Celebrating Women

Authors: Ayesha M. Wilson and Elizabeth Johnson

Women do not simply impact our society but are fundamentally at the core of our society. Often overlooked and historically hidden, while women have positively influenced society, these contributions have been and continue to be received without reciprocation. Seeing as March is Women’s History Month, we take this time to celebrate the women in our lives who should be recognized every day of the year. It’s critical to raise and listen to women’s voices, two actions long withheld in society. 

We highlight the women of Cambridge and Greater Boston who are using their power and voice to amplify, uplift, and listen to women’s voices in our communities. State Representative and current Public Health Committee Chair Marjorie Decker exemplifies raising one’s voice by passing legislation that expands public safety, climate change mitigation, and repealing the family welfare cap. This legislation demonstrates how the act of Representative Decker raising her voice creates tangible benefits for all of Massachusetts. 

Not only is there a need to raise women’s voices, but also intentional efforts to listen and understand what is being said. Cambridge City Councillor E. Denise Simmons shows this understanding as she’s not only the country’s first Black and openly lesbian mayor, thus using her national platform to impact change for many, she also emphasizes that her activism comes from a local place by listening to the community through weekly walk-in hours and frequent Town Hall style meetings. Councillor E. Denise Simmons founded the Gold Leadership program at YWCA Cambridge which is now in its 11th year. Gold continues to provide after-school programming for girls of color in Cambridge to grow their leadership skills and learn about women of color who, throughout history, have fought for the rights of others. 

We see that uplifting women’s voices can also uplift the voices of others through Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. Mayor Siddiqui can often be seen at our local schools reading to children, speaking at ceremonies, or just lending an ear. Whether it be during City Council meetings or at national conferences, Mayor Siddiqui consistently centers her work around amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented, including people of color, the youth, and women. 

Finally, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley continues to make history and emphasizes how women’s impact on their communities cannot be underestimated. The impact these women have comes in the strength that they hold. The strength to be the mothers, the daughters, the doctors, the teachers, the scientists, the students, and much more. The strength to champion the community even when some’s interpretation of “the community” doesn’t include them or their rights. The strength to fight, to listen, and to uplift all voices. 

This Women’s History Month

By: Whitney Mooney

This year’s Greater Boston International Women’s Day Breakfast theme is “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future”. As we reflect on the work of the many women who came before us, we must remember that much more work is needed. 

In the United States, YWCA has been on a mission since 1850, working to improve conditions for women. In 1906, YWCA became the first organization to introduce the positive health concept and sex education in all health programming nationwide. By the 1930s, YWCAs began their work in racial justice, asking members to speak out against lynching and mob violence and for interracial cooperation and efforts to protect Black people’s basic civil rights. In 1934, YWCA delegated supported birth control services and worked to make it more widely available to the general population. Over the last 173 years, YWCAs across the country have been fighting for women’s equity. 

On a local level, YWCA Cambridge has been a safe haven for women since 1891, known as a leader in affordable housing for women. By the 1950s, our organization had two forms of housing to better support women and families. Our Family Shelter became a critical space for families to grow and set themselves on a path to long-term success. Our Tanner Residence, our SRO, become a long-term living solution on 7 Temple Street and has since become home for thousands of women. Today, both Family Shelter and Tanner Residence continue to serve a crucial role in our community. Our organization works to make it possible for women and families to leave unsafe situations and move to a healthier environment. 

Taking the lead from YWCAs across the country, YWCA Cambridge transitioned from solely focusing on housing to working on racial justice and women’s rights advocacy. In 2020, YWCA Cambridge introduced a dedicated advocacy department to fight for pay equity, racial equity, disabilities rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and so much more across the greater Boston community.

While recognizing these accomplishments, we know there’s still so much work to be done. According to a 2021 Boston Women’s Workforce Council study, white women make $0.70 on the dollar compared to white men, and Black women make $0.49 on the dollar compared to white men. Women are still fighting to break glass ceilings. Women still hold the majority of the burden of child-rearing, child-care, and family life. Women are still not getting the much-needed resources they need to thrive in our country. Women with disabilities and women with mental health issues don’t get the proper care they need from our healthcare system. Women still get called “bossy”, “shrill”, or “too-opinionated” in the workplace for qualities praised in men. There is so much our society owes women, especially the women of color who have led the charge for change since the birth of our nation. We are where we are because of the work of women like Shirley Chisholm, Marsha P. Johnson, Dorothy Heights, and many more who never made it into history books. 

