Top 10 Blog Posts of 2014

Best of 2014 graphicWe can’t believe we’re finding ourselves at the end of yet another awesome year. While 2014 has flown by, there’s still time to slow down a bit and reflect on all that 2014 held for us as a foundation, a region and a nation.

This past year The Women’s Foundation grants of over $1 million touched the lives of 6,000 women and girls in our region, and the African American Women’s Giving Circle and Rainmakers Giving Circle invested an additional $80,000 in women and girls. We witnessed the launch of national initiatives like The Shriver Report, blew past our annual Leadership Luncheon fundraising goal (again!) and continued lifting the voices of women and girls in our community. We captured these and other events in our top blog posts from 2014, below.

1, 2, and 3. Grantmaking: In the blog posts 2014 Grants Will Help 6,000 Women & Girls, Rainmakers Giving Circle – Five Grants Awarded, and African American Women’s Giving Circle Celebrates Ten Years we highlight an amazing year of grantmaking at the Foundation and the profound impacts that these investments can have. These blogs remind us of the power of collective giving and how transformative change comes from standing together.

4. #WhatWomenNeed – A Call to Action: The Shriver Report catapulted the conversation about women and poverty to a national level dialogue when it was released in January. In this blog post, we explore the report’s actionable items and how women’s funds are uniquely positioned to make a difference.

5. Adult Education and Family Literacy in Our Region: This year The Women’s Foundation happily welcomed Claudia Williams to our staff as our Research and Evaluation Program Officer. Claudia has been busy analyzing data and turning it into digestible, yet data packed blog posts, like this one for Adult Education and Family Literacy Week.

6. High School Credential Opening Doors of Opportunity: During Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, our Grantee Partner, Academy of Hope, inspired us with their guest blog post about one of their learners, Beverly, and the doors that have opened to her since earning her high school credential.

7. Black History Month: Four Ways the Work of the Civil Rights Movement Continues in 2014: In this blog piece, we explore four ways that the Civil Rights Movement continues to affect us all today, and the critical role that organizations like The Women’s Foundation can play in ensuring that all women have a seat at the table and a forum for their voices.

8. In Her Words: Transportation Barriers: In this powerful blog piece, we were able to offer a platform to the voice of Katrice Brooks, a student at our Grantee Partner So Other’s Might Eat (SOME) Center for Employment Training (CET). Katrice explained the obstacles that she faces with transportation and how these hinder her efforts to take advantage of opportunities to provide a better life for herself and her daughter.

9 and 10. Gender Pay Gap: This year we celebrated the 51st anniversary of the Equal Pay Act and saw President Obama sign legislation aimed at narrowing the pay gap for women who work for federal contractors. However, we still live with the reality that women make less than their male counterparts. In the blog piece Closing the Gender Wage Gap: Why We Can’t Afford to Wait, Foundation President Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat explains why the time is now to close the gender pay gap. In The Gender Wage Gap, Unveiled, Research and Evaluation Program Officer Claudia Williams provides data on the gender pay gap in our region and reminds us that, with four in ten American households with children now relying on a mother as the primary breadwinner for her family, closing the pay gap has never been more critical.

One Fellow’s Perspective on The Women’s Foundation

Women's Foundation Luncheon 2014Throughout my semester as a fellow, The Women’s Foundation introduced me to the world of foundations and philanthropy (a professional goal of the Fellows Program as well as an academic goal as I pursue my masters). It has been incredible to see how as a grantmaker, they really impact so many groups and people. However, most importantly to me, was the personal education I have received from the team as individuals, as a staff and as a foundation—each changemakers in their own way. I learned so much about the issues and challenges facing this local community. Just a few days before my last day at the Foundation, this hit me in the most unexpected way when I was leaving the office and picked up the latest Street Sense newspaper.

You see, I had been helping staff research evictions and homelessness in the region, so it was very much on my mind when I left the office. It’s an issue that’s tugged at me in a lot of ways, and being in a bigger city like Washington, DC brings it up close and personal every day. I’ve been picking up Street Sense the last few weeks, especially given my route through Metro Center.

