A Short History of Cambridge Women

Throughout Cambridge’s history, women have led the charge in creating change, progress, and growth for the city. Their contributions have inspired individuals and moved Cambridge forward. YWCA Cambridge had the chance to sit down with History Cambridge’s Communications Manager, Talia Franks for a conversation on Women’s History Month: 

Whitney Mooney: Are there any “firsts” in Cambridge? 

Talia Franks:
Councilor E. Denise Simmons:
In 2001, Simmons successfully ran and gained a seat on the Cambridge City Council, and by 2008, she was unanimously elected Mayor by fellow Council members. She made national headlines as the first African American openly lesbian mayor in the country and the first African American female mayor in Massachusetts. Simmons is currently serving her 10th term as a City Councilor. Read more here.

Lois Lilley Howe:
In 1888, Howe entered MIT’s School of Architecture and took the two-year “Partial Architecture” course. During this time, she was a founding member of MIT’s first woman student’s group, Eta Sigma Mu. In 1894, she received her first commission to build a house. In 1901, she established her own firm and became the second woman elected to the American Institute of Architects. She was the first woman elected to the Boston Society of Architects. Read about her life here.

Maria Louise Baldwin:
Born and educated in Cambridge, Baldwin graduated from the Cambridge Teachers Training School in 1875. In 1882, she was appointed principal of Agassiz School, the first black woman to be appointed as a principal in Massachusetts. In 1916, she was appointed master of the school. Learn more. 

Whitney: Have you found any barriers in trying to tell women’s stories, particularly for women of color? How do you find missing pieces of history? 

Talia: We haven’t found any barriers. The issue was that it wasn’t always made a priority. General issues include mistakenly thinking that we should only celebrate people after they die (or only honor older folks), defining “woman” a certain way, or not creating enough trust with different communities to gain access to people. The information exists; we just haven’t done a great job of asking.

Whitney: How do we help continue to tell stories about the important work of women in Cambridge’s history? 

Talia:  We need to-
1. Say it is a priority (and then follow through with it) 
2. Ask people to share names of people they think should be honored (we’ve done this before and it has worked out well)
3. Have people who have the time and inclination to write. We, as a small staff, simply don’t have the capacity. 

There are countless women in Cambridge who have opened doors and inspired future women to push for more, break barriers, and lead in our community. Thank you to the many women who continue to make history. We are because of you.

Thank you to History Cambridge’s Talia Franks for their help on this project.

Experience Black Leadership, Black Woman, and Black Joy During Black History Month

On a recent Saturday afternoon Board members Ayesha Wilson and Michele Scott had the pleasure of a zoom interview with newly appointed Police Commissioner Elow and School Superintendent Greer. It was a lively discussion that covered a lot in a short period of time. While the idea of the interview excited Wilson and Scott, we came to the discussion with interview questions prepared. What we were not prepared for was how we, as up and coming leaders in the Cambridge community would experience black women joy! All four of us experienced that joy and felt even more empowered and encouraged to continue the great work for this amazing city. The conversation was rich and there were many takeaways as we sat and listened to these high-ranking black women share their life journeys, the work to be done, and acknowledging that representation truly matters. These women have already pulled up their sleeves and showed they are ready to “Walk their talk!”. Read some of the highlights from the interview with Commissioner Elow and Superintendent Greer, and we hope you feel that joy we experienced! Happy Black History Month!

Question: Who are you, where are you from, and why did you choose this work? 

Commissioner Elow was born and raised in Cambridge and entered the military right after high school. Unsure of what to do next, she took the police exam and quickly rose through the ranks all while witnessing the effects of the War on Drugs on the Black community. Twenty-seven years later, she is now the police commissioner for the city of Cambridge and has used her experiences to commit herself to procedural justice and to creating a better Cambridge for all while recognizing the historical injustices done to communities of color by the police. 

Superintendent Greer was born and raised in rural Tennessee, about forty-five minutes outside of Memphis. With an initial degree in psychology, she soon discovered her passion for education and mental health via volunteering during her college years. She became passionate about education after realizing the way it could change the trajectory of a young person’s life and yield generational wealth. 

Question: What are the most rewarding parts of the work that you do?

With her commitment to procedural justice, Commissioner Elow says that seeing her officers do that work is most rewarding to her. She is particularly proud of the work that the Youth Resource Officers (YROs) do in the Cambridge public school system and hopes it can be a framework for other districts. 

For Superintendent Greer, she cites the reward of seeing young students of color get excited that a Black woman is leading their school district. She also states that it is incredible to see that families in the community trust her by coming to her for help because “that just means so much and brings me joy to know that there is confidence in the community around the leadership that I bring to the community.”

