- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

Annie Lennox’s “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves” was appropriately blaring from the overhead speakers as hundreds of well-heeled Washington women streamed out of the Grand Hyatt ballroom last week.

This philanthropic sisterhood was clicking its heels to the tune of a $1 million Fannie Mae Foundation grant just awarded to the Washington Area Women’s Foundation (WAWF) for the Women and Families Financial Independence Initiative designated to break the cycle of poverty for single mothers.

WAWF President Anne Mosle said: “Women are a driving force in this area’s labor market. The [WAWF] recognizes that in order for the region to thrive, women and girls must have the skills and opportunity to thrive. We are proud that Washington is emerging not only as a community of powerful women, but also a community that truly understands the power of women.”

WRC-TV (Channel 4) anchor Susan Kidd was the host and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, was the keynote speaker. Ambassador Connie Morella — who represented Maryland’s 8th District in Congress for 16 years, championing women’s causes and who was later appointed ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, headquartered in Paris — was the lifetime philanthropy award recipient at the WAWF’s sixth annual leadership luncheon.

Stacey Stewart, president and CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation, spurred a standing ovation when she announced the large donation to seed the Women and Families Financial Independence Initiative.

Mrs. Clinton said: “Women-headed households are growing around the nation. They are raising our future leaders. They are highly effective, yet significantly underrecognized as community builders and advocates. They are a powerful and untapped resource. And often they are living in poverty. They need our support to attain economic security, consistent health care and a strong education for their families.”

Nearly 1,000 women from all arenas of Washington life forked over $125 to $10,000 to attend the WAWF luncheon, which has steadily gained in popularity since the foundation’s inception in 1997.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner; Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat; and D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams were a few of the men present, along with a host of female elected officials, including D.C. Council member Sandy Allen, whose ward east of the Anacostia River includes many single mothers.

Mrs. Stewart said the ambitious independence initiative to build long-term stability and security for women will target specific issues such as wealth creation and financial literacy; affordable, quality child care and safe, affordable housing; and education and job training. Grants will go to community-based groups looking to provide new or expanded services.

One such group conducts a nurses training program for recent D.C. high school graduates with children where child care is provided. Upon completion, they are capable of being hired in jobs with starting salaries of $41,000.

“This is philanthropy with a real objective … and a strategy around what we’re trying to change … to find ways to bring women out of poverty,” Mrs. Stewart said.

It is alarming, as WAWF officials state, that the region lacks a strategic community action agenda to identify and address the complex problems faced by women and their families.

The women-helping-women partnership between WAWF and the Fannie Mae Foundation seeks to close this glaring gap, which reveals in human terms that the Washington area is “a region of great divides — enriched by great diversity, talent and resources, yet tragically boasting the country’s highest income gap between rich and poor.” In the Washington area, 58 percent of families living in poverty are headed by women. About 82 percent of D.C. children in poverty live in households where no father is present.

In Montgomery County, where child care slots and subsidies are being cut, costs for infant and preschool child care are estimated at $15,329 per year — more than one-third of the median income for women-headed families in that county. In Prince George’s, 48 percent of Hispanic women 18 or older do not have a high school diploma.

In Fairfax, men’s annual earnings outpace women by nearly $19,000. Women heading households with the median income of $41,000 in Arlington can afford to purchase only 14 percent of the county’s housing stock.

These are a few of the findings of the WAWF-commissioned study called the “The Portrait Project,” which was released earlier this year and became the impetus for the independence initiative. The yearlong research project confirmed that although the Washington area can boast of some of the most highly educated women in the country, it also has the burden of the largest numbers of women in low-paying, dead-end jobs with no benefits.

Nothing like Sistahgirl power.

WAWF has awarded more than $250,000 and presented more than 42 awards to nonprofits and programs that have served more than 15,000 low-income women and girls in the region. This year, leadership awards were presented during the luncheon to such groups as Digital Sisters in the District, Girl Power of Barrios Unidos in Falls Church and SECRETS (Sisters Empowered Can Redefine Events Through Sharing) in Capitol Heights.

Amended by many sisterhood groups, Margaret Mead’s statement rings ever so true with the much-needed effort for this women’s independence initiative: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed [women] can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

And, women from all walks of life and from all communities across the Washington area are coming together to demonstrate that “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves.”

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