I flipped to the back page to find a profile on Veda Simpson, the Street Sense vendor who sings “O When the Saints Go Marching In” at the Metro Center corner. It was a really beautiful profile, and I was smiling reading about her life—and then I saw the end note that “Veda Simpson passed away on Monday November 24.” I had a lump in my throat immediately. I hadn’t interacted with her more than a hello now and then and buying the paper, but reading about her death hit me really hard, as she was the reason I smiled every day getting off the metro. There was more about her on the center fold, her accomplishments, her kindness and her struggles to get there.

So why am I walking you through my evening reading about Veda? Because while Veda was a strength and a character and a bright spot in DC in her own right, welcoming the busy commuters with a positive greeting every morning, it’s because of The Women’s Foundation that I now feel a stronger awareness, as well as a more meaningful connection to Veda and women like her. Women like all of us who work through a myriad of challenges, some more visible or more severe than others. The Foundation’s work and commitment demonstrates and validates the potential for societies to be more supportive and empowering for women and girls…to help them THRIVE. (That is the word in the mission that caught my attention the most during my initial research and application for the position).

I wasn’t sure when or how I would begin to feel connected to this area after I moved here last fall—and frankly, it is easy to stay in a grad school bubble. But this fellowship offered a unique and meaningful experience that has helped me grow academically, professionally and personally. I’m only sorry I couldn’t put in more time here with them, as they undertake a heavy lift to move the needle. But my goodness, if any team can do it, it’s: Jennifer, Nicole, Virginie, Jessica, Crystal, Lauren, Claudia, Donna, Sylvia—THANK YOU.

I’ve learned so much—not only the struggles, but what is being done to make a difference.

With gratitude,

Rebecca Scherpelz
Philanthropy Fellow
The Center for Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park

An ‘Open Door’ to Financial Security

Editor’s note: Below is a guest blog post from Grantee Partner Doorways for Women and Families.

When Susan left her abusive husband and entered our Safehouse, she had had no control over her finances for years. Her immediate safety had always been her main concern, so her financial circumstances were a lower priority. But we knew that for Susan to successfully leave this relationship, we had to make her financial security a priority as well.

At Doorways for Women and Families, we know that financial stability is critical to the long-term safety and independence of survivors of domestic violence. Having an independent income, an understanding of debt and savings and knowledge of money management can make the difference between a survivor maintaining his/her safety or returning to their abuser. That is why in 2005, we created our Financial Independence Track (FIT), a program that helps clients develop financial literacy and skills.

After suffering years of abuse and control, many of our clients are unfamiliar with how to manage their finances. Financial abuse can also leave our clients with major debts from $2,000-$60,000, while their incomes often only range from $6,000-$24,000. These issues are compounded by feelings of low self-esteem, depression and fear leading to severe deficits in their sense of empowerment over their finances.

When Susan met her financial counselor, she pulled her credit report and discovered that her husband had run up her credit card with $6,000 in student loan debt.  Susan’s only source of income was her Social Security Disability Insurance, but her FIT counselor shared that she might be eligible for debt forgiveness through the U.S. Department of Education’s Total Permanent Disability Discharge Program.  Within four weeks of submitting the application, Susan’s case was sent to their office for review and her debt relieved. As Susan began to see some light at the end of the tunnel, she continued to work with our FIT program and saved $2,257 to help her secure her own apartment.

Our FIT program takes a multifaceted approach to address the financial challenges of Doorways’ clients, ensure we fully understand a client’s personal financial situation and find the best resources and solutions available. Through regular one-on-one sessions, FIT counselors help by:

  • Meeting clients were they are financially to build tailored financial plans; Doorways number of clients served
  • Improving clients’ understanding of basic money management through creation of a monthly budget and education on the importance of credit reports/scores;
  • Helping clients understand strategies to reduce debt;
  • Aiding clients in understanding their rights, how to communicate with collectors and address debt which may inhibit them from living independently;
  • Creating separate bank accounts for our clients, ending their association with their abuser’s finances; and
  • Helping clients to live self-sufficiently and independently.

