Immigrant Women Acing Lessons in Solidarity and Justice

Mary’s Pence walks side by side with “las Marias” of the world – the women who persist and change oppressive systems at home and abroad. We support immigrant women and their families because the Mary’s Pence circle only grows stronger with their presence, activism and grit. In fall 2016, we welcomed two new grantees that provide holistic support for immigrant communities. Centro de Recursos Educativos para Adultos (CREA), founded in 2013 by Latina women of East Harlem, NYC, is a space of learning and connection for Latinx immigrants, offering general education and life skills classes in English and Spanish. Since 1999, Welcoming the Stranger has provided programs in ESL, computer skills, and citizenship test prep to immigrant communities in Philadelphia, PA. Beyond the classroom, the two organizations capitalize on a crucial part of all learning – that we are a humankind of immigrants, strangers to others until we enter their lives and are welcomed in response.

CREAting opportunities for the community, by the community

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Students from the Elementary Spanish class at CREA

The voice of Maria Guadalupe Martinez, one of the founders of CREA, beams with pride whenever she talks about student participants of the Center: “I love it when they are learning, changing their minds. When they say ‘I want to study, I want to learn more’. You see their faces light up as they get more active, more involved.” Maria knows how important it is for recent immigrants to find peer support. CREA has over a hundred participants, hailing from Mexico, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, and Guatemala.

Classes at CREA are offered primarily in Spanish, to serve those who didn’t have the opportunity to pursue education in their home countries. “Many of them lived in small towns and villages where work begins at an early age, and few people get to go to school. Some are from remote indigenous communities,” Maria says, “People ask us ‘why don’t you teach in English more?’ But our students have to learn the concepts first in Spanish. People who don’t have that knowledge drop out of English classes, but we want to give them all the tools to be successful.”

About 80% of CREA participants are women. At CREA, they directly confront some of the cultural stereotypes that hinder Latina women from achieving their educational goals. “In Central America, there’s a spirit of machismo” – says Maria – “There’s a perception that women don’t need to study, that they must only clean, cook, and take care of the house while the men work in the fields.” But women have the dominant voice in the student body and the teaching staff at CREA. Interns from Mexico’s Universidad Euroamericana, primarily young women who intend to teach professionally, come and work in NYC for the duration of their social service year. Maria affirms the power of feminine collaborative spaces: “CREA provides more than just the classes – we organize workshops about migration, protection, what to do when emergency situations happen, how to remain calm in the times of stress. And we collaborate, we come together.”

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The Basic and Intermediate English class is exploring new grammar concepts

CREA’s courses in Spanish are certified by Mexico’s National Institute for Adult Education (NIAE). Class participants often don’t have sufficient documents to prove their identity, and a CREA certificate can be a life-saving path for families to obtain passports or open bank accounts. Having an official educational document helps people feel more confident about their skills and their futures. Maria speaks to that: “When the students finish their course of study, when they have the diploma and the recognition, when they can say ‘I did it. It was my effort and time,’ their self-esteem increases. They start believing in themselves.’

Welcoming the Stranger, Welcoming Stronger Local Communities

“We have grown over the years” – says Executive Director of Welcoming the Stranger, Meg Eubank. “Prior to 1999, Philadelphia suburbs had no ESL classes, and we started out with 8 students. Now we have grown to 305.” Welcoming the Stranger has also expanded its programs from the original ESL and computer skills classes to include sessions on peace building and cultural exchange. And there’s an ‘unofficial’ part of the classes – conversations about body language, social norms, and U.S. communication styles, says Meg.

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A book group is ready to jump into the discussion

Welcoming the Stranger is sensitive to participants’ needs. Depending on the semester, 75-80% of the participants are women, most have settled in the U.S. with their families. “The women form support groups for one another. If they have kids in school, we can advise them on how to call in sick, for instance. Or how to navigate the school system and how to do parent-teacher conferences,” says Meg. The Mary’s Pence grant especially goes toward a class for mothers who have children with special needs: “We help those mothers understand the IEP, the protocol for requesting accommodations, and we break down the terms in the legal documents, making sure they know which questions to ask.”

