Under the leadership of Ana Oliveira, the New York Women's Foundation has established itself as the key institutional opinion leader on issues facing women, girls, and their families in New York City. Last week, more than five hundred people from more than sixty countries gathered at the Brooklyn Marriott in New York for the annual meeting of the Women's Funding Network (WFN), whose board Oliveira chairs. Frequent contributor Michael Seltzer interviewed Oliveira on the eve of the conference.
Philanthropy News Digest: A few weeks ago, Iman al-Obeidi, a postgraduate Libyan law student, courageously confronted Muammar Gaddafi's henchmen in a hotel room in Tripoli that the Western press was using as a base of operations. In the process, al-Obeidi, who earlier had been gang-raped and beaten, succeeded in exposing the brutality of the Libyan regime to the world. How is it that women burdened by such oppression and brutality are able to find their voice?
Ana Oliveira: The violence committed against Iman al-Obeidi reveals the depth of the role of women as pillars of society. Women's bodies are a battlefield. And, it pains me to say, seeking to destroy or violate or hurt or devalue women is part and parcel of the breaking down of communities, cultures, and societies in times of war.
PND: Are we seeing an escalation of violence against women?
AO: Rape has been with us throughout history. It is a weapon of war. What we are seeing now is an increase in all forms of sexual violence, an increase in murderous conflicts, an increase in systemic genocide against women. Women are often both the first line of defense and the first to be attacked. But women around the globe are rising up, and they will continue to rise up. They must, in order to survive and make a better world for themselves. We saw it in Chile under Pinochet and in Argentina under the military dictatorship in the 1970s. And we are seeing it today across North Africa, where women are playing a pivotal role in the struggle for democracy.
PND: Let's talk about the United States. How does your organization address the issue of violence against women in New York City?
AO: Funding from the New York Women's Foundation is very much based on the principle of the integrity and wholeness of women's lives, women's leadership, and women's economic and physical security, otherwise known as safety. But it's more than just freedom from violence; we're talking about the ability to thrive, personally and as fully integrated members of a larger community. We support low-income women who organize themselves into community-based organizations, who embody the same spirit of resistance to the status quo as their historic and contemporary counterparts, who ignite in each other a sense of collective power.
PND: How are these uncertain economic times affecting women, their families, and their neighborhoods?
AO: Economic strife is increasing — and will continue to increase this year and into next. Even though the recession was officially declared over back in 2009, it's my view that we have entered the second phase of the economic downturn. For working communities, for working women, for lower-paid workers, economic conditions are going to get worse, as those communities and people begin to lose many of the public supports they had enjoyed through the states.
As you know, state government is both an employer in these communities and a supplier of safety-net support for single mothers, one-parent heads of households, and low-wage workers. But because there has been serious public and commericial under-investment in these communities and populations, it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to keep their heads above water. In the neighborhoods where we fund, there are very few institutions that support a decent quality of life for residents — institutions like banks, well-stocked supermarkets and stores, accessible public transportation, and so on. It's not unusual for the people we support to have to take a subway, a bus, then another bus to get to their destination. Where are the firehouses? Where are the police stations? Where are the libraries and parks? Where are the playgrounds? Where are the decent schools? Things that most Americans take for granted.
In the communities we serve, the numbers are lower in all of the above-mentioned categories. At the same time, you'll find a higher number of single parent heads of households, most of whom are single women; a higher rate of unemployment; more dropouts; higher infant and maternal mortality rates. The list goes on.
PND: You've just described a pretty bleak situation. What can a foundation like yours do to change it for the better?
AO: One thing we do is to fund ParentJobNet, a community-based organization in East New York established by a local parent to help women become job ready and find employment. Program staff engage women who are interested in assessing their skills and help them create a resume and find a job. If they already have a job, the program provides them with additional training so that they can get a better-paying job. It also helps women who are working and who are eligible for food stamps to receive them. That way, household income increases, children get better nutrition and begin to do better in school, and families start to do better economically and socially. But, like every organization doing this kind of work, we need more capital to help move people and low-income neighborhoods toward that crucial tipping point where positive feedback loops begin to kick in. That's what our sister women's funds in the United States and around the world are doing, and I can't think of a better use of a society's resources.
— Michael Seltzer