Unfortunately, Susan’s story is not unique. Far too many women are on the verge of returning to abusive situations because they lack the financial stability on their own, but support from organizations like Washington Area Women’s Foundation ensures these stories end with a brighter future. Over the years, we have seen tremendous success from our FIT model, and we continue to grow our program by partnering with area businesses, community groups and individual community members to help create pathways to employment and financial success and security for our clients.

To learn more about FIT, and how you can help reach more survivors of domestic violence and families experiencing homelessness, visit: www.doorwaysva.org.


Doorways has been a Washington Area Women’s Foundation Grantee Partner since 2007.

African American Women’s Giving Circle Celebrates Ten Years

This year, the African American Women’s Giving Circle (AAWGC), one of two giving circles sponsored by the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, celebrates its 10th anniversary. To date, AAWGC has disbursed more than $226,000 in grants to local nonprofit Grantee Partners serving the needs of African American women and girls.

While we honor what we have accomplished in that time, the recent wave of protests across the country sparked by hurt and outrage among many people—of all colors—reminds us that the most important days of our work are ahead. If we are to address the critical issues facing many communities of color, the economic security of vulnerable women and girls is more essential than ever.

AAWGC’s goals are simple: encourage philanthropy among African American women, and, by pooling our members’ financial contributions, help local organizations address unmet needs. We focus our resources on area organizations that are led by an African American woman and serve the needs of African American women and girls. We look for organizations that demonstrate innovative and promising approaches to addressing the social and economic obstacles that are barriers to success for African American women and girls.

For example, this year, we made $8,000 in grants to three unique organizations: Breast Care for Washington, which operates the only state-of-the-art breast cancer screening facility east of the Anacostia River; Courtney’s House, which helps women and children heal from domestic sex trafficking and commercial sex exploitation; and Ramona’s Way, which offers holistic services for women who abuse substances and who are also survivors of emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse.

We are proud to support these organizations, the women who run them and the invaluable work they do in our communities.

As AAWGC’s chair, I am equally proud of the women, like myself, who have pooled their financial contributions—and given their time and talents—to help these unique organizations. And I am proud that together and individually we can each say, “I am a philanthropist” and together we are making a difference.

Pay It Forward

One of my favorite books is “Pay It Forward” by Catherine Ryan Hyde which was then made into a movie starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the movie did not do the book justice.  But, what can you do…Hollywood!

The storyline is that the thirteen year old protagonist, Trevor McKinney, is given an assignment by his social studies teacher to devise and put into action a plan that will change the world for the better. His plan — called “Pay It Forward” — is based on the networking of good deeds. He does a significant favor for three people, and then asks each recipient of a favor to do an equally significant favor for three others rather than paying the favor back to the person that did it for them. This notion of “paying it forward” has become a well-known meme but it begs a question about the notions of “paying back” and “paying forward” that have really interesting implications for philanthropy.

Looking at patterns of giving, we see that some of the highest philanthropic giving goes to churches, alma maters, etc. People feel very connected to places that have helped shape their lives in some way and are thus compelled to support them when they have the means. This kind of giving, while important and meaningful, really is about “giving back.”

Now, think about how the concept of “paying it forward” plays out in philanthropy.

There is a point in the story where Trevor believes that his experiment is a failure because it doesn’t catch on the way he had hoped. But in the book, as in life, we see that while paying back can offer more immediate results (we have that more direct connect between the benefactor and the beneficiary), paying it forward takes much more time and much more faith that our act of kindness — or in the case of philanthropy and generosity — yields what we hope it will: someone whose life has changed in a way that compels and allows them to do the same for others.

This pay it forward model of philanthropy is really what the work of The Women’s Foundation is about. But it takes a leap of faith, which is hard to do.  We already know that our churches and schools have helped us – we experience first-hand the impact on our own lives that these institutions have had. But how comfortable are we in making an investment in something that is often very much outside of our own experience, and/or will take time to yield dividends? Like the stock market, social change and pay it forward philanthropy is about the long-game. But also like the stock market, for those who are patient and willing to take some measure of “risk” by believing in the potential of something they have not yet seen come to pass or experienced, there is the opportunity to see incredible returns. It is clear that when you invest in the power and potential of people, the impact can be profound.

