Who’s Doing the Dirty Work in New Orleans?

Playground being built
A new playground being built by volunteers in New Orleans (Photo by Casey Clevenger)

Last month, I had the opportunity to take five days away from work and studies to volunteer for relief work in New Orleans, Louisiana through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) “50@50” program. The trip was part of JVC’s effort to bring fifty volunteers to assist in relief projects in the gulf region during five separate weeks of service. The theme of the week was “Racial Justice” and in addition to working on various reconstruction projects, our group of twelve participated in a larger dialogue on issues of racism at a local and national level, attending a talk by Tavis Smiley on his book, Covenant with Black America.
While my current work at IWPR and graduate studies in Public Policy and Women’s Studies at George Washington University are focused on improving the status of women, minorities, and low-income populations in the United States, research and academic engagement in these issues are not always enough to make me feel truly connected and actively engaged in problems of poverty, racism, and systematic injustices in the U.S. Taking time out of my regular schedule to step away from books, policies, and computers, and contribute to “hands-on” reconstruction efforts was invaluable.
Our group had the chance to spend time with residents, listen to their stories, and show our concern to those lives disrupted by the destruction of Katrina. As we talked to long-term volunteers, cleared storm drains, helped gut houses and sort clothing with Common Ground, and assisted Fanny Mae employees build a school playground with KaBOOM, it was clear that relief to the most vulnerable communities of New Orleans is being provided by volunteers and nonprofit organizations.
As I have learned in various volunteer positions, including the year I spent as a Jesuit Volunteer (2004-2005), the work of social justice is not complete without community, solidarity, individual commitment, and an awareness of the important policy issues at stake. However, as volunteers and as citizens, we must also question the role of our government in providing leadership and executing policies that take into account all populations of our country. We must hold our government accountable for its decisions. Rebuilding our own communities and inner cities, addressing injustices within our own fifty states, must be a national responsibility and priority if the U.S. is to legitimately support democracy building in other nations.
This is why IWPR’s work on the effects of Hurricane Katrina is so important. Returning from New Orleans, I am grateful to be working for an organization actively involved in the dissemination of research on gender, race, and poverty in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. IWPR’s reports on the women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were the first reports to look at the impact of Hurricane Katrina and specifically address its effects on impoverished women in the area. In addition to its two-part briefing paper, The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Multiple Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery, IWPR is interviewing people impacted by Katrina in order to make policy recommendations that will take into account their realities and better inform the recovery process.
It has been over a year and a half since Hurricane Katrina struck and there is an enormous amount of work left to be done, but I am glad to know that in advocating for policies that promote economic justice, IWPR continues to give voice to those still suffering from the devastating effects of the storm.
– Casey Clevenger, IWPR Development Intern

International Women’s Day and Queen Elizabeth I

March is Women’s history month and March 8th is International Women’s Day. As a woman and a history major, I would like to take a moment to reflect on this month and its meaning, as well as the women who have aided me in getting where I am today both directly and indirectly.
I enjoy the commentary on round table discussions on National Public Radio where commentators routinely question the need and use of celebratory months for things such as Black History and Women’s History. There’s much to be said about naming a particular month in honor of a group that was or is at a disadvantage in society. As if women and Blacks could be assuaged with a month to celebrate their personal existence. But the history geek in me gets excited to see March bring in spring plus awareness of women’s history– a topic that was unheard of let alone studied until recently.
I remember the day I gained awareness of the importance of women’s history. Sophomore year my high school history teacher taught us only one woman in the whole span of world history: Cleopatra. Not to be outdone by a nice but traditional former football coach who was set in his ways, I offered and was allowed to give a lecture on my most favorite woman in history, Queen Elizabeth I. Her 41 years of solitary reign in England, during which time she took the country from inescapable poverty to the most powerful and wealthy country in Europe has inspired my ambitions since I first came across her in sixth grade.
The woman beat the Spanish Armada with a smaller, more impoverished fleet in 1588 and she also managed to organize the Anglican Church and prevent the British from hosting its own holy war between Catholics and Protestants. Queen Elizabeth I was one of those rare breeds of women- centuries before her time, fortunate enough to be born into a high enough class to allow for the cultivation of her mind without question. It probably also helped that her father could only manage to produce one male heir who died at age 15 of Tuberculosis- a great deal of energy had to be put into his daughters if they were to be worthy successors.
Elizabeth rose to the challenge and, as I like to think, outshined all expectations anyone might have held. It’s interesting to note that she was able to successfully run a country during the 1500s without ever marrying. I’m not trying to say that marriage is bad, but it definitely makes you think about viewing it as a necessity for security in this age if women at that time could do it and still succeed. Granted her economic situation placed her in an elite class that most women in the present could never achieve. However, women in our time also have the benefit of the feminist movement which shifted social perspectives enough that single women in their mid-twenties and older are no longer called spinsters and viewed as social pariahs.
I love trying to imagine what Elizabeth must have thought and dealt with on a daily basis. Mostly I love pretending that some of her fortitude and aptitude will rub off on me the more I study her life. I encourage all women my age and younger to look to the past as historians pull more women from the lost accounts of history. Surely there are inspirations for all of us. Hopefully those women who accomplished great feats without things like Title IX or equal opportunity legislation will help force us to see that while we still have a large mountain to climb, our sisters and ancestors have been there and can always lend a helping hand.
– Elisabeth Crum

A great book – updated and re-released

Why It's Great to Be A Girl

The original book Why It’s Great to Be a Girl: 50 Things You Can Tell Your Daughter to Increase Her Pride in Being Female which was issued in 1994 has now been updated and is being re-released with a new title called Why It’s Great to Be a Girl: 50 Awesome Reasons Why We Rule!. The author is Jacqueline Shannon. I first read this book in high school, either as a junior or senior. It had all sorts of facts in there that I never knew, or that no one had ever told me. I bought the book and thought, “Wow. This will be great when I have a daughter of my own.” Plus it had the added bonus of building up my self esteem at a time when I was struggling with the woman I was becoming. I later loaned the book to my aunt for her to share with my two female cousins.
Shannon wrote the book after her pre-school daughter encountered sexism and gender bias when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up answered “a doctor.” The man who had asked the question replied “You let the boys be the doctors…Girls don’t have the stomach to deal with blood.” This was just one of a few examples that her daughter had experienced.
The new edition has been updated and expanded with the help of the author’s daughter, Madeline, who is now in college. The original book was designed for mothers of young daughters, but the newer version is geared toward girls entering adolescence. She’s also made the book more multicultural and global to focus on achievements of women worldwide, since the first book focused on women in Western countries. Her hope is that the book will reach an international audience of girls in whose countries gender bias is even worse than in the United States.
From the publisher’s website:

After all, what girl wouldn’t feel great about herself knowing that:
• girls hear better than boys
• girls drive better than boys
• girls’ bodies are stronger than boys’ in every way, except for muscles
• girls are less susceptible to major diseases
• and, according to many anthropologists and archaeologists, girls actually “civilized” humankind!

My favorite one of the above is that girls drive better than boys. My dad and uncle have made mean remarks about “women drivers” for years, but they were wrong!
I’ll be heading to my local bookstore next week to pick up a copy, and will hold onto it until my daughter is old enough to read it for herself. Though she is still young, I hope to instill a sense of pride in her that being female is a wonderful thing, and I hope she never feels like the “weaker sex” or inferior to boys.
– Michelle Schafer