We March On: Diversity, Unity & the March on Washington

MarchOn Saturday morning, I joined a group of colleagues, our family members and friends to create a Washington Area Women’s Foundation contingent for the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. Despite the early hour (I am not a morning person), I was excited and enthusiastic about being able to participate in such an historic event. As we approached the National Mall, it was clear that the excitement and enthusiasm were shared by the many, many other activists who were also there. And as we convened around the reflecting pool to listen to the speakers lined up for the morning’s rally, and had the chance to look around at those with whom we were sharing space and purpose, I was struck by the diversity that surrounded me. Yet, the audience, issues and messages from the speakers created a bizarre contradiction. On many levels we were marching on this day for many of the same rights and issues that our foreparents marched for 50 years before us – equality, access to jobs, etc. Yet, it was apparent that this was not the same movement as it was then. The increased visibility and vocalization of issues affecting women, LGBTQ, Asian American, and Latina/o communities, etc. was a clear indicator that while we have not come as far as we would like, the past 50 years have been significant in creating the space and voice for people from so many different communities to come together to be recognized and heard.

But despite the camaraderie and energy that was with us all, there were two noticeable voids for me. The first was the absence of the power, passion and clear purpose that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to the original march with his “I Have A Dream Speech.” I don’t think that in the 50 years since the original march, there has been any speech quite so profound as his, nor any speaker as moving. I own that perhaps it isn’t a fair expectation, because people like Dr. King don’t come along every day. But even to replay that speech and remind us all of that power, passion and purpose, would have elevated the day that much more to me.

The other thing that I struggled with was that even in the diversity of the communities represented on Saturday, I still felt a siloing of communities and identities. I felt we were missing something – that sense of underlying unity. That thing that transcended race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class…that thing that made us all brothers and sisters in a movement for humanity overall. That thing that reminded us that we could not divide the essence of our being into artificial buckets of race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. And that our communities and identities were not distinct and separate, but inextricably linked. I was missing that call to action that said without a collective vision, a collective movement, and a recognition that if any one of us gets left behind, it means all of us fall behind, we would be here 50 years from now fighting many of the same battles. Despite the absence 50 years ago of some of the diverse voices that were present on Saturday, I think that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to capture that vision for the future that saw us all sitting around a community table with a shared sense of our value for who we were and what we brought. And a recognition that the problems that we are solving require solutions that reflect the intersections of our communities and identities.

I walked away from the march with mixed emotions for the reality of our country today – appreciation, sadness, frustration, drive, disappointment, and hope. What I wish I had gotten from the podium is that feeling that we were here together because, in the words of Dr. King: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” And so, we march on.

“I Still Have a Dream:” 50 Years Later, March on Washington Remains Relevant

MarchonWashingtonAs we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been re-reading and thinking a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I’m simultaneously in awe of and distressed by the timelessness of the speech. It encompasses feelings and aspirations that far exceed the boundaries of race. But so many of the challenges outlined in the speech are applicable today. I don’t say that to minimize the impact that King or the March on Washington had – but I’m struck by the fact that if you replace the word “Negro” with words like “poor,” or “black,” or “Latino,” or “undocumented” in the text of the speech, it’s still so relevant.

While the words “I have a dream” are the best-known parts of the speech, for me one of the most powerful passages is about America’s obligation to guarantee every citizen life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. King said that the nation had “defaulted on this promissory note” when it came to citizens of color. “We refuse to believe,” he said, “that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”

That has never been more true in America’s history than now. When we look at what people are doing in fields like technology, finance and entertainment, the opportunities seem endless. But for far too many people, those great vaults are sealed and secured – those opportunities remain out of reach. The generational cycles of poverty that so many people find themselves in are testament to just how closed our society can be to some people, and so is the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots.

Being mired in poverty is this generation’s chains. Economic security and independence are our freedom. King’s speech reaches back through time to reference the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation – all documents created at turning points in history when people in this country came together to break open chains and embrace freedom. Their efforts propelled this nation forward – we don’t look back on our history and regret becoming an independent nation, or ending slavery or giving everyone the right to vote.