Question: What are the most challenging parts of the work that you do?

Covid most definitely plays a huge role in what both of these phenomenal women define as their biggest challenges. For Commissioner Elow, it is seeing the mental toll this has taken on youth. She stated that “we’re struggling with violence–when I see fifteen year-olds picking up guns with large magazines, it makes me think, like what sort of trauma has that individual experienced where they want to hurt somebody?” 

Superintendent Greer mentions similar challenges but also emphasizes the challenge of balancing providing exceptional academics while also keeping students and staff both physically and mentally healthy. Furthermore, the Covid pandemic has definitely put strain upon the educational workforce and she is concerned about the future of being able to provide for students properly because of it. 

Question: What does it mean to you that you both identify as Black and women as leaders in Cambridge? Especially because Commissioner Elow was sworn in on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Superintendent Greer was sworn in during Black History Month. 

Both Commissioner Elow and Superintendent Greer discussed their role as mothers to Black children and how that plays a role in wanting the best for every child in the city. Commissioner Elow sees power in embracing her role as a Black woman and getting others to listen to her and her ideas about procedural justice. She is working under the idea that “if you do not get on board that maybe it’s time to go.”

Superintendent Greer says that she sees her identity as both a responsibility and an opportunity. She takes her role as a Black woman leader seriously when considering how to close the academic-opportunity achievement gap with students of color in school. 

Question: What message would you give your younger self and the youth of Cambridge today?

“Be unapologetic about who you are.” Superintendent Greer began her answer with powerful words and spoke about how life is full of “dips and curves” and that there is no specific path from point A to point B. She says to “own your truth. Own who you are and speak it, as long as you are not disrespectful about it and know that every intention you have is to be able to use your own voice because it matters, and be unapologetic about that.” 

In strong agreement, Commissioner Elow emphasized the uniqueness of everybody’s life journey. She also brought up the importance of finding people to rely on and look to for guidance and reveling in the moments that bring you joy.

A Note From Our Executive Director: Hispanic Heritage Month

As we close out Hispanic Heritage Month, I find myself thinking more often about my childhood in Mexico City. In 1985, two months before I was born, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the city. Chaos swallowed the streets, buildings crumbled, people dug through the rubble in search of loved ones. Decades later, Mexican people still exchange stories about that day. I have participated in many of those conversations over the years even though I did not personally experience the tremor.
Many buildings survived the earthquake but were left with structural damage that was not always visible. In many cases, irresponsible landlords ignored the need for urgent repairs in favor of cheaper and quicker cosmetic fixes. Focusing on the superficial can seem less scary than delving deeper and finding that there is much more hard work to be done. The tragedy in this approach is that willful ignorance can (and did) cost lives in the long run.

Today, I worry when I see this type of thinking crop up in discussions about the state of our Latinx/Latine/Hispanic community in Massachusetts. The Latinx community, with the Black community, was disproportionately impacted by COVID due to underlying structural problems. In what is perhaps one of the most cited studies about the wealth gap locally, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that the average wealth of a Latinx household is $2,700, compared to $247.500 for white households. Latinas have the widest wage gap of any other group in Greater Boston as compared to white men, standing at .55 cents on the dollar. In our Commonwealth, Latinx students from low income families are less likely to access early education; one in three English learners does not graduate on time and one in seven will drop out. One in three Black and Latinx 4th graders are on grade level in reading – half the rate for the state’s white students. I could go on citing troubling and tragic statistics…
So in the face of these realities, why do we let discussions about our community center so often on academic exercises about “what to call us”? Too much ink is being spilled on debating whether we identify as Latine, Latinx, Hispanic, Latino, or Latin American. While I think it is important for this community to unify under an “umbrella term” in Massachusetts, given that no single national group has the numbers to build meaningful political or economic power, I also wish that more of the discussion during this month revolved around how to bring concrete solutions to the plights of our community in Massachusetts.
Let’s talk about how to protect people from homelessness, displacement, and gentrification. Let’s prioritize equity in our schools. Let’s engage in COVID-safe behaviors to protect the most impacted workers. In sum, let’s act like we really believe housing, education, health, and safety are human rights! I believe we are capable of going beyond cosmetic fixes and getting serious about the urgent, structural repairs we need for our systems to work for everybody. We need to put our money and our policies behind this.


Finding My Way

Statistically people like me don’t make it out. That I’ve clawed my way forward says something about my resilience but it also says something about our community. I needed a lot of help to get where I am.