As we look to the future, YWCA Cambridge is determined and dedicated to fighting for women’s rights, especially women of color who are often overlooked when change is being made. Every woman deserves to thrive in our society. Join us this month in questioning the status quo, uplifting women with a special lens on women of color, fighting for social justice in all forms, and looking toward a more equitable future.

Our Hopes for 2023

YWCA Cambridge is excited to kick off another year of working towards a mission to eliminate racism and empower women. We asked staff: What are your goals for your program or department in 2023? What are you striving for?

Trudy Bartlett, Director of Renae’s Place: I would like all programs to keep growing and excel with NEW collaborations and partnerships.

Michelle Howe, Case Manager, Renae’s Place: In 2023 my hopes are to equip our clients with tools to become the voice of their families by achieving safe, realistic, and reasonable goals that lead them to advocate their needs to succeed in continued permanent housing…. goals to enhance their self-worth and push them to higher levels of financial security.  

Puja Kranz Howe, Advocacy and Youth Leadership Manager: For 2023, I look forward to continuing to grow our Advocacy Department and center the needs of our residents, families, and youth through our legislative advocacy, community events, and local and state coalitions. 

For our youth leadership programs, I am excited to continue to build the world we want to see by questioning inequality and centering love and connection. There is an incredible need for more spaces for transgender and queer youth to connect, laugh, and celebrate each other’s identities. (Learn more about youth leadership programs here. 

Shamara Morris, Housing Stabilization Case Manager, Renae’s Place:  In 2023, I would like to see as many families as possible become stably housed and financially stable. In doing so they will be able to maintain their housing and gain financial freedom.  
Jessica Saravia, Resident Services Coordinator, Tanner Residence: What I am looking forward to accomplishing is to continue to create and lead community engagement efforts that will build a sense of community for the residents. Through activities such as providing support groups and social celebrations, we will continue to support a safe environment with an open dialogue providing inclusion and diversity for all women at the YWCA.

YWCA Cambridge Supports Ballot Question 4

By Haile Carrillo-Hayes, YWCA Cambridge Intern

What is Ballot Question #4? Ballot Question #4 is a new state law that would allow immigrants to obtain a Massachusetts driver’s license regardless of whether they are living in the country legally. YWCA Cambridge supports Ballot Question #4 because we believe all humans deserve equal rights and opportunities. Voting yes to Question #4 actively fights against xenophobia and would make Massachusetts roads safer because this ensures that everybody has to pass a road test, a vision test, and get insurance to get a license. 

Voting yes to Ballot Question #4 is in your best interest to make driving safer for everyone. Public safety data shows hit-and-run accidents have decreased significantly in the dozens of other states that have adopted similar measures. This law also instructs the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to set up procedures so that immigrants without legal status who obtain a driver’s license are not automatically registered to vote. Question #4 is crucial to make driving in Massachusetts safer for all and in the fight to end xenophobia. 

YWCA Cambridge stands alongside the Massachusetts Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition and many other organizations in support of Question #4. Make your voice heard on November 8th.

What does Pride mean to you?

Puja Kranz-Howe, (he/him) YWCA Cambridge Advocacy and Youth Leadership Manager

Growing up, I remember going to Pride Marches every year with my parents. They always were fun and filled with rainbow flags and joyful people. We would walk past the State House and wave our pride flags. I felt safe and happy. I was surrounded by my two white lesbian parents and held by their able-bodied, cis, white privilege. I had no idea that the first Pride Marches were an act of defiance and a cry for survival. 

Puja walking in Boston Pride 2000 holding a sign saying “FIGHT THE RADICAL RIGHT”.

Last year, I went to my first Pride March that explicitly centered Black Trans Women, which was organized by Trans Resistance MA. It was the first time I was surrounded by so many Black and Brown trans folks. I had no idea how validating it would feel. Over the next few months, I started to think more about who I was and what my gender meant to me. Quarantine allowed me to stop my daily gender expression. Being at home gave me the chance to question if I enjoyed wearing dresses or if I wore them because that is what our society tells girls to wear. Throughout my life, I always felt as though there was a part of myself that was missing. Much of my work with youth and anti-oppression is grounded in self-authenticity. Before I came out as trans, I never felt as though I was able to be my authentic self. 

When I was young, I loved swimming shirtless and playing sports. I always thought of it as a tomboy phase. But looking back, I wanted to be a boy. I was a boy, but I was born with XX chromosomes and assigned female at birth. And the world’s societal norms declared that my sex and gender must match. 