If you have any doubt about the power of “paying it forward,” just read Catherine Hyde Ryan’s book. And next time you think about your philanthropy, ask yourself – are you paying back, or can you be bold enough to also pay it forward?

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat’s Luncheon Remarks

On October 23, The Women’s Foundation President and CEO, Jennifer Lockwood- Shabat, gave the following remarks at the 2014 Leadership Luncheon. Please click here to see a video of her delivering the speech in its entirety.

Here. Now. For Her. – is this year’s luncheon theme.  I hope as you thought about coming today, you also took a moment to reflect on what this means to you.

Why are you here, now—in this moment?  Who is the “her” in your life who has touched you profoundly, or whose life you have touched? 

For me, this theme is deeply personal. You see, in many ways, I am HER.  And I am here today because of my mother, Dianna Lockwood.

My mom grew up poor in a small town in NH, on a working farm, the youngest of three sisters. She never had the opportunity to go to college.  She met my dad while working as a medical transcriptionist at a VA hospital in Vermont.  He was a physician’s assistant.  They created a wonderful life—two kids and a house they built on 10 acres of land.

JLS-family-merged-photos

And then the summer I was 10, it all changed. I remember the day well – my mom and dad came home in the middle of the day looking very sad and confused.  It was the early 80s, and many of you will remember, a recession was hitting the country.  The small private doctor’s office in our hometown was struggling financially, so they made a business decision – lay off the person who made the most (my dad) and the person who made the least (my mom). That decision changed our lives forever.

Up until that point, my dad was a high-functioning alcoholic. But being laid off crushed him, and he turned to alcohol frequently and worked only sporadically. We repaired our relationship later in my life, and he was an amazing grandfather to my girls before he passed away 5 years ago. But for the rest of my childhood, it was my mom who got up every day and put one foot in front of the other, consistently working two and three jobs to make ends meet.

I knew that my mom was making great sacrifices so that my brother and I would have the opportunities that she did not.  I could see how tired and stressed she was, and I’m certain there were many days when she’d simply had enough. I learned early on that if I wanted something, I needed to work hard to earn it.  I got my first job at 15.  That summer, and every summer for the rest of high school, I too worked two jobs, selling tickets at the local race track by day and waitressing at the local Pizza Hut by night.

I worked not because I wanted extra spending money, but to pay for basic necessities and do what I could to save for college. My mom always regretted not having that opportunity, but was determined that her children would.  It wasn’t easy financially, and I worked full-time pretty much the entire way, but I am proud to say that I am the first person on my mom’s side of the family to not only get a 4-year degree, but also a master’s degree.

Today is a big deal for my mom.  She’s here, with my husband, my daughters, and my brother.  She’s watching her little girl on stage, running a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, remembering some very dark days, and I know she’s thinking, “Damn, it was all worth it.”

Women's Foundation Luncheon 2014

So, I do what I do because of her. I’ve devoted my career to working on behalf of low-income women and their families because I want her to know that the investment she made in me, all of her sacrifices, were not in vain.  And now that I’m a mother, I have a new, more profound understanding of what she did, and I know that as I strive to make a better life for my own daughters, I am paying forward what my mother has given me.

But, my story is just one story.  There are many, many others.  Thousands of women who do all they can to ensure their children and families can step beyond their own experiences and limitations to live their dreams and achieve their potential.  But sometimes having a dream and working hard is not enough. Sometimes the deck is stacked against you.

There are more than 200,000 women and girls living in poverty across the Washington metropolitan region. Sadly, that statistic hasn’t changed significantly in recent years, particularly in light of the recession and what has now become a slow and prolonged recovery for those most in need. That stat also doesn’t capture the additional 250,000 women and girls who are living just above the poverty line, but certainly aren’t earning enough to make ends meet.