None of us chose to be homeless. I’ve seen and heard countless times, from people who have never experienced it say things like “if only they had made better decisions”, and while this is true to an extent it doesn’t capture the reality that most of us were escaping horrible situations. 

Growing up, my mother struggled with drug addiction and her own unaddressed trauma. As a child I suffered in silence. I shut down and became withdrawn. The people I maybe could have gone to, who maybe could have helped, I didn’t, because I didn’t know how to process and express the enormity of what had happened and what I was feeling. Even today it’s hard for me to talk about.

How can you plan for the future and focus on working to better yourself when your basic needs aren’t being met? In my teens and twenties I ran, sought escape and tried so hard to forget the pain. I had internalized so much shame and guilt over things I now know were not my fault. I had no self worth or confidence. I had zero stability and no support network. I didn’t think I could ever dig myself out of the pit of despair and drug addiction. I started using heroin to numb the pain but it soon took over my life and spiraled beyond my control.

I would be dead or on the streets without the services and supports I received. When I finally got sober I went through a residential drug treatment program. I had plans to move on but after my daughter was born with a rare genetic syndrome I found myself no longer able to work. Her father, my partner, was still struggling himself and not yet sober so I was essentially on my own then. I needed somewhere safe for us to go and that is when I came to the YWCA’s family shelter. 

Having a safe place to go gave me the structure and consistency I lacked. The foundation to start working on myself. Thankfully we have programs in this city designed to help people in need. Parenting programs, education programs, health advocates, financial coaching, volunteers who would come just to play with our kids. The director and staff would sit and talk with me when I didn’t want to be alone. They genuinely cared about us.

Childhood is as much about the things that do happen as it is about the things that don’t. I was never shown the love and caring that I deserved. I lacked so many of the things people take for granted like food, clean clothes, undergarments, toiletries, a safe space, having someone you trust to talk to. Shelter helps provide those things to the children of struggling parents.

Cambridge is a wonderful city. So many caring and compassionate individuals have helped me move forward along my path. Baby U, a family support program providing parent education and other resources, helped me learn to parent with love and compassion. I accessed support groups through Cambridge Women’s Center. Cambridge Community Learning Center was where I first learned to use a computer and set up my first email account. I received education and job training through Just-A-Start and later continued working toward my associates degree at Bunker Hill Community College. There’s many more, these are just a few of the organizations I benefited from.

It has not been easy. We stayed in the shelter for over three years before finally getting housing. Then, in December of 2016 my family and I became homeless again after a ten alarm fire destroyed our home. It happened so fast we only had time to get ourselves out. I felt like I had lost everything I had worked for in an instant. I was devastated. This was the first place that I felt truly at home and at peace. It was the first place I experienced stability. A month later my mother’s cancer progressed to stage four. She died in April.

The losses I experienced that year were almost unbearable. I fell into a deep depression after all of this. The loss of my mother triggered a cascade of memories to come flooding back. 

Thankfully our community once again helped us get back on our feet and we were able to move into a new home just weeks after losing everything in the fire.

“Sky Over Landscape 1” Medium: Oil on Panel, 2021

It’s been ten years since I stayed in the family shelter. I am still unable to work due to the lack of childcare for children with significant needs. I don’t have a lot of material possessions but I have love, family, and friendship. The things that really matter. This is my success. That I made it out of the darkest place imaginable. I have had so much trauma and pain in my life, but I am still here and my life today is a gift.

Last year with the start of the pandemic and being stuck at home I started doing art again for the first time since I was a teenager. I had given it up for so long, first because of addiction and later because I was busy pursuing an education and raising my daughter. Something about it feels right today, feels like it’s what I should be doing. Art is meditative for me. It helps me quiet my mind and process my feelings. And as I continue along this path I feel like this is what I should be doing and it is enough.

Check out Sherri’s art page here.

Sherri H., Former YWCA Cambridge Family Shelter Client

Youth Challenging Social Justice Issues: Homelessness & COVID

For her end-of-year project, Alison, a youth in one of our programs, teamed up with a classmate to research the question, “How is Covid-19 affect the homeless and our community?” Here is what she found out:

“2020 brought many challenges to the world, not only did it bring Covid-19 that killed many people sadly and left many families hearts broken all over the world but it also had small companies shut down, quarantine, and now has many students/workers on remote learning, in 2020 many MANY people faced challenges even kids, for sure 2020 was a very hard year that the whole world faced but it did not only impact those who have homes but also Homeless people by a lot!”