Refugees and immigrants from over 100 different countries enroll in classes at Welcoming the Stranger. They come from India, Mexico, Turkey, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, other Eastern European countries. Partners from local hospitals, parishes, and nonprofits, as well as about 75 volunteers, build relationships with the participants and learn from their diverse experiences, too. “When I go to work every day, I feel like I’m being with family,” saysMeg, “Community at Welcoming the Stranger is unique.” There is no official graduation from classes at Welcoming the Stranger. “Participants choose to leave when they feel like they’ve learned and it’s time for them to move on,” says Meg – “But they also stick around and come back for class even if they are already advanced, to stay with the community of their classmates.”

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Students from Mexico, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Belarus attending a class with Welcoming the Stranger

Welcoming the Stranger community is also learning to defend itself in the face of the rising hate crimes in the region and throughout the country. “It is important to become involved in your government locally, on the state level, talking to politicians about issues that concern you and your neighborhoods,” says Meg about possible ways to take action and advocate for immigrants and refugees. “Hate is not acceptable in our community,” asserts Meg. We at Mary’s Pence stand in solidarity with her sentiment, always committed to accompanying “las Marias” of the world.

– Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker

Maria Guadalupe Martinez, one of the founders of CREA, passes on a call to action: “We would like to ask you for old laptops and computers. If you have any that you don’t need – please donate them to us. If our students know how to use a computer, they become more confident, they want to continue to study.” While the New Yorkers have proven to be friendly towards immigrants, the City of New York has offered Maria and the Center no financial support. CREA thrives on donations from the community.

If you have an old laptop that you no longer need, contact CREAnyccenter@gmail.com – or visit CREAny.org

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ESPERA Program and Immigration: Questions and Answers

In the past several months, discussions about immigration have moved to the center of public attention in the U.S. and abroad. It concerns us that some of these discussions are divisive and abrasive. The plight of immigrants stirs our hearts, as Mary’s Pence has built strong bonds with grantee and ESPERA partners affected by the issue. We know that women who are part of ESPERA are grappling with complex situations. Helping them sustain their businesses is not just about growing their income – it’s about holistic support.

The Mary’s Pence ESPERA program very intentionally works with organized women’s groups, strengthening their bonds, and amplifying their voices and impact in their communities. Their challenges have been our challenges, and we would like to bring into the spotlight some concrete examples of the issues they are facing. ESPERA facilitators Gilda, Gabi, and Eva sent us the most recent reports from their conversations with the women in El Salvador. Some of these stories are quite harrowing and emotional.

These interviews have been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.

Silvia (venta de quesadillas, tamales y típicos – selling quesadillas, tamales, and other typical foods)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated?
My son went to the United States with my 5-year-old granddaughter on February 16. He went for economic reasons and because of the violence. He is there but still hasn’t found work. Although he and his wife aren’t together, they decided that their daughter should go with her father. Since she was born, we as a family have watched out for my granddaughter. Although my son’s wife didn’t have much, including milk, we always helped out, and so she decided that the girl should go with him.Silvia Antonia Mejia Garcia

How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
It helps to belong to a group of women because women give one another strength. We share in our hard times and successes, disappointments and achievements.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
Yes, it would help me because it is already helping me get ahead, and without the funds it would be more difficult.

Zulma (Iniciativa económica de crianza de pollo – raising chickens)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated?
One of my aunts went to the U.S. to get out of a bad economic situation and to help her parents.

imageedit_15_6425210367How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
Economically, it helps us face the situation and move forward little by little, because to have the will to get ahead is powerful. ESPERA is our opportunity to keep going little by little, and it also teaches us to be self-sustainable.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
Thank God, there’s no risk of gang violence in the place where we live. ESPERA is an opportunity that has come to us so that we can gradually improve our economic situation.

Juanita (Iniciativa económica ganado de engorde – cattle breeding)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated to the U.S.?
Yes, many people left in 2016 and 2017 – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. For what reasons? Mainly – the economic reasons, and because of the violence. It is easier to bring children who are under age, and some people do choose to bring their sons and daughters.

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How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
Psychologically, it helps, because you learn a lot about different institutions and organizations here, and that’s how you help your daughters, sons, and friends.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
If it was a situation of economic risk, it could help, because with the funds it would be possible to work in a business and generate income.

