by Jayne Martin
In the 1970's it was called "consciousness-raising," the gathering of groups of women with the purpose of raising each other's awareness about the systematic causes of oppression in their lives. Today, although two decades have passed , the need for such groups is even greater, and the goal is not only to enlighten, but to unify women as a group to bring about change.
The Welcome House Shelter's Monday night support group began as a three-part series to discuss crucial issues in women's lives. Racism, the role of the system and the use of sexist language were three key topics from which a wide variety of thoughts and concerns have emerged. Shelter residents and staff gather to share experiences, offer insight, and look for ways to combat the oppression in the lives of homeless women. The only rules are honesty and confidentiality.
Through the discussions in the support group center around difficult issues, they are lessened by the fact that other women have experienced similar life events.
"At first, I just sat there and was quiet," explained one resident, "then I listened to what the other women had been through. It was so much like my own experiences. I didn't feel anymore like I was alone in my struggles." The close group setting which includes residents and staff allows the women to find common ground and learn from one another.
The subject of racism sparked reactions from the residents of shelter who had experienced prejudice in the community as they searched for affordable housing. One resident shared her interaction with a local landlord and store owner: I went to ask about this apartment where I saw a "for rent" sign hanging in the store. I was the only Black woman in the store and I asked who was the owner of the apartment "for rent." The man behind the counter just looked at me, like there was something wrong with me, and he told me he had already rented the apartment. I knew that it wasn't rented. I had other people in shelter call about it. I wanted to shout at him, but I was too humiliated. It seemed like the 1960's all over again. I didn't think I would ever have to live with attitudes like that.
Shocking as it is, racism affected nearly all the residents in their day to day lives. They nod in agreement and understand as one woman and then another tells her story. They discover that be sharing what has happened to them in a group environment, they are not alone in the fight against racism. Several women come to realized that, although they did not want to admit to themselves that racist attitudes were widespread, they could not close their eyes to the obvious: I couldn't believe the way I was being treated when I went to fill out housing applications. I was made to feel like a criminal, a low-down person because I didn't have a home for me and my child. One woman at t public housing accused me of being on the run with my daughter. I couldn't give her a lot of information about my past because it is dangerous leaving an abuser. She said, 'how do I know you didn't steal this man's baby?' They make you jump though hoops, only to turn you down. I think the racism within the system is the most destructive.
As the following weeks discussion on sexism and the role of the system transpired, the participants began to make links between racism, sexism, and the role of the system in the lives of homeless women. Each woman took a turn sharing what her encounters had been like trying to obtain public assistance, fine affordable housing, and look for a decent job and child care. They were asked to speak about what role the system had in their lives. All had experienced bother racism and sexism within the system. Some told horror stories of human service workers who had made them wait for hours only to deny them because they were in a shelter. others talked about the prevailing attitudes that exist surrounding homeless women, particularly single mothers. "I was actually asked by a worker," shared one support group resident, "why I was pregnant with another child, if I couldn't afford the one I have. What can you say to someone who holds so much power over you? We need the public assistance and so it's like we have to take their abuse."
But as the discussion group continued and more women spoke up, a collective decision was made to do something about it. "We have to stand together," shared an older resident, whose children were grown, "If we all stand up and say 'we're not leaving this office until we get some answers, ' then we have a voice; one, alone, cannot fight this battle."
And so, the collective conscious becomes politicized. The women's group not only provides an opportunity to express feelings, but creates an environment for women to organize their anger and frustration. The goal of the group is to end each session with a plan of action. Thus far, the group began a letter-writing campaign to congressmen urging them to reconsider the cuts in the federal budget. In addition, the members of the women's group affected by negligence at the Department of Human Services are working on an open letter to all supervisors explaining to them the need for better educated workers who know the policies for providing assistance to single women and families staying in shelters.
Most importantly, women in the group are building strong social ties with one another, something desperately lacking in a system that forces family and friends to live apart. Women who leave the shelter are coming back for the Monday night group. Even the ones who never say much are listening and returning every week.
Philosopher Karl Marx, who was a forerunner in the idea of consciousness-raising, believed that once a person was given the lens with which to view their lives intertwined with the push and pull of the system to meet its needs, that they could never see things any other way. They will no longer be able to deny racism, or ignore sexism, or believe that they are single victims. They will see a connection with others who struggle. They will see that together, change is essential.
Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published Oct. – Dec. 1995 Issue 12