The original 1963 march was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The organizers of that historic event knew that jobs and freedom go hand in hand, but I think that in the 50 years since, we may have forgotten some of that. Without the right resources, networks and opportunities, people can’t get good jobs. And without good jobs that not only sustain families but provide them with a stability and savings for the future, too many people are missing out on freedom, strength, independence and equality.

That’s why Washington Area Women’s Foundation is participating in the 50th anniversary rally and march on Saturday. As we walk elbow-to-elbow with thousands of other people I will be thinking about King’s speech and his unwavering faith in humanity, belief in the American dream, and confidence that by working together, we can live in a country that lives up to its promise.

I invite you to join us. “We cannot walk alone.” Email mcraven@wawf.org for details.

Why aren’t there more apprenticeships for women?

The following post by Zach McDade was originally posted on Metro Trends, a blog maintained by the Urban Institute, a Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner. We applaud the Urban Institute for looking at issues through a gender lens and encourage other organizations and researchers to do the same!

womenApprentice Urban Institute Fellow Bob Lerman posted Wednesday about the role of apprenticeships in preparing workers for success, citing evidence that suggests the government should invest much more than it does now in apprenticeship programs.

That post got a lot of attention and generated a lot of good questions. I asked Lerman a few of them as follow-ups. His responses are below.

Your apprenticeship post got a lot of attention. One question suggested that relatively few women have apprenticeships. Is that true? If so, why?

It is true. The main reason is that apprenticeships have been concentrated in male-dominated industries, especially construction and plant-level work in manufacturing. Governments have sponsored initiatives to attract women to these fields with only modest success.

So why do you think apprenticeships haven’t flourished in industries more popular with women?

Because policymakers have failed to make expanding apprenticeship a priority, and creating an apprenticeship program is complicated for most employers.

Which traditionally women-dominated industries might benefit from increased investment?

Health and finance are two major industries in which women make up a high share of employers. Both could benefit from having more well-structured apprenticeships. Child care and elder care could use apprenticeships to raise quality and build inclusive job ladders.

What are some of the benefits women might expect to see?

If apprenticeships became more widespread across industries, women would benefit for the same reasons men benefit—earning while learning, increasing their skills, obtaining a valued occupational credential, and becoming a proud member of a community of practice. Quality apprenticeships can also upgrade the image and quality of women-dominated professions, such as child care, that currently pay low wages and garner little prestige.

What about minority workers? Would they see the same benefits from greater apprenticeship investment?

Black and Hispanic workers make up about 30 percent of apprentices. They likely benefit more than non-Hispanic white workers because they are currently less successful in academic-only settings. Also, because employers hire apprentices on a temporary basis and watch them work and learn in their companies, apprenticeships can reduce discrimination based on group identities.

You seem to see apprenticeships as a missing link in preparing our workers, especially workers without college degrees, for gainful employment. What are the next steps?

The key is to expand significantly the number of apprenticeship slots sponsored by employers. Moving to scale in this sense is difficult but not impossible. It requires three steps that should be taken simultaneously: 1) engaging political leadership at a high level, such as a president or a governor; 2) launching statewide marketing campaigns, including publicity targeted at specific industry sectors; and 3) selling apprenticeship to individual firms (think of it as a retail approach) as well as providing technical assistance to organize and validate programs at the firm level.

Apprentice photo via Shutterstock

New Documentary Takes on Women’s Work & Worth

="NYT

Twenty Feet from Stardom, the documentary currently playing in DC-area theaters about backup singers, is on its surface a stereotypical Hollywood tale: ingénue steps into the recording studio seeking fame and fortune, but comes up short – in this case, an achingly close 20 feet short.

It is also, of course, about so much more. It’s about the people – overwhelmingly women of color – whose names you don’t know but who are responsible for the best parts of your favorite songs – the voices with whom you have sung along for years. It’s also about the chances artists – and particularly women artists – take when their career trajectories lie in the hands of the Ike Turners and Phil Spectors of the world (even if you haven’t seen the film, you can imagine how that might turn out). Finally, 20 Feet from Stardom is an exploration of the dreams we have for our lives and what happens when they come up short – at least in the eyes of others.

