This little light of mine

In the mid- to late-1960s, I did what many of my friends were doing. We grew our hair long, met over coffee, sang folk songs, went to rallies against the war in Vietnam, and marched for housing and racial justice. Sometime during that decade, I met the Berrigan brothers in an apartment near Marquette University. In those rooms, it was okay to be gay, active, angry. It was not okay to be complacent. It was only when their names appeared on FBI lists that I recognized that I was in dangerous territory.

Until then, justice seemed elusive, but innocent.

Daniel Berrigan later famously said, “…we’re all going to die in a world that is worse than when we entered it.”

The Berrigans always frightened me a bit, but at the time I thought I’d be damned if I’d prove him right in his assessment of our human situation. I’d work my ass off to show him more was possible. Now, fifty years later, I see his point. We must work indefatigably for social justice, but the success of that work is more than a lifetime in coming. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously reminded us that we may not reach the promised land, but the destination is clear; the cause, just.

I fear that I never sufficiently processed the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Dr. King. While I recall redoubling my efforts to fight on the left, I fear that their murders left me with a profound sense of futility in my efforts. I would do things, but felt they’d have little chance of real or lasting success. Daniel Berrigan had been proven right by assassins.

The members of my family and my late husband’s were generally liberal, working class people. But over the last 30 years, they have become less progressive in their actions and voting. So, when Paul and I would discuss our year-end giving, the talks about the issue of social justice — particularly for women and black Americans — would get particularly impassioned. We both agreed that our mothers and sisters were deeply affected by sexism in nearly all domains of human development. We saw, too, that our African American friends experienced racism interpersonally, institutionally, and socially. But as our discussions went on, we’d get mired in feelings of hopelessness about making any difference at all, despite our sense of commitment and willingness to work.

It has been a relief to me then to learn more about the work of YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin, an organization committed to empowering women and eliminating racism. In the last 10 years, I have learned more about the organization, watched the Milwaukee organization expand to Racine, and witnessed the intelligent and bold leadership of CEO, Paula Penebaker, and clear-headed guidance of Board Chair, Lois Smith.

Growing numbers of civic and corporate leaders have backed the work of Martha Barry who leads the racial justice efforts of YWCASEW, including Rockwell Automation, Northwestern Mutual, Bader Philanthropies, United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County, and Forest County Potawatomi Foundation. Support has been growing as well for the work more recently begun by Jamaal Smith who convenes employment sector work groups to advance hiring and retaining workers with limited soft skills and/or irregular work histories. Jennifer de Montmollin also ably leads programs to advance employment readiness, adult education and personal financial management. These programs provide education and resources aimed at guiding participants on their path to economic success, thus mitigating the chilling effects of sexism and racism.

Over time as my relationship with the YWCA has deepened, I have received the incredible gift of renewed hope. My small contributions in work and monetary gifts will not make a difference on their own. But, I am heartened by the realization that together we can with the commitment of such an excellent organization that will carry the work forward both with me and after me.

Paul and I could not find a local organization in better alignment with the intent of our giving. If you share any of our interests in social justice, particularly as these apply to women and people of the global majority, I hope you will consider a gift to YWCASEW. Better still, you could decide to develop a relationship with the YWCASEW and make ongoing gifts of support.

Let me know in comments here or in social media what resonates for you in the work of social justice, ending racism and empowering women. Let’s keep the discussion of giving and generosity going.


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