As frustrating as these numbers are, and as impatient as we all are for change, we have to remember that most women in our community didn’t suddenly fall into poverty.  It’s multigenerational.  And just as it didn’t happen overnight, it won’t be resolved overnight.

What does it take to move women and girls from a place of economic vulnerability to security?

The answers to that question and the issues our region faces are complex, but now is the time to stand firm in our commitment, craft a bold vision, and re-double our efforts so that future generations of girls can achieve their dreams. That’s why we launched an innovative two-generation initiative to work with middle school aged girls and their female caregivers—whether that’s a mother, grandmother, or another women responsible for guiding and shaping that girl.

You all remember what it was like to be in middle school. It’s a difficult transition under the best of circumstances. As girls develop into young women, there are clear and critical markers that can support or challenge their future economic security.

Our goals for investing in girls are to support high school completion, develop self-esteem, encourage positive choices, and empower them as social change agents.

Our goals for investing in women are to obtain jobs with family sustaining wages and benefits, support increased financial capability, and provide the foundational skills that allow them to break the cycle of poverty for their children.

In the past year, we’ve been proud to partner with College Success Foundation, DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative and YWCA National Capital Area to help forge collaborations and creative thinking on ways to serve both middle school aged girls and their female caregivers with programming that meets their individual needs, while also bringing them together so that they can support one another on this journey. This work will first launch in Ward 7, but our goal is expand our two-generation work across the region, so that the 53,000 girls currently living in poverty can have a brighter future.

The two-generation strategy actually builds and expands upon a decade of investments in our community that have focused on low-income women and women-headed families specifically. Through our grantmaking program, Stepping Stones, we have invested more than $7 million. And that investment has helped over 10,000 women increase their incomes and assets by $45 million through higher wages, decreased debt, and increased savings.

Luncheon-Infographic

Yes, these are impactful outcomes, but I believe we need to think bigger.  We are capable of doing more.  How do we move from 10,000 women to 100,000 or 200,000?  My goal is to, one day, stand before you and say we’ve accomplished this.  And I believe we can do it.

The Women’s Foundation has a powerful voice, and we have a responsibility to use that voice and our power as a convener to affect greater change. Yes, our investments in the community are critically important, but so too is our voice and our deep expertise and knowledge.  These are tools we can leverage, and it’s the combination of our investments and our influence that will ultimately have the greatest impact.

But it’s not just about us.  I know that no one organization can single-handedly end poverty.  This will require unprecedented collaboration and partnership among philanthropy, business, government, nonprofits, and individuals. And we need all of you, here in this room, to help spark a movement. We are poised and ready to lead that movement, and I want each of you to join me. Let’s harness our collective strength to, in turn, strengthen others.

This is the time—NOW.

Because what we do in this moment will shape the future of our communities. There are thousands of women and girls who need us now, more than ever.  Each one of them has hopes and dreams, and they deserve the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Stand with us. 

HERE…NOW…FOR HER.

Thank you.

 

A Look at the 2013 Poverty Data For Our Region

Last month, the U.S. Census Bureau released new data that gives us a snapshot of what poverty was like in 2013 in the Washington region. The data shows that poverty rates have slightly increased from 2012 and that women continue to be more likely than men to experience economic insecurity. This means they can barely afford paying their basic necessities such as food, housing, health insurance, and transportation. Roughly 10 percent, or almost 210,000 women and girls, in our region lived in poverty, compared with 159,700 men and boys, or 8 percent. Things were worst for families headed by single mothers—almost a quarter were poor— and for women of color—about 14 percent of Latinas and 16 of percent of African-American women struggled with poverty compared with only 6 percent of White women.

Poverty Data chart

There are many reasons why families fall below the poverty threshold, including unemployment, the persistent gender wage gap, barriers to accessing education and discrimination. But one of the key factors is low-quality and low-income jobs. Many women in our region are working more than full-time at poverty-level wages with little to no benefits. That means, for example, supporting a family of four with less than $24,000  last year.  In a region like ours, where costs of housing, food and transportation are among the highest in the nation, $24,000 is not nearly enough to make a living. According to the Economic Security Index calculated by Wider Opportunities for Women, a family of four composed of two workers, an infant and a school child need an approximate annual income of $117,880 in the District of Columbia and $103,960 in Prince George’s County, for example, to meet their basic needs without receiving any public or private assistance.