Nora N. (Iniciativa económica de crianza de pollos – raising chickens)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated?
Yes – in our community in the last three years, men, women, and children have left. Some women migrated because their partners are in another country, others go because of the fear they have of the situations in their countries, and many people leave because there aren’t enough jobs.imageedit_17_9139284316

How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
Being in a group has helped me create projects that help me develop a business and make an income.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
That would depend on the situation, but there haven’t been any problems so far.

Sabina (Iniciativa económica de elaboración de bisutería y joyas de acero – making and selling steel jewelry)

imageedit_10_8657767046Do you know anyone who has emigrated?
Yes, a friend has left to the U.S. with her 2-year-old son because there were too many gangs in their neighborhood.

How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
By being part of an organization, I was able to help other families, and primarily women.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
Yes, by allowing me to have a small business, making jewelry and art out of metal.

Wendy (Iniciativa económica de venta cosméticos y sandalias – selling cosmetics and sandals)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated?imageedit_13_9873093560
A friend went to the U.S. because of the situation with gangs.

How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
Being organized benefits all of us.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
It helps us generate and grow income.

María (venta de fruta y verduras – selling fruits and vegetables)

Do you know anyone who has emigrated?
Yes, a friend. She’s actually my daughter in law, my son’s wife. She went with her 3 year old son in May of last year. Although the boy wasn’t my son’s biological child, they raised him together from the time he was six months old. Now my son is sad, and he really wants to be there with them. They had to go to the United States because of the violence. Maria Elida GuardadoSomebody killed her brother in front of their house and threatened their whole family. She escaped, and later she and her son were granted asylum in the United States.

If you were in a situation of risk, do you think that an ESPERA loan would help you stay in place?
It wouldn’t help in these cases, because if some of the young people here realize that you have something of value, there they are. Last year they stole the cow that I had invested my loan from ESPERA in, and it was already worth $900 when they took it. I know who they were and where they brought it, but I couldn’t do anything because I couldn’t risk having problems with them.

How does belonging to a local woman’s group help you deal with the difficulties in your country?
I think it has helped because it’s important for us as mothers to continue advising our children and young people. For example, I have two young boys, one of them is married, he works here in the country and is at peace. The other one, who is with me at home (his partner left him) also works and is at peace. He prefers to work in the maize fields, sowing corn, and he goes where they are offering work, but he does stay here in the community. He doesn’t like to work in the capital because it costs a lot to get there and back, and it is very unsafe. As a country, we should enable young people to work so they can occupy their minds and invest their time in something productive.

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Meet Mary’s Pence – Kaye Cassidy

May 1, 2016 – my last First Communion celebration, and my last day as the Director of Faith Formation and Liturgy at a Catholic parish.  It was a job that I have always wanted to do, and loved to do and had chosen an area of study that would hopefully give me the knowledge and skills I needed to do my job well.

IMG_0076However, that study had given me so much more. I became open to the infinite possibilities of the ways to understand and enter a relationship with God.  I began to feel constrained in a community where while the people were very charitable, there did not seem to be an overwhelming interest in social justice.  I knew that after retirement, I would need to spend time doing something meaningful that would “feed” me.

My theological studies at the University of St. Catherine put an emphasis on adhering to an ethic of love rather and an ethic of obligation. An ethic of obligation asks the question “what do we owe the poor and marginalized?” while an ethic of love asks “what do we want for the poor because they are beloved children of God and my sisters and brothers?” An ethic of obligation has limits, an ethic of love knows no boundaries.

Also, while studying at St. Kate’s, I was introduced to the spiritual masters. I was moved by the spiritual growth of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He began life as a nobleman and warrior in the age of chivalry and, while recuperating from wounds, experienced conversion and became one who devoted his life to study, prayer, and ministry in the world. Ignatius and his followers believed God could be found everywhere and in all things. Jesuits minister in the world, recognizing God in those they encounter.

Given my interests in the poor and marginalized and in Ignatian Spirituality, I was enthusiastic when I received a call from Kathleen Groh the Director of the Ignatian Volunteer Corp, in which she asked me if I would be interested in a volunteer position with Mary’s Pence. I was told that Mary’s Pence is animated by the knowledge that women contribute in myriad ways to societal good and their inclusion and equality are essential for a just society.  To assist women in achieving their full potential, in often less than ideal circumstances, Mary’s Pence looks to the values of Catholic Social Teaching as a guide for working to assure social, economic and environmental justice for women.

