Only by reckoning with the past are we able to create a society that honors the dignity and wellbeing of all Americans. In recognition of Women’s History Month, we shine a spotlight on three LISC sites where our work is led by women and supports women in the communities we serve—and aims to build a future where everyone can thrive and prosper.
Photo courtesy the International Rescue Committee
The writer and human rights activist Pearl S. Buck once observed that “one faces the future with one’s past.” In fact, the better we understand and reckon with our past, the more enlightened a future we can build. This Women’s History Month, many of us in community development are reflecting on how the timeline of women’s experience—made up of discrimination and subjugation but also of great courage, resilience and transformative action—determines how we are able to shape what comes next.
Our Financial Opportunity Center at the International Rescue Committee’s San Diego headquarters supports refugee women to become economically self-sufficient in tandem with a program called Project CHOP. Project CHOP is a six-month vocation training and English language program that prepares women, many from agrarian countries where literacy is limited and girls are often not given an education, with valuable culinary skills.
The training is on-the-job: students produce elegant vegetable platters and dips from local ingredients that are sold to offset the cost of the program and give participants real world retail experience. Most of the women, says Anchi Mei, the IRC’s senior food and farming program manager, “have never worked outside the home before, so having them in a kitchen experience is at least familiar.” The goal of Project CHOP is to have graduates be comfortable with vocational English and be job-ready by the end of the internship.
We also support minority women business owners and community leaders and builders in all our markets. Take Toledo, where LISC recently made a $450,000 predevelopment loan to Ambrea Mikolajczyk, co-owner of ARK Restoration & Construction. The Toledo native and mother of four left a corporate job to focus on helping her community, and is dedicated to renovating abandoned and other neglected buildings, to sparking economic development, and to preserving affordable housing. “We really want to see the best for Toledo,” Mikolajczyk told the Toledo Blade. “That is why we decided to stay here." The LISC loan will help ARK renovate an 82,000-square-foot former baking plant that used to scent the surrounding Historic Vistula District with the aroma of Wonder Bread. ARK plans to repurpose the building, which was purchased from the Lucas County Land Bank, into a mixed-use retail and housing complex.
Since the 1960s and 1970s, when community development was still a new phrase and a new concept, women stepped into leadership roles to help save their buildings, their blocks and their communities from disinvestment and the arson and crime that so often followed. Today, women in leadership positions are far less rare, but still cause for celebration. Like the five directors of community organizations in Houston, including LISC’s own Amanda Timm, who head up the Harvey Home Repair Collaborative. Composed of seasoned organizations that have served their communities for decades, the collaborative was awarded a $17 million grant to repair 480 homes—the largest single grant given by the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. And the directors’ experience and nimbleness is formidable. For Christine Holland, CEO of Rebuilding Together Houston, “the collaborative is incredibly strong. We have an opportunity to leverage our combined power to make a lasting difference not only in disaster recovery, but in affordable housing throughout Houston.”