Explain Mary’s Pence to a passer-by on the street or a scroller-by on social media? I have been wondering how to do that ever since day one on the job as a St. Joseph Worker volunteer in communications at Mary’s Pence. No answer captures the complexity of our work fully enough. But nearly a year since my start date, I better understand the ambition of this small organization.
Mary’s Pence is about women working together to change dysfunctional systems, not just bring temporary relief. Our mission aligns with Catholic Social Teaching – that is, social justice values – that is, a set of principles that uphold the dignity of all humans. We accompany our grantee and ESPERA partners in their vision for change across the Americas, but we don’t take over the work we trust they can do themselves. We are similar to a foundation in that we give out grants towards social justice causes, but we are a nonprofit that relies on every single supporter. And our roots go back 30 years to the moment our founder heard God’s calling while vacuuming… To say the least, I find it challenging to explain the multifaceted and inspiring Mary’s Pence story in ‘100 words or less’. I try my best.
Tiny But Mighty
As I’m finishing my service year, I am reflecting upon the ways Mary’s Pence inspires organizations and individuals to do a lot with a little. My experience here has given me a holistic view on the workings of a small nonprofit. Our office is lodged almost entirely in one room that hosts the staff and volunteers alike. I take in everything that is going on here – from the nitty-gritty of mailings to spontaneous conversations about a feminist response to our trying times. Every aspect of the Mary’s Pence work process is in plain sight, and I get to follow the updates from ESPERA facilitators through social media and phone conversations.
The office staff push our capacity to the max – to serve as a connector and consultant for our partners, reach out to over 3,000 loyal supporters through print and digital media, train volunteers, host educational gatherings, and more. By promoting our grantees and women in ESPERA in Mary’s Pence newsletters and social media, we are also fulfilling an advocacy role and raising awareness about women who combat trafficking, welcome refugees and immigrants, promote labor rights, create businesses, and practice compassion. By highlighting women leaders, Mary’s Pence urges women to assume leadership and claim their space in a culture that shuns their voices.
From the Grassroots Up
I am fascinated with the idea of ‘seed money’ – a resource that allows a start-up organization to grow from the root. The Mary’s Pence Grant amounts to $4,000 – and with this initial investment, a project can take off. In some cases, the grant helps women who are starting from scratch, as it is with Su Casa Mothers’ Collective, a group of immigrant women who’ve just created a food co-op. However, the majority of organizations request the Mary’s Pence grant to partially cover the cost of a specific project or to contribute to operational expenses. Starting up or sustaining a social justice project demands a lot from the staff and volunteers. This reality is often overlooked by funders, who would rather contribute to direct service expenses rather than operations. Mary’s Pence counters this trend and acknowledges the energy it takes on the part of staff to run or establish an organization.
Our grantees climb and grow, taking on ever-changing community needs. Mary’s Pence is intentional about engaging women in the search for solutions to the issues their communities are facing. One might say that it isn’t fair to do so, placing the burden of work onto those who are already suffering from injustice. But women want and need to take control over their political and social circumstances, and it’s doubly unfair to prevent them from empowerment. Mary’s Pence provides them with the needed support and resources to have fulfillment in and beyond their work. For the Bangladeshi immigrant women in Wishwas, for example, a sewing cooperative is also a safe space from domestic violence and a hub of entrepreneurial creativity. Shared culture and shared lived experiences help women build spaces of power at the most local level.
Creating Functional Institutions
One way to change a toxic culture and ensure progress is to build institutions that work for all. I’ve realized that Mary’s Pence grantees and ESPERA partners offer an alternative way to resist injustices – by bringing people together in sustainable ways. ESPERA groups, for instance, each have their own systems of governance and choose how to elect their leaders the way the majority of women see fit. Community-centered models of micro-lending allow women to escape the machismo culture and attain financial autonomy. Regional ESPERA networks give women opportunities that mainstream institutions take away from them, such as the very right to take out a loan and participate in a formal economy.
Mary’s Pence is a one-of-a-kind funder, giving out support without unrealistic expectations for the delivery of results. A Mary’s Pence Grant gives an organization a chance to try something new or continue work that is effective. We meet the women where they are, understanding that their countries or communities may have messy, bloody histories. And while political and institutional progress at large moves at a glacial pace, the women in ESPERA and our grantees waste no time.
The People, The Place, The Americas
Groups of women working together do have a lot of power. Yet every group is as strong as the individuals that comprise it. I felt embraced and encouraged in my work at Mary’s Pence, and I am grateful for every single one of my coworkers. The tiny office in historic Lowertown will continue to be a center of gravity for a community of women who do good – it’s just that now I will be guided by its pull from afar.
Svitlana Iukhymovych, St. Joseph Worker
Starting July, Svitlana will be putting her Mary’s Pence experience to good use in a Communications position with Labor Initiatives, a labor rights NGO in Kyiv, Ukraine (http://trudovi.org/en, @gotrudovi).