A number of people interviewed for the film, for example, assumed that Lisa Fischer (who has sung backup for the Rolling Stones, Luther Vandross and Sting, among others) wants and should have an incredible solo career. At a time when we’re so focused on celebrity, on leaning in and on having it all, this seems to be a logical assumption. But if you ask Lisa, she’d likely say that she already has it all. And she’d probably have some interesting things to say about what “having it all” means. In the film, Lisa makes it clear that she has everything she wants – and when she went for some prize that everyone else thought she should have, she discovered that it made her miserable.

Darlene Love had her a-ha moment decades after singing back-up for artists that included Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke and Elvis. After a career that was tightly controlled and limited by Phil Spector, Darlene left the industry and took on work cleaning houses for $100 a week. One day, while cleaning someone else’s bathroom, one of her old songs came on the radio and she stopped and asked herself what she was meant to do. Her answer: “God gave me this talent and I intend to use it.” She asked a couple of friends for a loan and returned to music – only this time she had her own strategy and controlled her own image. After taking any gig she could find, she worked her way up to Broadway and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Most of us cannot imagine what it’s like to be a backup singer, but the experiences and emotions portrayed in 20 Feet from Stardom are universal. I think that many of us can share the feelings of being unrecognized, of not having enough control, or not living up to expectations – whether they’re our own or others’. And that’s when it’s time to listen to the advice given by Dr. Mable John (a former Raelette who sang backup for Ray Charles): “…we need to know our worth; we need to know, as women, we’re important. I think the breakdown is when a woman doesn’t know what she is and she settles for less.”

It’s a lesson that works just as well off stage as on. The fascinating, devastating stories featured in 20 Feet from Stardom are unique because of their glamorous setting, but the lessons associated with them are not uncommon. The women in the film seemed to be happiest and most satisfied when they had control over their own lives, when they were getting recognition for their accomplishments and when they were fairly compensated. These are, of course, “no duh” statements – a fact that makes it seem even more criminal that they were denied these things to begin with, and a reminder that it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure that we value ourselves and one another fairly.

Photo from NYTimes.com.

Changing GED Could Mean Greater Barriers for Area Women

GEDgirl_courtesyColumbusStateCommunityCollegeI’ve had the amazing opportunity to be a volunteer teacher at Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s Grantee Partner, The Academy of Hope, and can speak to the hard work of the learners who step through their doors each day. This innovative organization provides basic education to adult learners. Though most learners have jobs, families and a myriad of other responsibilities that compete for their time, they still make their studies a priority. In spending time with the learners there, I’ve come to see that the value of a GED or high school equivalency diploma goes beyond the increased job opportunities and higher wages associated with obtaining that level of education (though these are extremely important). Their value is also in the confidence gained by the adults who walk across the stage at graduation, in a mother who is more equipped to help her children with their homework, in that member of society who is more prepared for civic engagement and in immeasurably more ways. In January of 2014, however, the GED is undergoing significant changes that will likely make it considerably more difficult to obtain.

While there are several changes coming to the GED, three of the most significant shifts are the transition from paper-based tests to computerized-only exams, the jump from a $50 testing fee to a fee of $120, and an increase in the test’s difficulty. These changes have been widely debated, and Academy of Hope has been tackling the tough questions around this transition through a series of panels and continuing dialog on this issue. Most recently, they hosted local experts for a panel discussion on July 17th, in partnership with the Moriah Fund and PNC Bank, to discuss the implications of the changing GED for DC adults.

The panel raised several great issues, discussing the challenges and barriers that the changes to the GED could mean for adults looking to pass the test, and balancing these with comments on the need for the GED to remain relevant at a time when many jobs demand higher levels of computer literacy and “soft skills” such as listening, critical reasoning, and inductive reasoning. For me, one of the most relevant comments came from Nicole Smith, a research professor and senior economist at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. She noted that her research has shown that women need an entire layer of education higher than men to obtain the same salary, meaning that when a woman obtains her GED she would still need at least an associate’s degree or certificate just to earn what a man with a GED alone would be able to earn; women with the same educational attainment as men earn about a quarter less than their male counterparts over a lifetime. For the new GED, with the increase in difficulty, greater need for computer literacy and higher financial burden just to take the test, women will face an even more difficult road to higher education and family sustaining wages.