Over the past year, I have had the honor and privilege to launch a new youth leadership program called Gender Expansive Youth (GEY) with Georgia Wyman (they/them). GEY welcomes and validates the experiences of trans, non-binary, and gender-non-conforming youth while having weekly discussions about queer history, representation, activism, racism, identity, intersectionality, and more. We have been meeting every week since October. We have had so many incredible conversations about our lives and experiences, coming out, supporting each other, and learning about history and the world. I have learned so much from the group and have had space to discover who I want to be. Do I want to be a man? A feminist man? A queer Indian transmasculine person? Is wearing makeup and blasting pop music too feminine? I realized that I don’t have to conform to society’s definition of masculinity or femininity. I can be both, either, or a mishmash of everything. 

I remember the first time someone used he/him pronouns for me, and I got so excited. It was like the tingly feeling of butterflies. I was so nervous about coming out to my parents. They always supported loving who you love and got married when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts in 2004. I knew they would be supportive, but I was so scared. Raised in a family of all girls, I had no idea what everyone’s reaction would be. I had never met any trans men and had never seen any trans-Indian men or non-binary people that I could relate to. I am so blessed and thankful to have a supportive family. I am committed to growing and holding space for trans, non-binary, and queer youth of color. I know many adults also need more spaces to be held and celebrated. We will continue to shine and thrive.

There is a lot of transphobia and racism within the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual communities, and we must undo the hate that we have learned. Dividing ourselves only fuels the power of capitalism, hatred, and violence. This does not mean that we should forgive each other, but hold each other accountable and grow together. There are so many spaces for women that exclude trans women, and spaces for queer folks that should include Brown and Black folks, etc. I want to encourage us to lean into our discomfort and acknowledge our privilege. There is so much work to be done, and we can all start by listening to our inner voices and leading with kindness. 

Upcoming Pride Events:
Transgender Emergency Fund of Massachusetts will be hosting the TRANS PRIDE Celebration of Liberation on June 4th at 11am at Boston City Hall. Learn more here.
Rebel, Rebel & Wild Child will be hosting the Wild Child Wedding Extravaganza 2022 on June 11th. Learn more and register here.

Mental Health and the Need For Safe, Secure Housing

Stability and consistent care are impossible to achieve if you are homeless. Then add the mental Illness component, and it becomes a vicious circle. Numerous studies report that 1/3 of homeless persons struggle with serious mental illness, which is also one of the top 3 causes of homelessness (via the National Coalition on Homelessness). Some people who suffer from poor mental health lack the ability to sustain employment leaving them with little to no income. It impairs their resourcefulness and resiliency to cope with traumas. Additionally, serious mental illness can also cause self-isolation from friends, family, and other support, putting them at greater risk of becoming homeless.

Even for people without mental health illnesses, living in shelters and on the streets can be challenging and traumatizing.  

Living in overcrowded, noisy, unsafe housing leads to stress, anxiety, social phobia, sleep issues, depression, and loneliness, which then heightens mental health problems and/or substance use, further exacerbating housing struggles.  The increase of mental health problems creates difficulties in keeping on top of bills, housekeeping, working, staying on tasks and routines. Stress can break down relationships with family, landlords, housing authorities, and friends. All of these factors make individuals with serious mental illness extremely vulnerable to homelessness and make it harder to support them once they become homeless.   Without mental health treatment and related support services, mentally-ill homeless persons face additional challenges gaining access to stable permanent housing.

“In general, 30-35% of those experiencing homelessness, and up to 75% of women experiencing homelessness, have mental illnesses. 20-25% of people experiencing homelessness suffer from concurrent disorders (severe mental illness and addictions).”

The needs of people experiencing homelessness with mental illnesses are similar to those without mental illnesses: physical safety, education, transportation, affordable housing, and affordable medical/dental treatment.

When providing care to those experiencing homelessness, it is essential to create a non-threatening and supportive atmosphere, address basic needs (e.g. food and shelter), and provide accessible care.  With access to connected services, it’s hopeful those suffering from a mental health disorder can live as independently as possible.

Good, quality, affordable and safe housing is vital for our mental health.  Feeling happy and safe in the place you live is HOME

SAMSHA Homelessness and Mental Health
Homeless Hub
New Horizon’s Behavioral Health

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.

Why I Vote: A Letter to My Sister

My younger sister asked me the other day, “Why are you so obsessed with voting and getting people registered to vote?”

To give you some backstory… I have been pretty adamant in the last two years about discussing politics, encouraging friends to register to vote, getting involved with organizations, and going to the polls no matter if its presidential, midterm, or local elections. I have become “the crazy voting lady”; but that is okay.