As we have seen over the last decade, youth are leading the charge in asking big picture questions that challenge the accepted realities of our society. Alison’s project challenged the glaring reality that COVID made impossible to ignore: the need for fair, equitable housing for all. 

“If you think about it Covid-19 actually has made it worse! It is important we talk about this subject because the homeless aren’t provided with the everyday necessities  they need to get through this. Like masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer. So that puts them at a high risk. That adds more cases and more deaths of Covid-19!” 

As the project concludes, Alison and her partner give classmates and their teachers action items for how to support the homeless community in Cambridge. “If you want to go above and beyond by  helping the homeless you can, first start off with donating things that you do not need, you can give it to the homeless person yourself or you can give them to organizations and they can collect all the donations and donate them to the homeless! Things that you can donate do not have to be new, you can donate things like clothes, shoes, blankets, pillows etc!” 

As we say at YWCA Cambridge, youth are the leaders of tomorrow. Giving them the space to lead, gives us a chance to better our future. 

Written in partnership: Michelle Howe, Whitney Mooney, and Alison O.

Juneteenth: Celebrating and Honoring History

As we begin to collectively reflect upon the upcoming Juneteenth, it’s important that we remember the history behind the meaning of the holiday and what it represents for us. For me, this year has been a year of reflection, knowledge sharing, and community growth. With enhanced awareness of anti-blackness amongst marginalized and majority groups, it is important that we recognize one of the many triumphs the black community has experienced despite years of systemic oppression and racism.  

Juneteenth represents the day that those enslaved in the Southern U.S. were informed of their new freedom. While the emancipation proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863, and congress passed the 13th amendment on January 31, 1865, abolishing slavery, it was not until June 19, 1865, that Gorgon Granger arrived in Galveston, TX and shared that the war and slavery had officially ended. 

I look forward to seeing how the Cambridge community celebrates this year safely. I love that the Cambridge and Boston communities take pride in celebrating the freedoms that were informed on that day and to pay respects to the generations that fought to make that freedom a reality.  This year, to commemorate the event, the YWCA Cambridge will be joining the Margaret Fuller House’s Juneteenth celebration which will feature Black local businesses. In addition, YWCA Cambridge will engage with local teens through an activity table at the gathering. I am excited to see Juneteenth be celebrated by more ethnic, religious, organizational, and racial groups this year due to increased awareness of the holiday’s significance.

Carmyn Polk, Chair of the Social Justice & Advocacy Committee, YWCA Cambridge  

Housing First

At the age of 17, I was a teenage mom experiencing “coach-surfing,” a term used quite often to describe those moving from place to place because they lacked housing. Being a young mom and due to my family situation, I needed to find affordable housing quickly. Luckily, I received Emergency Assistance and was able to find an apartment. Later, I received a Section 8 voucher and moved to an apartment that was better suited for a small family.

Housing First is a housing approach that understands that for people experiencing homelessness, housing is needed first, and supportive services are often needed to increase housing stability. As a participant receiving Section 8, I utilized these supportive services and enrolled in the Family Self-Sufficiency Program (FSS).

The FSS Program provided case management, financial coaching, and workforce development opportunities. These services provided the skills and education I needed to become more self-sufficient. In addition, the program worked with me to establish an Emergency Savings account. As my earners grew, a portion of the rent increases under the program went into the Emergency Savings Account. Having this account helped move my family from poverty to become economically sufficient today.

Today, thanks to all the teachers and direct care staff who believed in my potential, I can give back to those in a similar position as part of the Team at Renae’s Place, the YWCA Cambridge’s Family Shelter. Renae’s Place has been providing Emergency Assistance Housing and supportive services to families since 1987. Staff work independently as well as with other nonprofit agencies so that residents have access to a whole wide range of supporting services areas such as:  

  • Financial Literacy
  • Parenting
  • ESL Classes
  • Vocational training
  • Children’s programming
  • Legal Services
  • Camp and summer referrals, and more.

If you know of anyone in need of housing, please check out our YWCA Cambridge Resource page at https://ywcacam.org/resources/.

By: Carol Lyons, Director of Operations

The Power of Acknowledgement

I am not proud of this story, but I share it in hopes that fewer among us will make this mistake. For Women’s History Month, I want to talk about the importance of acknowledgement. Women go without it too often. We must change that because human beings need others to value them. Even when there isn’t an immediate answer to the struggle people are going through, an acknowledgement can be the first step towards healing. Let’s make an effort to really see women this month and make it an ongoing practice. 