The newly released data highlights the urgency of the work we are doing at The Women’s Foundation. In collaboration with our Grantee Partners we are helping women access basic education, enroll in workforce development programs, access financial education programs and find high-quality and affordable early care and education for their children. Such efforts help build their economic security and give them the opportunity to achieve their goals. Securing stable employment with living wages can alleviate the burden of living pay-check to pay-check and the constant worrying about how to make ends meet and care for their families, while allowing them to save and plan for a bright future.

Based on the stories we hear from our Grantee Partners and learn from our evaluation efforts we know we are impacting women’s lives. Maya was enrolled in one of YearUp’s workforce development programs. The odds were against her. She was living in a low-cost housing complex for mothers with many rules that made her participation in the program more challenging. She had to miss several days to take care of her sick child and money was always a concern for her, but she pushed through these obstacles and exceled at her classes and job internship. Upon graduation from the program she secured a full-time job with benefits and a salary that lifted her and her son out of poverty and changed the trajectory of their lives.

As we continue supporting the work of our Grantee Partners many more lives and families like Maya’s will be impacted. In the meantime, the updated poverty numbers are an important reminder that the work we do together is crucial to our community. We still have a long way to go before we realize a future where all women are economically secure.

 

Adult Education and Family Literacy in Our Region

Adult Education and Family Literacy Week is held each September with the purpose of raising awareness about the importance of basic literacy and numeracy skills for personal and social well-being, and economic security. Basic skills are key drivers of economic growth and societal advancement, and critical to the prosperity and development of children and families.

In the United States, 36 million adults have low levels of literacy and numeracy skills— meaning they aren’t able to read, write, and solve problems at levels necessary to perform their job or navigate common situations which require literacy; or they’re unable to use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas. Despite high levels of education nationwide, literacy and numeracy in the United States are still relatively weak compared to other industrialized countries, with little sign of improvement in recent decades according to a study released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) last fall.

Adult Literacy chart

The OECD study also revealed that socio-economic background has a very strong influence on adult basic skills. The incidence of low literacy and numeracy levels affects minorities, immigrants and communities of color at a disproportionate rate. According to the study, eight out of ten adults lacking basic skills are either Black (35 percent) or Hispanic (43 percent), compared with only one out of ten for Whites.

In our region, it is estimated that almost half a million people, or about 15 percent of the population 18 years and over, lack basic literacy skills. Prince George’s County has the largest concentration of low-skilled adults, roughly 22 percent of the population, followed by the District of Columbia (19 percent), Arlington (17 percent) and Alexandria (16 percent). Fairfax and Montgomery County adults fare a bit better, with only 11 percent of the population lacking basic literacy skills. These figures go hand-in-hand with educational attainment rates for adults 25 years and over. Prince George’s County has the largest share of adults (41 percent)  who have only a high school degree or less, almost 15 percent higher than the regional average (27 percent) and roughly twice as much compared with Arlington (17 percent), the city of Alexandria (20 percent), Fairfax County (22 percent) and Montgomery County (24 percent).

Literacy and numeracy are highly linked to employment outcomes and economic security. Basic reading, writing and math skills are often a requirement for jobs that pay living wages. It becomes even harder to move up the ladder or succeed in workforce development programs if the baseline to understand new concepts, learn and participate in program activities is missing. Lack of literacy and numeracy skills affects individuals beyond their capacity to earn a living; it is also deeply correlated with personal well-being. Adults with low literacy skills are more likely to report low levels of health, trust, political efficacy, and volunteering. Parents’ reading and math skills also have a lasting impact on their children’s development and future success in schooling. Studies show that children of parents who have not completed high school are more likely to drop out themselves. As parents increase their literacy, they are better equipped to become involved in their children’s education and provide financial stability for their families.