In a city where, in 2008, 14% of girls did not complete high school, the ramifications for this are serious. The GED test is the most widely recognized alternative to a high school diploma and a gateway to higher education opportunities. The changes to the GED will likely increase the time commitment of adults studying for the test, and will mean a tremendous amount of work for organizations that prepare adults in the Washington area for the GED, as they will need to revamp and adapt their programs to the new standards. At the panel discussion, NPR’s Kavitha Cardoza remarked that with the coming changes in the GED, “this is a really scary time for adult educators and adults in DC.”

As the barriers to higher education for women in the region increase, so, too, do the barriers to better jobs and more opportunities for women and their families to find economic security. This is why The Women’s Foundation funds programs like Academy of Hope and appreciates their commitment to continuing the conversation with great events like this panel!

For more information on what the changes to the GED could mean for area adults, click here for a policy brief courtesy of The Working Poor Families Project.

You can follow Academy of Hope as they continue the discussion on twitter at @AoHDC and on Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Columbus State Community College

Miss Utah Equal Pay Flub Should Be a Call to Action

miss_utah_questionLast week, the media was buzzing following Miss Utah’s flubbed response at the Miss USA Pageant to a question about pay inequity and women’s rights. The question from judge NeNe Leakes was: “A recent report shows that in 40 percent of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men. What does it say about society?” Miss Utah (aka Marissa Powell) for all intents and purposes could not answer the question, and under the pressure of the lights and the cameras, vaguely responded with allusions to increased education and job creation. I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of this issue as there appears to be some level of outrage, at least across the media, to the fact that Marissa botched the answer to this question, and of course the commentary about the relative intelligence of beauty pageant contestants has been part of the ribbing. ( I found this media reaction particularly interesting given the fact that, in general, mainstream media does not seem to be aware of or interested in women’s rights issues and reporting on the continued inequality in this country).

At the end of the day, I think this contestant’s inability to answer the question is less about beauty pageants, and in fact more reflective of the lackluster state of the women’s rights movement, and in particular, the lack of awareness among young women about the issues that women continue to face in this country. For me, this is a call to action – women’s organizations, policymakers, and leaders need to do a better job of educating the public on the need for continued focus on women’s rights and re-galvanize women of all ages to continue to fight for equality. Only then will we have the voice and power to shift policy and institutions that continue to hold women back.

Nicky is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

No Joke: The Impact of the Sequester is Devastating Vulnerable Families

Capitol Bldg by Amanda Walker_CCSeems like the word “sequester” has become part of our everyday vernacular here in the DC metro region, so much so that not a day goes by without it coming up in some context. Yet, since its implementation, it feels like the sense of urgency to resolve the impact of the sequester has dissipated. It’s no longer front page news and has become the source of jokes and derision. There was the non-“snowquester” in March; the sparring about what was really behind the cancellations of all White House tours; and the reports about how Congress quickly passed legislation to resolve the impact of the sequester on air travel – just as their week-long recess was beginning (really???). And all the while, critical social services that are helping to meet the needs of our poorest communities are being cut. Programs like Headstart, nutrition assistance, child-care subsidies, and health screenings for low-income women all faced significant cutbacks but without the same sense of outrage or swift action that some of these less consequential outcomes spurred.

The reality is that the sequester is not a joke, and though the hype has faded and pundits are saying the effects have not been as bad as predicted, for many people the very real implications and impact of these policy decisions are just beginning. For them, this will be devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by cuts to programs like those listed above; poor people in this country are once again bearing the brunt of bad policy and are finding that their pathways out of poverty have been blocked.

And the sequester isn’t only affecting people who rely on social services. There are also the large swaths of the federal workforce that have been required to take mandatory furloughs. A chief economist for Moody’s Analytics told The Hill last month that one-third of the federal workforce – nearly one million people – “will be furloughed for an average of 13 days through September.” This can have an enormous impact on any family, and for those at the bottom of the federal pay scale – who are probably already living paycheck to paycheck – it is likely crushing and life-changing. Keep in mind that, in the Washington region, the federal pay scale that determines how much most of the federal civilian workforce is paid starts at just over $22,000.

People I know and people you know and maybe see every day could be among those who will have to go without pay for more than two weeks to ease the financial strain on the federal government. It makes you wonder what the average person is supposed to give up to ease her own financial strain.

