One of the foundational beliefs at Mary’s Pence is that women know how to solve problems in their own communities, although they don’t always know how to access critical resources. But another fundamental belief at Mary’s Pence is that even the poorest communities have resources to tap and the greatest of these often is the passion, talent and fortitude of women.
This year, Mary’s Pence is privileged to fund young working-class women in Boston who set out to improve their personal situations, and found the collective strength to heal their community in the process.
Like many small community-based organizations, Reflect and Strengthen grew organically from a group of women who “were in each other’s lives” as Roselyn Berry, one of the current lead organizers describes them. As they swapped personal stories, patterns began to emerge: Miscarriages resulting from a lack of health care; Single parenting that repeated a cycle of absentee fathers; Too many people of color going to jail because of a biased legal system; Fractured relationships from girls being socialized to compete with each other.
Many of the women had sought healing through programs in the city but found they weren’t helpful. “So few of the field workers had been trained to work specifically with youth and in many cases the programs did more harm than good,” Berry explains.
So the eight young women, none of whom had a college degree, decided in the fall of 2001 that something needed to be done—and they would be the ones to do it. they decided to step up. Lacking a sense of sisterhood, they created it. they began to speak up.
The first step was to formalize their “stoop talks” by meeting twice a week in a support group with a certified counselor. “We longed for spaces where we could feel safe, build bonds with other young women and educate ourselves on the root causes of systematic oppression,” Berry recalls.
Part of these Girl’s Rap sessions involved journaling, Berry says. “We needed to find creative ways of healing from the trauma that left us feeling disconnected from each other and our communities,” which in turn led to the writing and production of a play about young urban women’s experience.
The play was performed at the Boston Center for the Arts to a sold out audience every night. With the success of the theatre project the group thought their work was complete, but the members realized that it wasn’t the product that mattered, it was the process. “I don’t know how women can go through life without a safe place like Reflect and Strengthen,” Berry says. “Our members consistently report that it is the first time in their lives that they have felt powerful, learned self-love, and experienced accountability.”
So the original group resumed meeting and began to look for ways to expand the programming so other women could benefit. “We believe strongly that the change that is created in us, in turn gets passed onto our families, throughout our communities and impacts the change we would like to see in the world,” Berry says. Nine years later, R&S reaches an estimated 1,500 people through programs that are shaped and facilitated by the 36 organizers who make up its membership.
Organizers commit to meeting weekly for Girl’s Rap sessions and What’s the 411 political education programs, and then take leadership roles in the other areas of programming. Of note are the Street Theatre, which has performed more than 300 productions over the past five years, and Our Sisters Behind the Wall which meets the urgent needs of young women involved with the juvenile justice system. Going into detention centers led to the creation of another program, the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Task Force on Racial Disparities (or Da FORCE as it informally called) which collects data and advocates for changes a system which causes too many youth of color to be locked up.
The organization also offers a monthly Girl’s Night Out. “At R&S we believe if we don’t have anything to celebrate we don’t have anything to fight for, so we choose to honor celebration,” Berry maintains.
While Mary’s Pence explores ways to more fully support women’s work for social justice, we keep in mind that women often start ministries in response to an urgent need. It is only over time that these ministries, like Reflect and Strengthen, blossom into established organizations. Many leaders are learning on the job when it comes to organizational development.
That is why we are pleased to fund Sisters Rising, the group’s internal leadership development program. Currently three young women are being mentored to be leaders in the community, perhaps as paid staff at R&S, although it is a requirement that any staff member volunteer for three years first. “If you are only in it for the money, forget it,” Berry makes clear. These young women take care of the administration of the organization and implement decisions made by consensus through the membership.
Although R&S is in a strong position, its survival was in question just a year ago. Funding dried up and programming was placed on furlough. Staff worked without pay while the members reassessed the sustainability of the organization. It proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“Community members really stepped up to support us,” Berry recalls. “They had house parties and donated the proceeds of events to us; they asked their family and friends to donate to us instead of giving them birthday gifts; they connected us with new foundations and funding initiates; they donated their time to do childcare, volunteered at events and cooked. Consultants donated their expertise in strategic planning, infrastructure building and board development.”
R&S emerged from the crisis in better shape than ever Berry notes. “We are now even more skilled at strategic planning and budget forecasting. It helped us to build our infrastructure for long-term sustainability.”
The program moved to new, fully equipped offices and staff are being paid again. “We were also honored with the “Youth In Action” award this past month at A Night with Queen Latifah, the 25th anniversary gala put on by The Boston Women’s Fund.”
Berry sums up their work, “We hold Gandhi’s quote of being the change that we would like to see in the world as the driving force behind our work. Not just because it is our duty to fight for what we believe in, but more importantly because our daughters and their children shouldn’t have to ‘create’ spaces in order to feel treasured. We are institutionalizing the values of love, accountability, healing, sisterhood, restorative justice and anti-oppression into our communities so that future generations can thrive.
“We want for our children’s children to be able to focus a little less on the struggle and a lot more on living long and vibrant lives.”