After getting off the phone with my sister, I mulled over the conversation. How do I explain my passion to her and her friends who really don’t care much about elections, let alone politics? How do I verbalize something that I consider to be so extremely vital?

Upon reflecting, I developed a list of reasons voting in elections is so essential to me.

  1. It took until June 26, 2015 for my LGBTQ+ friend’s marriages to be federally recognized. I remember being so elated but also so mad that it took this long for something as simple as love to be recognized in the eyes of the government.
  2. When I was in high school, my mom was unemployed and on food stamps but it wasn’t enough to feed her, my sister, and I. It was barely enough to pay for the rent and a few meals. The government has unrealistic ideas of living wages.
  3. Some of my friends who went to school for Associate degrees don’t make a living wage of $15/hour but have thousands of dollars in student loan debt.
  4. When I was in college, my dad was still unemployed from the recession. Since I was in college, I was no longer covered under state insurance and my college insurance rates were too expensive for me to cover since I only made $7.75/hour for 10-15 hours a week. I was uninsured and scared of every possible illness. Getting a cold was terrifying. “What if it escalated? I can’t go to urgent care. I don’t have $150 to cover this.” It was three months, but man those were three very stressful months.
  5. During the recession, my dad and mom’s medications cost so much without insurance that they had to pick and choose which ones were essential on a given month.
  6. It’s 2018 and my co-workers and friends of color are still scared to get pulled over by the police, because in the current climate, getting pulled over for a broken tail light has lead to death at the hands of those who serve.
  7. My monthly student loan payment is more than my monthly rent payment.
  8. Women are still afraid to speak up because even when a man does something that violates a woman he is welcomed with open arms by the highest law making entity in the United States or told his future is “too bright” for him to serve time in jail.
  9. Our criminal justice system is broken. It is broken beyond repair. Men and women of color in disproportionate numbers go to jail because they can’t pay traffic fines or for minor drug charges. This becomes an easy way for the government to fully discriminate against them for housing, government aid, jobs, and most importantly – takes away their voice and ability to make a difference, by not allowing them to vote.  
  10. If we aren’t voting for people who care about these dire issues, we will never see real change. Change happens on the floor of the House and the Senate. It happens when the right people are in office.

To my dear sister: I vote, because I want you to HAVE a future, a voice, a choice. I want you to matter. I want you to thrive in a country that believes everyone is equal. I believe that every vote is a step in that direction. Every vote counts. Your voice matters.

Written by: Whitney Mooney, Administrative Assistant 

My sister and I on her high school graduation day.

The Story Behind Trailblazing Women

In January of 2017, the Cambridge community lost a long-time member, activist, and unsung hero, Renae Gray.  While deciding how to honor her legacy, Denise Simmons, Dita Obler, and Eva Martin Blythe came together with an idea. The group was touched by Renee Gray’s commitment to teaching her daughter Michele Scott about women’s role in social change. This lead to the idea of honoring 6 sets of mothers and daughter team activists in the Cambridge community.

During that time, two Community Conversations fellows went to an event where they met Fran Smith, a staff member from Mass Humanities. Mass Humanities had developed an Open and Honest Dialogue program focused on race and white supremacy. Using this model alongside Community Conversations: Sister to Sister Dialogue Model, the idea of Trailblazing Women was born.

Having lost another important social change activist, Nancy Beckford, the team decided to continue the Trailblazing Women tradition. This event will be running for a second year with the theme of “Nevertheless She Persisted” in honor of our women’s champion, Elizabeth Warren, Senator of MA. The night will consist of an honoring of 6 sisterhood duos who are committed to social change within the Cambridge community.

From there, we will hold a communal reading of Maya Angelou’s “In Her Own Words”. Using the combined dialogue model, facilitators will break the audience up into small groups to discuss the piece and the role of gender, ethnic, and racial identity, resilience in the face of diversity, and building women’s networks.

Please join YWCA Cambridge, Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, Mass Humanities, City of Cambridge, Cambridge Women’s Commission, and E. Denise Simmon on March 28, 2018 from 5:45-8pm at Cambridge City Hall for the 2nd Annual Trailblazing Women: Communal Reading & Community Conversation.

Trailblazing Women is honoring the following sisterhood duos this year:

Nancy Beckford, Shelley Flaherty, & Roberta Green
Denise Maguire & Christine Elow
Rosalind O’Sullivan & Claudie Jean-Baptiste
Poppy Milner & Gail Willett
Dorothy Elizabeth Tucker & Andy Taylor-Blenis
MeiLin Pratt & Naomi Tsegaye