At The Women’s Foundation, we recognize the importance of building basic skills among adults and the power of education to break the cycle of poverty. Since 2012, we have supported Academy of Hope’s efforts to provide women with the basic skills needed to be on a path toward obtaining better jobs and improving their overall well-being. In fact, last year for Adult and Family Literacy Week, we brought you the story of an Academy of Hope graduate, Dorothy, who taught us, at age 74, that it is never too late to go back to school.  This year, the Foundation has continued its support for Academy of Hope, investing in the transition of Academy of Hope to an adult public charter school. In addition, through the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative, the Foundation invests in school-readiness programs for children aged 0-5 that provide the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

Basic education for all lays the groundwork to live and work together, communicate, develop and share knowledge, and earn a living that pays family sustaining wages. Investing in adult and early childhood education is helping families to build a better economic future and increase social and personal well-being. Through our grants, we’re working towards a high literacy future for our region, taking a page out of Dorothy’s book and sticking to her motto, “If you dream it, you can achieve it.”

High School Credential Opening Doors of Opportunity

The Adult and Family Literacy Month blog post below is written by  Lecester Johnson, Executive Director of The Women’s Foundation’s Grantee Partner, Academy of Hope.

Bev Simms_crop pic

Beverly S., a recent graduate of Academy of Hope, exclaimed, “Getting my high school diploma is the best!” She adds, “It’s so good to take on a challenge and complete it. It (a high school credential) is already opening up new doors of opportunity for me!”

Beverly, like so many adults in Washington, DC, was desperate to get her high school credential and begin to turn her life around.  She was one of the lucky ones.  More than 64,000 adults in the District of Columbia lack a high school credential but the city only serves about 7,000 residents through its locally funded adult education programs and adult charter schools. In recent years, Academy of Hope has had a waiting list of over 200 adults each term with the goal of obtaining their GED or improving their academic skills to obtain a better job or to enter college. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 30 million adults lack a high school credential in the U.S.  Across the city, adult education providers report long waiting lists for their services. Yet, for the last ten years, national and local funding has continued to decline, with more cuts to come due to sequestration.

Adult education has been the easy target for cuts as we blame adults for squandering an opportunity – one that some would argue, given the life circumstance of many who drop out, never existed. The ramifications of continued funding cuts in adult education have begun to reveal themselves. The release of survey results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competency (PIAAC) last fall confirmed what many in adult education already knew. American adults are not doing well in literacy, numeracy or problem solving skills compared to other countries. The impact of low literacy extends beyond the adult with low skills. PIACC findings indicate that more than any of the 24 nations participating in the survey, a U.S. parent’s literacy and socioeconomic status had the greatest impact on a child’s ability to succeed in school. Because of this, it is not surprising that U.S. results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA are also lagging. PISA is designed to test whether high school students can apply what they’ve learned in school to real-life problems.

When dealing with the drop-out crisis, elected officials often cite stopping the pipeline of dropouts as a justification for increased funding in K-12 education. The pipeline, however, begins with the parent. Parents with strong literacy skills can better help their children do homework, study and succeed in school. According to a 2012 Urban Institute report, young adults whose parents have a high school diploma are more likely to complete high school than are those whose parents do not. They are also less likely to live in poverty.

Beverly S., who is also a mother of two, illustrates the key role a parent’s literacy plays. She says her life has been a struggle but she managed to get by, and she always instilled in her children the importance of learning and finishing high school. Both of her children graduated high school. Her example is also motivating her son to continue his training as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and work towards a stable career.

Beverly has already begun to reap the benefits of her education. Most recently, she applied and was accepted to Public Allies’ DC fellowship program. Through Public Allies, she has been placed at Academy of Hope and serves as our Student Navigator, providing support for fellow adult learners! She says her plan after her 10-month Public Allies fellowship is to enroll in college to study business management. With her high school diploma in hand, Beverly is aiming for a career, not just a job. Her goal is to own her own business, become a consultant to help other small businesses and nonprofits, and someday buy a house of her own.