Our lawmakers need to start putting the needs of those who are most disadvantaged first instead of last and try to put themselves, even for a moment, in the shoes of those who are most profoundly impacted by the policy decisions they are making (or not making as the case may be) from on high.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Equal Pay Day: Gender Wage Gap is a Chasm for Women of Color

As we approached Equal Pay Day (April 9th), a number of bloggers and organizations were asked to write about what they’d do with an additional $11,000. That’s how much more the average woman would earn per year if her pay were equal to a man’s.

If she were a woman of color, however, that gap would be even greater. In the Washington region, the median earnings for black women are over $37,000 less than that of white men ($46,138 vs. $83,299). For Latinas, the gap is more than $52,000 ($30,831 vs. $83,299). Asian women have median earnings of $48,891 – over $34,000 less than the earnings of white men.*

If women’s incomes matched those of white men, what would that additional money mean for women of color in our community? It would be more than enough to fund an entire associate’s degree at a local community college. It would fund more than half of a bachelor’s degree at some local universities. It would send three children to a really high-quality preschool in DC. And it would cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in the District. It could provide more reliable transportation and could fund afterschool activities and trips. Something could be set aside for the inevitable emergencies life throws everyone’s way, and investments could be made.

In addition to funding the basic needs of themselves and their families, these women would be putting a staggering amount of money back into our community. In our report, 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, we shared that nearly two million women live in the DC region. Fifty-three percent of them are Asian, black or Latina – that’s about one million. If just half of them had an income that matched the median earnings of white men, they’d have a combined income of $42 trillion. And that’s only half! Imagine if all women across the area were compensated as well as men….

That money would support families, be spent at local businesses, and could be invested in assets across our region that would build better neighborhoods and ultimately a better community. A significant portion would go to the federal government and – given the fact that women donate an average of 3.5 percent of their wealth – the nonprofit community would see some pretty significant changes, as well.

In addition to discussing what women would do with a higher income, I think it’s important to recognize what we can all accomplish when women earn more. Like so many other things, pay equity is an issue that primarily touches the lives of women – but it’s not simply a “women’s issue.” It affects every one of us and as long as it exists, it means that we’re not doing as well as we could be economically or morally. Equal pay for equal work is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and the only thing to do if we truly want to make this a country where everyone can thrive.

*See page 32 of 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Leaning in isn’t an option for all women

lean inSheryl Sandberg has stirred up quite a bit of controversy with her book “Lean In,” in which she advises women to assert themselves in the workplace and beyond. Sandberg calls women out for creating invisible, self-imposed barriers when considering how far they want to go in their respective careers. She notes, “we hold ourselves back in ways both big and small by lacking self confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” With the ongoing dialogue sparked from this book, I can’t help but wonder about the women who have real-life barriers that impede their professional growth.

While I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for tackling this complex issue and bringing it (once again) to the forefront of national discourse, I think for most women this issue is bigger than simply asking more questions at the weekly staff meeting. Currently in Washington D.C., one in five women live in poverty and women are 35 percent more likely to be in poverty than men. In Washington Area Women’s Foundation’s 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, we shared that female-headed households in the District had the lowest median incomes in the region, earning $29,000 annually. For these economically disadvantaged women, leaning in can be tough to do when there are so many other mitigating factors surrounding their survival. Issues like the cost of childcare, unemployment/underemployment, lack of educational attainment, transportation, and securing affordable housing continue to stifle women within this region.

With all that being said, I do feel that Sandberg is definitely on to something! By choosing to launch a nonprofit in conjunction with her book, she’s demonstrating that her words alone are not enough. LeanIn.org is geared towards empowering and encouraging women to create their own Lean In Circles, which will serve as a space for women to come together and strategize on how to push their careers to the next level. My suggestion would be to add an advocacy packet to the Lean In Circle kit that would educate women on how to become spokeswomen for those who can’t advocate for themselves. The message that action must accompany words is invaluable and perhaps the most meaningful piece in this whole debate. Of course, we all want equal pay and a well-deserved promotion, but imagine the power that we could collectively posses if we not only leaned in for ourselves, but also for the women that aren’t afforded the same opportunity. Now that would be powerful!

What would you add to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circles? Share below.