Taming the Beast of Poverty

Poverty preys on the human soul.  Its predations are hard to understand fully without having experienced destitution.  The most pernicious damage is the erosion of hope – the belief that opportunities come not to oneself but to others.

Beneath hopelessness dwells a kind of psychological lassitude born of chronic effort simply to survive.  While this bedrock instinct may allow certain cleverness in exploiting random good luck, it muffles incentive like a heavy quilt. In the long term, ‘working the system’ or waiting for what you need to fall off a truck does not build momentum for plans of real consequence. 

The burden of poverty falls most heavily on women, and women of color in particular. In every area of life – education, livelihood, health, housing, personal safety – ways to improve life circumstances are systematically and routinely denied by the complexity of the qualification process, by overburden providers, and by the indifference of those who could afford to help in meaningful ways but prefer to look away.

Not knowing one’s purpose, ‘hanging on’ through days of no consequence, inflicts the sort of hollowness that leads women to drugs, alcohol and/or other destructive habits. These painkilling survival strategies are often misread as character flaws. Their descending vortex is hard to notice, much less to escape.

A thoughtful look at the range of services offered to low-income people in Oakland argues that the 34% of West Oaklanders who live below the federal poverty level should not be living below the federal poverty level. Why does this situation seem intractable?

Even the most miserable woman will not capitalize on opportunities to change her circumstances without a belief that her life matters. There are no quick fixes to poverty’s psychological damage.  A disabled sense of self-worth is a deep and abiding wound. 

While handing out food may stave off hunger, it does not make a self-reliant woman. What does?

Women’s self-reliance comes from belonging to a group. One of the best things a woman can do for her mental and physical health is to nurture her relationships with other women.

A Women’s Center provides this opportunity. I have not been able to understand how this important Model is consistently overlooked by funders, especially those who profess to support ‘women’s issues.’ 

The elegance and utility of the Women’s Center Model derives from it use by women who understand how much it allows them to accomplish in their community. Baraka Women’s Center in Nairobi, Kenya continues to play the edge in this regard, uplifting nearly 1,200 women living in extreme poverty. Women’s Centers International is ready to support their initiative to establish two new Centers in Kenya. Who is ready to step up and support this ambitious initiative by a women-led community-based organization?

Just as important: when will Oaklanders rally to support the re-establishment of Oakland Women’s Center? 

Women’s Centers are all about taming the beast of poverty. It’s time to open this toolkit in service to women – locally and globally.


The massively unmet needs of poor women, particularly black women, have fueled my thinking since I began working in Africa two decades ago. In my hometown, Oakland CA, I see as little progress stanching the pain.

Over the last eighteen months, I’ve grown more intimate with the realities of the sisters’ piled-on issues. Obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, breast cancer, addiction, abuse (historic and current), custody battles, low-wage quicksand jobs – because finishing high school never happened.

owc-logo-colorHealing the accumulated trauma requires a lot of courage. And support.

Every woman’s gotta pitch in to bring up every other woman.

Then we actually can reshape a vibrant future around what women are uniquely capable of doing. We are so much more than we’ve learned to be.

Movin’ on Up

A month ago, WCI received a substantial donation that allows us stable and effective operation of Oakland Women’s Center for maybe a year, if we play our cards well.

This means we get to move to a higher level of service to women. It’s invigorating to have the resource to execute a passionate vision.

So much to do. Just fabulous!


A Year of Foraging

2015 was a bitch mistress – demanding more than perhaps I wanted to have given. But then I tend not to do things part-way. If I’m in, I’m all in. That would be the Women’s Centers in Nairobi and Oakland.

The downside of this personal “all in” business is that I’ve spent most of the year chasing rent checks to the bank. I play mental chess every month with how to make what money I do have cover too much debt. My grandchildren will know the specter of payments for my daughter’s student loan that I signed. It will end up amassing enough in interest, over its lifetime, to put at least one child through a semester or two or university education in 2025.

Then I consider the bigger picture: those to whom we deliver our taxes have done a less-than-inspired job of keeping the national debt in check. Everyone’s in debt. It’s not a character flaw.

What I don’t have in terms of stuff, I forage for. This requires the willingness to make snap decisions because the law “You Snooze, You Lose” applies. New freebies get put on the streets of Oakland over day. On rare occasion, an amazing antique. Sometimes an item with utility or piece of furniture with good bones. Too much of the roadside detritus is trash. LOTS of plastic. Scars on the face of the earth. No respect for – no investment in – the places where we live.

Favorite flower

My clothes come from second-hand shops, recycling whatever clothing they’ll accept for store credit. II troll Craig’s List free stuff. Found a perfectly serviceable pair of leggings in the drawer of a small dresser rescued from the curb. Also found a good end table, a possibly elegant Queen Anne chair that begs for re-upholstery, and virtually every item of furniture for the Oakland Women’s Center.

I cam across three restaurant-size sacks of onions on the street by my office where a lot of people dump stuff at eviction time. Left two bags, got nearly 40 pounds of good cooking onions out of the third, including enough to make a couple of batches of pretty damn good French onion soup for a workshop and for Christmas Eve dinner.

At least 1000 evictions per month in my fair city. Too much suffering. Because of the Women’s Center, I’m acutely aware of how many women are homeless. I wrestle over how to bring positive outcomes to that relentless struggle, and believe I have something: C-Town. Plans in progress.

If I think all the time about the poverty-induced struggles of many of the women I see, I would be (and have gotten) depressed. On days off, I throw myself into making stuff: cookies and soups and stews from whatever ingredients I’ve got. Futzing around refinishing old furniture I’ve found with what paint I’ve scrounged.

My hands need to be working the earth. The apartment’s balcony garden provides too little work to satisfy that obsession. And now, during the cold/rainy period, I have to hold back for the hibernation of most of the plants –except a zinnia that won’t quit blooming. I’ve put in a pretty good starter roof garden at the Women’s Center. I work in my daughter’s large yard, a wondrous buffet of rare-ish tropical plants and fruit trees, and I occasionally get to work with a family through City Slickers Farms’ backyard garden mentor program.

I need my own land to create my last and most enduring garden. Already laid out on paper. A period of advanced bliss will begin when I find the land to buy and the money to afford it.

I want to begin a series of community dialogs about our ‘race problem” – as the clash of cultures has been named. The subject revs emotions in the West Oakland neighborhood into high gear. Scary – but think of all the animosity that could be channeled into useful joint efforts.


In Kenya, when we opened Baraka Women’s Center, women came in droves to register as members. The larger community supports the Center only if there is cash on the table for them. Influential people who could rally funding for the Center have been unhelpful.

At Oakland Women’s Center, we are searching for the women. Meanwhile, so many people from the community have donated money and furnishing and equipment to the Center. They want to teach and offer services. Influential people who could bring money to the Center have been unhelpful.

In Kenya, we are seen as a sort of ‘gravy train’ – the white folks of course have money – though the Center there operates on a shoestring budget.

In Oakland, we evidently are a kind of interloper. Again operating on a shoestring budget.

I wonder about the stasis that poverty induces. The desire to stay with the familiar no matter how messed up it is. Cynicism about hope and change. Does the movement of know-how and support need to pass through a racial/cultural checkpoint? Is ‘community’ a notion that, in practice, plays out as xenophobic and suspicious?

Soul Train Oakland showed me that the joyful melding of lots of different people is not only possible but fun.

Some days it’s hard to read the tea leaves.