnerable. They bet on life and wellbeing, to challenge poverty of mind and spirit to counteract the shortage of material possessions. They work for equity between men and women, they protest against violence, and believe firmly that if we all exercise our political, social, economic and cultural rights, our communities will develop in greater harmony.

Their economic initiatives represent their will to thrive, to come out ahead, to protect who they are as human beings. The initiatives are their way to use all their talents, to capitalize on the resources they have, and to generate life. The women who participate in the ESPERA program are ready to grow their businesses, to maintain them, and to put all of their energy into them. The women work from sunrise to sunset with the firm conviction that if they can make their businesses function in the best way, they will continue to be like open windows that allow them to take deep breathes of fresh air.

Gaby chats with women from the Concertación de Mujeres in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

Gaby chats with women from the Concertación de Mujeres in Suchitoto, El Salvador.

For me, it is a privilege not only to know each one of these women, but also to be able to work with them and join them in the dream for economic justice; to combine their abilities with mine to achieve their own goals and particular dreams. This work requires that I travel many miles to meetings, get on an airplane every three weeks, and sleep always under a different roof. But what makes all the hard work worth it is have the opportunity to work together to apply tools like planning, administration, accountability, marketing, human resources, quality control, selling and design of products and services within their businesses in order to make them into elements that protect a variety of ways of life and alternative economies.

Thank you for this first year and thank you for being Mary’s Pence!

Gabriela Bandini De Unánue, ESPERA Business Facilitator

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