Our third International Dinner, at Manlius Pebble Hill School on March 19, 2006, began with blessings by women of six faiths. Speakers included Syracuse University chancellor Nancy Cantor; Madelyn Chadwick of the Syracuse transitional women’s housing program, Chadwick Residence; and Erica Tavares, Deputy Director for Development of Women for Women International. Proceeds from the dinner went to Chadwick Residence and Women for Women. Before we ate, blessings were offered by representatives of six faiths: Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim.
Nancy Cantor spoke on “Women and Community.” She began by praising WTB as the most impressive grass-roots organization she has seen in any town. She wanted to underscore the historic importance of the two-way street running between national and international women’s organizations and the central New York community, creating a dialogue and networks that transcend boundaries.
Central New York is a remarkable region historically, she added. It was home to Matilda Josyln Gage, a leading suffragette, and the ancient home of the Haudenosaunee whose Federation was the model for our federal system of government. The Federation also made a critical contribution to forming the ideas and goals of women locally and around the world.
At a recent presentation at Syracuse Stage, the historian Sally Roesch Wagner and Onondaga clan mother Jeanne Shenandoah told the audience that equality of men and women was an arrangement that men and women of European descent couldn’t imagine even as late as the end of the nineteenth century. All property and children belonged to men, and their wills could give all to someone other than the spouse and mother. These standards were written into the laws of both of both church and state. This was the context.
Haudenosaunee women showed suffragettes by their example that women could participate day by day in politics and family as equals of men. Children belong to the mother and her clan. Gage and other suffragettes were well aware of the Haudenosaunee tradition. The suffragettes had a network of friendships within the indigenous community as well as with abolitionists. Gage wrote of the suffragettes’ indebtedness to the Haudenosaunee, especially the Onondagas and wrote, “Under their women the science of government reached the highest form known to the world.” Gage gave a prophetic message to her community. “To those who fancy we are near the end of the battle or that the reformers’ path is strewn with roses, we may say to them, nay the thick of the fight has just begun … neither shall we who carry on the fight reap the great reward. We are battling for the good of those who still come after us. They, not ourselves, shall enter into the harvest.”
Nancy continued that we have the vote but the battle is far from over. The cry for justice arises from our city, our nation, and our world. For example, in 2002 the developing world had 815 million hungry people, and malnutrition contributes to more than half of all child deaths. 10.6 million children die before the age of five most of them from pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, measles, premature delivery and asphyxia at birth. Pregnancy and childbirth end in death, not life, for more half a million mothers every year. Half die in Africa,and most of the rest in Asia. At the end of 2004 an estimated 39 million people around the world were living with HIV and the annual death rate of HIV/AIDS included 510,000 children. In New York City a survey of 100,000 homeless adults between 2001 and 2003 showed that they die at twice the rate of other city residents and are seven times as likely to die of AIDS. We can use these statistics as background to what we know about our own city and region. These statistics are not detached from WTB here, but transcend the boundary between here and there, grounding our local experience in broader news.
The news was depressing in the past, when women and children were property, but we have come this far and we can do it again. The history of change in social opportunity often has been bands of women banding together — what we celebrate here tonight.
Madelyn Chadwick, president of Chadwick Residence Board of Directors, spoke about how Chadwick Residence provides transitional living for women in need. Madelyn described Chadwick as a small agency, with a tight budget, doing a big job in the community. They have 12 rooms for single women and 5 for women with one or two children. They provide what residents need to build their self confidence and self esteem, and take up where crisis shelters leave off.
Madelyn explained that she is the daughter-in-law of Axilda Chadwick, who was passionate about improving the lives of abused and displaced women and instrumental in the establishment of Vera House. Chadwick Residence was named to honor her intense involvement helping local women in need. Because of her involvement at the residence she became a role model for the women she affectionately called “my girls.”
Last October they expanded with the help of a three year HUD grant which funded up to 12 supportive permanent apartments. These are for women who meet the criteria for living on their own but still need services. Nine women have moved from Chadwick Residence to these more independent apartments already.
Women and children can stay at Chadwick up to two years, and the residence has many success stories. Chadwick advocates education as a means to helping women become self-sustaining. Residents have completed GEDs, earned Associates and Bachelors degrees, and one woman has completed a law degree.
