Mothers for Justice is a grassroots group that has done work in partnership with Self-Development of People.
Ginna: Can you tell me a little bit about who Mothers for Justice (MFJ) is and what you all do?
Kimberly Clark: Mothers for Justice is a grassroots advocacy group that organizes, trains, and mobilizes women living in poverty to be civically engaged, to speak out on social justice issues in order to bring about positive change and transformation in their community. Our work is rooted in the first-hand experiences of the women and our personal knowledge of the community. We help women to find their individual and collective voices so that they can exert pressure on policy and decision makers to implement solutions that help move people out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
At MFJ we work to make right social and economic injustices, using community organizing to make changes in policy and law.
Ginna: How was Mothers for Justice formed? What needs did you perceive in your community, and how did you respond to those?
Merryl Eaton: MFJ grew out of an umbrella organization called Christian Community Action. Christian Community Action (CCA) is a faith-based non-profit social services agency in New Haven, CT, that has primarily served the community through two emergency family shelters, a transitional housing program and a food pantry that serves over 8,600 people annually.
Early on in the developing ministry of CCA, it became apparent, the voices of the people most impacted by the issues the agency was dealing with – issues like homelessness, poverty, and hunger – were not being heard in public policy conversations. Mothers for Justice formed to change that.
Most of the women who make up Mothers for Justice have experienced the traumas of homelessness or poverty, often both.
At the start, what MFJ was trying to do was a daunting, scary proposition: to stand up in public, at forums, press conferences, local meetings and at the at the Connecticut General Assembly among the policy experts and professional advocates and to talk about their own lives, to tell their stories. But it was also incredibly refreshing – and incredibly empowering for the women to raise their voices and be heard.
In its twenty years of existence, Mothers for Justice has spent a lot of time at the Connecticut General Assembly. We are often the only grassroots voice talking about issues of concern to people with low income. But group members are respectful and well informed and come with suggestions and solutions for better outcomes and so, they have earned the respect and admiration of our legislators.
Mothers for Justice is an independent and entirely member-led organization, but CCA still provides support where it can. For example, I actually work for CCA, but because of this partnership, I also do administrative work and community organizing for Mothers for Justice.
Kim: I’ve been a member since 2005, I often say that MFJ taught me not only that I had a voice, but taught me how to use it too, use it in effective ways, ways that will make change.
Ginna: What is each of your role in the organization?
Kim: I am one of the co-leaders of Mothers for Justice, and one of the two co-leaders. I’ve been in this position 5 years now. We will be electing new officers for 2015?
Merryl: I’m the director of advocacy and education for CCA, which, as I just mentioned, means I get to work with Mothers for Justice. I always describe myself as MFJ’s head cheerleader!
Any mother, any parent wants their child to have a better life than they have. If there’s something I can do legislatively to make that happen, I’m going to do it.
Ginna: How is the group structured?
Kim: We have a shared leadership model. We decided not to go the traditional route of president and vice president but instead to have two co-leaders, myself and Kanesha Crenshaw, who share responsibility. I think it works really well because we complement each other with our different talents; we each bring a lot to the table. Kanesha has lots of administrative skills, and I always say I am ‘computer illiterate’ – I can log into my email, maybe…! But she isn’t as comfortable as I am talking in front of people. So we complement each other. So far it’s been working really well.
Ginna: What are the key issues that you are working on now?
Kim: Right now, our baby is our affordable housing campaign. We really jumped into this one with both feet! We invited the newly elected mayor of New Haven to one of our meetings because we wanted to pick her brain about our concerns about the lack of affordable housing. Mayor Harp suggested that we go up to the capital at Hartford and ask the legislature for $20 million in RAP (Rental Assistance Program) vouchers that will help make housing more accessible and affordable.
When she said $20 million, my jaw dropped. When she saw my expression, she said I know it sounds like lots of money, but it’s just a drop in bucket compared to what’s there. Mayor Harp was formally the co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and a strong ally of MFJ, and we were confident that her figure would be well received by our potential partners in this effort.
We then asked our state Representative Robyn Porter and our state Senator Gary Holder-Winfield if they raise a bill in the 2015 legislative session to provide the funding for the vouchers. would help us to start a campaign to raise this bill. We’re going to keep moving forward from there. With the re-election of our governor, Dan Malloy, who we have a really good relationship with; we have a lot of hope for this campaign!
In 2012, thanks to a grant from Self-Development of People, Mothers for Justice created a simple survey asking people in the area about their housing experiences. The answer came back that a staggering 71% of the people surveyed had experienced homelessness!
Merryl: The PC(USA) has been a valuable partner with us on this project. In 2012, thanks to a grant from Self-Development of People, Mothers for Justice created a simple survey asking people in the area about their housing experiences. We went out to Laundromats, supermarkets, and went door to door. We interviewed 472 people. The answer came back that a staggering 71% of the people surveyed had experienced homelessness!