As a sixteen year old, I was beginning to feel the weight of patriarchy but was not yet awake to the concept. I could already tell that the world assigned value to women based on looks though, and I resented it. I wanted people to understand me in all my complexity. I tried to disassociate from womanhood to escape the trap. I shaved my head and adopted a black sweatshirt as my self-imposed uniform. But in my quest to feel seen, I made a big blunder. 

My “solution” was only meant to help me (spoiler alert: it didn’t). I wish I had seen that I was not the only girl or woman feeling misunderstood. In fact, I was guilty of writing off women who I should have appreciated in all their complexity.

One day, my father asked me if I had noticed that my mother had not spoken to me in a month. I hadn’t. He shared that she was hurting from one of my past transgressions and was waiting for me to reflect on my actions. She waited for a month and I had been none the wiser. I look back at this moment and feel shame. This was the woman that woke me up every morning, made sure I ate right, drove me everywhere, and stayed up if I was out. She was the licensed psychologist that put her career aside to care for me and my sisters. But I was so concerned with my own struggle that her work had become invisible to me!

In the same way I became blind to my mother’s role in my life, our communities routinely fail to recognize women’s work, especially work inside the home. The patriarchal system interacts with a white supremacist framework. It is no coincidence that Black and Latinx women are the most likely groups to be employed in low-wage jobs associated with the home sphere, like cooking, cleaning, and caregiving. This is the result from a long history of white America shutting them out of other types of work.

More broadly, out of the 25 lowest paying occupations in the country, 18 are primarily held by women. Women make up 83% of middle-skill workers earning $30,000 or less, while only 36% making more than $35,000 are women. Nearly a third of Black women work in service jobs compared with just one-fifth of white women. And these jobs are crucial to our survival. Agriculture workers, home health aides, childcare workers, housekeeping services, and hairdressers are essential. Yet, their compensation does not reflect the value they provide. We need to talk about that! We need to change that!

My mother raised four strong Latinx women. It took work, effort, and love. She was not compensated for it and her contribution is not included in GDP. But it is as important for her daughters to tell her that we see her, as it is for Cambridge to acknowledge all the women that tie our community together. Whether you are a childcare worker, a cleaner, a home health aide, or a waitress, YWCA Cambridge thanks you. We will be acknowledging many of you throughout this month.

Statistics source

By: Tania Del Rio, Executive Director

A Very Equitable Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving 2020 comes at a moment of reckoning. We have spent the last nine months in the midst of a pandemic. During this time the United States has experienced some of its largest civil rights and social justice protests in our history following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery. The NY Times Nonfiction Best Seller section had been filled with books on anti-racism topics. The need for education on racial justice, how to be an ally, and understanding the movement has grown exponentially around the country. This work means there is a tremendous need to continue one’s own education about anti-racism, a need to unlearn the whitewashed history learned in school, and a need to have conversations with our loved ones about these important topics. 

The US education system has spent centuries glamorizing Thanksgiving. Children are taught that the settlers invited Native Americans to a peaceful and friendly meal that in return created a partnership between the two. This narrative is far from the truth. The European settler colonialists brought with them diseases and a desire for power. They stole and settled the land from the indigenous people, created laws to control them, and murdered them indiscriminately. 

Today many Native American tribes use Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning, to honor the many lives lost during that period in this country’s history. This year we mourn the disproportionate loss of native lives to COVID 19. While every year during the same time many of us are sitting down to enjoy turkey, stuffing and cranberries with our loved ones, in Plymouth, MA not two hours from Boston, Indigenous leaders gather to mourn the violence their ancestors experienced, the land stolen from them, and the continued injustices and efforts to make them invisible that they endure today. 

As you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this week, virtually or face-to-face with family members, YWCA Cambridge asks you to engage in a conversation about the real history of this holiday and the importance of recognizing the many Indigenous people who died at the hands of European settler colonialists. Then we ask you to commit to learning about and honoring the innumerable positive contributions Indigenous people made to these United States throughout the year.

Articles to Read: 
The Myths of the Thanksgiving Story and the Lasting Damage They Imbue
Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong
How to Support Indigenous People on Thanksgiving
Sean Sherman, The Sioux Chef: ‘This Is The Year To Rethink Thanksgiving’

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, by David Teruer

Learning and Exploring about Indigenous Land that we live on: 
https://native-land.ca/ -Interactive Map
Tribal Land Acknowledgement

Instagrams to Follow: 

Boston/ New England specific resources:

All My Relations

Contributors: Elizabeth Baldwin, Puja Kranz-Howe, Georgia Wyman, and Whitney Mooney