While I have been at Mary’s Pence for short time, I am impressed by the obvious passion and commitment of the staff to the work of serving women who need assistance to grow and flourish. At Mary’s Pence, I can lend my assistance in any way that is needed to further their cause. As a part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corp, I can do so with the support of a community dedicated to Ignatian values.

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Cooking Up Social Change

Mary’s Pence invited The Kitchen Table, a fall 2015 grantee, to lead a workshop at the Call to Action conference and share the success of their social enterprise.

“We made a trip of a lifetime,” says Stephanie Renee Booker-Wynn of The Kitchen Table about her trip to present at Call to Action, an annual faith-based conference focused on the issues of inclusivity and anti-oppression. Stephanie, her friends and co-workers, Danette Brown, Bertha Wherry, and Angie O’Gorman, first met at a support group at Epiphany Church in St. Louis. They talked about wanting to overcome obstacles like poverty and homelessness and stumbling upon barriers to dignified work. Today, they run a workplace they created for themselves. The women of The Kitchen Table prepare a home-made meal for their community every Thursday, manage catering orders, and maintain a garden. Stephanie and her colleagues traveled from St. Louis, MO, to Albuquerque, NM, for the three-day event in November. After Call to Action, Stephanie wrote this reflection.

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The Kitchen Table at their home base in St. Louis ((c)K.A. Roberts)

Enchantment Mountain

It was a long time that we prepared for this city with all of our life woes, skills & concerns, we finally made the trip of a lifetime. Traveling was long and fun, many sites to see and a lot of time to stare into nature and Native life, Spanish and American. A Native Indian Culture Museum that had many memoirs of family, traditions, praise and spiritual dance, pottery, art, education, meals, music, farming, rumbling, and peace.

We broke bread together, slept, worked and prepared for a knowledgeable conference about all people, and women had a big voice. The Kitchen Table was able to speak about women’s empowerment and a woman’s enterprise. A group of women who own their own restaurant and support each other as a woman’s support group that is a family of women who pray together and discuss everything.

We very much appreciated that Mary Pence (Katherine W.) invited us and that we were grantees that had very unique stories also. We had a great time and we had a chance to tell everyone about our business – cooking homemade meals and preparing them for our customers on Thursdays (11:30 am – 1:00 pm) 2911 McNair, St. Louis, Mo. 63118.

We cook all kinds of food i.e… Ms. Stevie Lasagna, Mary Alfredo Pasta and Ms. Stevie Red Sauce, Hot braised chicken and Fried, Honey Mustard Chicken, Veggie Burgers, Chicken Soup, Pea Soup. Quesadillas, Salads, Cheesecakes, Peach Cobbler, Lemon Pie, Fruit Bowls and Salads, Homemade Bread, Moussaka.

The conference was very informative on many issues of today and the church, politics, women’s rights and equality, religion. We really enjoyed the conference and had a chance to meet a lot of people that told their stories about life, careers, family, and life issues and history of the city, New Mexico and Native American lives. There was a Latino group that discussed deep issues of politics for all people no matter whom they were.

Stephanie Renee Booker-Wynn (Dockett)

The Kitchen Table is a supportive community. “The thing I like about The Kitchen Table – now, we don’t always get along – but when push comes to shove, we get together, we work together as a group, we take care of business,” Danette shared at the conference. Bertha agreed with her: “I look over at my coworkers, and they’re not my friends, they’re not my colleagues – they’re my family. It took four women to turn my whole life around, it took four human beings that bleed, that walk – they helped me get to where I am. I learned how to support people.”

Stephanie, Danette, Bertha, and Angie talk about their growth from a support group at Epiphany Church to a social enterprise.

Angie, who helped organize the group, views the collective as an alternative to the mainstream economy that often funnels workers into jobs that dehumanize them. “We came into our own power. As we see ourselves in the light of our skills rather than our limits, we’re organized so that skills are to be shared and limits get less and less in the way. …In an ordinary employment situation, people are judged by what they cannot do, rather than what they can do. We wanted to be an alternative to that,” Angie explained. The Kitchen Table is about a grassroots approach to ownership of business and business management, and economics being kept human.

Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker

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A Tea Party Legacy

Women in the room are sporting blouses with starched lace collars; feathers perch atop their wide-brimmed hats. Earl Grey tea is served in fine china – cups that have descended to the hostess from her grandmother. Voices hum and rise as the discussion grows livelier. The women are talking about the right to vote, the role they play in U.S. politics, the ways to advocate for equity and justice for all.

No, this is not an excerpt from a history novel. It’s a current event, planned by a loyal Mary’s Pence supporter. Author and multi-medium artist Patricia Hruby Powell is amping up the fun in fundraising by hosting a suffragist tea party in honor of Mary’s Pence – all for a serious cause. The tea party will support the women we work with through the Mary’s Pence Grants and ESPERA programs, who are committed to advancing women’s rights through advocacy, social entrepreneurship, hands-on workshops, community organizing, arts opportunities, leadership development, and educational initiatives. Patricia’s party, to be held in late January at her home in Champaign, IL, is a reminder to continue building a culture of feminist activism today. It also testifies to the legacy that the early suffragists entrusted us with, and to the continuity of feminist movements worldwide. Mary’s Pence values echo the voices of generations of feminists that came before us.

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Elsie Hrubka Smith and her daughter Dolores, circa 1930s

The women in Patricia’s family are part of a feminist legacy that includes the women’s suffrage movement and more. Patricia’s grandmother, Elsie, rebelled against her family and became an artist. Patricia’s aunt, Henrietta, refused to marry and earned her own living. “In fact, she supported her whole family during the Depression and put her much younger brother through college,” says Patricia proudly. Patricia’s mother Dolores was a committed supporter of Mary’s Pence. She contributed regularly through the Compañera program since our founding in 1987. Patricia commented that “When asked what she wanted for her birthday or Mother’s Day, [her mother] would usually want a donation given to Mary’s Pence.” So for Patricia, choosing Mary’s Pence for her fundraising tea party was an appropriate way to honor and continue her mother’s commitment to social justice and dedication to women’s rights.

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Patricia Hruby Powell and one of her latest books, “Josephine”

Patricia is compelled to use her art to protect civil rights, and particularly women’s human rights.  “I was taught by example that when you see an injustice, you do something to try to make it right,” says Patricia, “Growing up we boycotted grapes and supported Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. We’d sometimes join my mother in a picket line in our Chicago suburb. We were taught empathy and compassion.” In her dance and theatre pieces, as well as in her writing, Patricia promotes awareness of the histories of oppression and resistance that shaped the U.S. and the world today. Currently, Patricia is working on a book that follows through with the theme of her upcoming party – women’s suffrage. The book is documenting three centuries of work for women’s rights, and stories of notable suffragists.

Around the world and in the United States, the suffragist movement has come far – but our work is never over. Apart from voting, we must attend to other means of political action. The ‘suffragists’ of today must fight to develop and protect women’s rights – whether by supporting their community, building an economy that works for all, writing legislature, or promoting woman-owned businesses. Women work together on the everyday activism that keeps women’s rights and human rights in focus. To that, Patricia says “It’s a frightened world that we’re walking into. I want it to be an era of engagement, so that we don’t backslide. I want to see us move forward, get others to be involved, and make this an era of activism.”

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The photograph that inspired Patricia’s party in honor of Mary’s Pence. Elsie Hrubka Smith – top row, second from the left, circa 1940s.

Learn more about Patricia’s work at http://talesforallages.com/

Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker

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Happy New Year from Mary’s Pence!

The Mary’s Pence network is far reaching – “from Canada to Panama,” we often say. We are blessed to be part of a community of strong women (and men) that includes staff, board, volunteers, grantees, ESPERA partners, and you. We are the Mary’s Pence People.

As one of our supporters said, “we gain in strength from sharing our journey.” Thank you for journeying with us this year. Take a look at what we’ve accomplished.

storifyAs we look to 2017, hopeful for what our 30th year will bring, we’d like to leave you with this blessing:

May you, your loved ones, and your community relish the bonds of love and kindness.

May the New Year energize you to live true to yourself and your values.

May you find peace within you when the outside world is restless.

Draw upon the strength and wisdom of your “Mary’s Pence People.” 

Know that you are enough, and that you matter.

From all of us at Mary’s Pence,

Happy New Year!

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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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