Whenever Madelyn speaks about Chadwick, she always wears some item that had belonged to Axilda. Today she wore her scarf. Then Madelyn opened Axilda’s umbrella and stood under it. She said this was Chadwick Residence, and under this umbrella women are safe because the doors are locked, and they can learn parenting skills. Under this umbrella women learn independent living skills and women can be connected to other services in the community. Under this umbrella are dedicated and hardworking staff who give hours of case management services and are friends who will listen and provide a shoulder to lean on. Under this umbrella women are no longer homeless, but part of a family and receive assistance in exploring jobs and training for job readiness.
Residents are followed for six months after they leave, to make sure that their lives are on track, until they are ready to step from under the umbrella with skills, confidence, and people to make the transition easier.
A resident wrote the following poem about her experiences at Vera House:
Ode to a Shelter
Shelter me from life’s big storms that roar inside my mind
Hold me in your warmth and strength, as slowly, I unwind
When, at first, I come to you, I am like an orphaned child:
With clinging hands I grasp your skirt, my life is spinning wild
Hiding from realities my eyes are squeezed so tight
With a gentle voice and coaxing word you help me in my fight
Step by step I learn to walk, accepting who I am
I smile and wave a thank you
I can stand.
Erica Tavares, deputy director for development of Women for Women International, based in Washington D.C. showed a video portraying people displaced by war, 80 percent being women and children. Rape is used systematically as a weapon of war. Women for Women works with these women who have lost homes, families, everything to help them move from being a victim to a survivor to a citizen who is active in the reconstruction of her society. Women for Women believes that women are the glue that holds a nation together, and healing them physically and emotionally so that they can move forward with gusto and grace will heal the nation.
The 1993 mission statement states: Women for Women International provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, thereby promoting viable civil societies.
The one-year program begins with sponsorship. Sponsors from the US and around the world are matched with an individual woman and provide $57 initially then $27 monthly to support a woman. In addition, sponsors are asked to write a monthly letter to this woman, providing emotional support and encouragement, as many displaced women have no social network – family and friends are gone and they have no one to talk to. Many women carry their letters with them and ask the Women for Women workers ”Do you know my sponsor?” and are delighted when a worker can say “Yes, I have talked to her.” Through their connection to the letter-writer, women learn that they need to reconnect with their new community.
Part of the sponsor money is used for skills training, and the rest goes directly to the woman. She may use the funds for food, or to buy domestic animals, or to pay for her child’s education (in Rwanda it costs $40 a year to send a child to school, but most women could not afford that without help).
Once the woman is financially stable, groups of twenty or so women (who may belong to different religions and ethnicities, or warring factions such as Tutsi and Hutu, or Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian) are brought together and learn to celebrate their similarities. Then the second phase, called Renewals, begins. This includes rights awareness training where women learn their rights under the constitution. They also learn about the economic value of housework so they see that they are contributing daily to the economic value of their family, and learn about health, politics and the role of women in society. An indirect approach helps: workers tell stories about women in another area then elicit discussion about whether the situation (e.g., domestic violence or vote buying) happens here, and how do we deal with this here. After three months job skills training begins. Women are taught trades that may not be traditional for women but which will assure adequate income – carpentry, upholstery, jewelry or soap making, beekeeping, embroidery, etc.
In the income-generation phase, these groups form cooperatives to generate income. They learn about microcredit, cooperative stores, savings programs, and international markets that they can access through websites and other outlets. Thirteen thousand women have received loans of $18.5 million. The repayment rate has been 99%.
Women for Women has been able to serve 55,000 women in eight countries: Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda. The newest office will be in the Sudan outside of Darfur.
Women are changing the lives of other women. Erica repeated a quote she saw in a genocide museum in Rwanda, “If you save one life, you save humanity.” Contact Women for Women at www.womenforwomen.org.
After our final speaker, Mara Sapon-Shevin asked the entire room of women to get up and create a circle. She taught us to sing “Oh what a lovely thing / If the people of the earth / Could live together / In peace,” and then we sang again, in rounds. It was a lovely send-off after an inspiring evening.