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Kathe Johnson shares her experience from her work with the Women and Poverty Public Education Initiative, outlining four lessons she learned from this project, which connects professional academic and low-income women.

Our project, the Women and Poverty Public Education Initiative (WPPEI), links the expertise of professional academic women with the skill development of low-income women. We work to build the economic capacity of low-income women and to ensure that their voices are heard in the public policy decisions that affect them. We have learned through our work that this partnership model between academic and low-income women has the potential to shape policy change, but is not without its pitfalls.

Operating in four Wisconsin communities, WPPEI is staffed by a director, two regional coordinators, and two local coordinators at each site. The local coordinators form the heart of the partnership model, consisting of one academic professional and one low-income woman. They keep informed of welfare-related issues, which are shared with the larger membership. They also initiate projects to address these issues and serve on the boards of local agencies.

To meet our goals we engage in research, public education, public policy campaigns, and advocacy for low-income women. Our recent achievements include:

  • Our local coordinators organized a county collaborative to assess the needs of low-income families in the county and to take steps to alleviate their problems.
  • Our local coordinators started a Speakers Bureau in 1999 that offers low-income women training in communication and public policy skills. Women who take the training speak at conferences, college classrooms, and other forums to share their insights about public policy and how it affects them.
  • We published the results of a four-year longitudinal study of women who either received, or were eligible to receive, public benefits.
  • We published an educational video and booklet examining the impact of welfare reform, based on a survey of 100 women in poverty from each site location.

Related Resource

De Vita, C. J., & Mosher-Williams, R. (Eds.). (2001). Who Speaks for America’s Children. Washington, DC: Urban Institute Press. This book presents essays by child policy experts about advocacy strategies and their influence on policy. Case studies highlight the changing role of child advocacy organizations.

Although partnership model projects can shape policy change, my experience suggests that we need better preparation among both the professional and low-income women to take full advantage of this model. Our project has learned several important lessons along the way to improve the design of this partnership:

1. Professional academic women need further training about ways to examine the obstacles to low-income partners’ participation in project implementation. Over time, the low-income membership of WPPEI declined to an almost negligible number. Most of the remaining members were women in academia. I believe this happened because the training for the women in academia regarding the real life difficulties of the women in poverty was inadequate. With better understanding, the professional academic members can design projects that offset the material and social divide between themselves and the low-income members.

2. Professional academic women need to assess what tools low-income partners may need and budget accordingly for compensation, communication, and transportation costs. Professionals usually have credit cards, cell phones, personal computers, Internet service, reliable vehicles, and access to other tools to facilitate their participation. The absence of these tools often limits participation of low-income members. This is especially the case when telephone conference calls and email are common means of communication. Even something as simple as distributing notebooks to record project-related activity begins to bridge the difference between partners.

3. Partnership projects need to train low-income partners comprehensively. Professionals often use words and acronyms that are unfamiliar to most people, especially to those who have a limited formal education. In meetings where such language is used, low-income women may feel uncomfortable and may not fully share their experiences. Low-income members need to be trained about project terminology and acronyms, public policy systems, and the names and goals of relevant organizations. They should also be exposed to role-playing sessions to prepare for situations in new social arenas that might cause embarrassment.

4. A project that employs low-income women should ensure their access to events that expand their social networks. Professionals usually have access to a network of individuals who can help move a project forward politically and financially. Low-income women usually have not moved far from their cultural and social milieu and have limited contacts with important people. To compensate for this, they need exposure to networking opportunities. For example, if a project goal is to reduce local crime, then the project’s budget should include money for low-income women to attend a Crimestoppers dinner, where they can build relationships with law enforcement, school district, and service agency representatives.

I believe that the research, advocacy, and public education activities of a partnership model project can make an impact on the lives of low-income families. As such, adequate forethought and attention to the needs of all the members of the project are vital to its long-term success.

Kathe Johnson
Regional Coordinator
Women and Poverty Public Education Initiative
11504 West Brandherm Road
Beloit, WI 53511

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