One of the problems we discovered is the way we measure homelessness in this country. People sleeping on their aunt’s couch or in their cars aren’t technically considered “homeless” in U.S. census data. If we can’t talk appropriately about the problem, we can’t approach and fix the system to find a solution.
The survey also revealed that subsidized housing is a viable solution to reducing homelessness in our community. Mothers for Justice took this information and shared it with members of the state General Assembly, as well as other policy and decision makers.
When the legislative session opens in January, Senator Gary Holder-Winfield, who has since agreed to chair the CGA Housing Committee, will raise our affordable housing bill. We have already begun to look for partners and allies throughout the state to help get that bill passed as a law.
Ginna: That’s a pretty incredible story. Can you tell me about some other campaigns you have worked on – or are working on now?
Kim: Yes, this past June we culminated a successful campaign to get a bill passed that will improve TANF policies in Connecticut. TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy families – it’s basically the social welfare system. It used to be that order to receive full cash benefits from TANF, you had to participate and graduate from a job training program.
People sleeping on their aunt’s couch or in their cars aren’t technically considered “homeless” in U.S. census data.
We were seeing more and more often that people would get that job certificate, but they didn’t have their GED, so they were still having a lot of trouble getting jobs. So we started saying, and we were saying it for years, we should let this education be another option for the TANF requirement. We should change the rules so that people can get credit not just for job training but for going to school, especially if that’s what helps them gets jobs in the end.
Merryl: Mothers for Justice actually put together a documentary called Living in a Broken System about this issue. We made the documentary in 2011, but – and I’m sad to say it – but parts of it are still very relevant.
I think it’s important to say that the group is very well respected by social service agencies as well as our legislators. The Department of Social Services came to us recently and asked if they could do a focus group with Mothers for Justice. They wanted to hear what our group had to say.
There’s been growth, too, within the group as a whole. It used to be that members of Mothers for Justice would just tell their stories. That was definitely powerful, but then the group realized that they needed to be adding recommendations and advocating for policy changes when they told their stories. They realized they needed to be meeting with members of Congress. Now their witness is three-fold: telling the story, making recommendations, and then working to move the needle and make things happen.
MFJ’s witness is three-fold: telling the story, making recommendations, and then working to move the needle and make things happen.
The TANF bill we wanted didn’t pass the first time around, so Mothers for Justice upped their game and came back to do it all again. The bill finally passed this last July, and Mothers for Justice was asked to be at the signing ceremony. It was a huge honor for us. The Department of Social Services wanted to be sure to publically acknowledge this group’s role in raising awareness and taking action around this need in our community.
Ginna: How does your identity as women, more specifically as mothers, guide your work and give you a unique voice?
Kim: The whole reason that I do any of this is because I am the mother of 2 boys – a 12-year-old and a 22-year-old. When I first got involved with Mothers for Justice, my baby was just 7. I didn’t like the direction that things were going in our state and our community, and I wanted to do something. I heard about Mothers for Justice, and I loved the idea from the start. I jumped on board – and here I am today!
I think that if I had not had a young child, I wouldn’t have been nearly as motivated to get involved, or as committed as I am now. Any mother, any parent wants their child to have a much better life than they have themselves, and that’s true for me too. So if there’s something I can do legislatively or on the local level to make that happen, I’m going to do it.
Merryl: I remember one time when a program that Mothers for Justice considers very important was about to be cut, and we were asked to come up to the capital to give testimony about the importance of the program. All morning, we sat there listening to experts with lots of data and statistics talking about how important this program was. The statistics were impressive, sure, but after awhile it was all just sort of mind-numbing.
Then Kim got up there with tears pouring down her face, and she said we need to keep this program because I have an 11-year-old son, and he needs this. It made a huge impact on the people in the room; you could feel the whole mood change. I think that is Mothers for Justice’s gift and role: to be that first-hand story that people can connect to personally.
I think that is Mothers for Justice’s gift and role: to be that first-hand story that people can connect to personally.
Ginna: In this issue of Unbound, we’ve been talking about gender justice and stories of women who have been silenced. In your work, do you come across people who have been silenced – or who others have failed to listen to?
Merryl: I would say that this that’s true for virtually every member of the group. Most of the women who make up Mothers for Justice have experienced the traumas of homelessness or poverty, often both. In general, our society tends to ignore people who are poor or marginalized, or we tell them they’re undeserved.
Mothers for Justice tells a different story. Here, these women’s children have the opportunity to see them portrayed in a very different, very positive light. The women in Mothers for Justice can come home and talk about meeting the lieutenant governor, or a state Senator. That’s not something everyone can say to their children!
When the women from Mothers for Justice go to the capital, or meet with the Department of Social Services Commissioner, those people really want to hear what the members of our group have to say. They want to hear our stories. That alone is incredibly empowering. And it changes everything.
Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!