This January, Picture the Homeless was honored to host a site visit for Praxis International’s Advocacy Learning Center, meeting with women from all over the country who want to incorporate organizing and advocacy into the work they do to provide services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other forms of violence against women.
“These women came from all over the country,” said Picture the Homeless member Arvernetta Henry,who participated in the training. “Chicago, Wyoming, Florida, Texas, and more. We’re all dealing with different issues in different places, but so much of it comes down to the same injustice, inequality, and abuse. Women want to be heard. We’re still not being treated equally. Maybe on the books things have changed, but in practice we’re still second-class citizens. When we have issues, we don’t get the support that we’re crying for. We all still get the same empty promises from politicians.”
For two exciting days, we discussed the toolkit of community organizing, and how we use these tactics. We talked about our Speaker’s Bureau, a dynamic crew of homeless and formerly homeless people who go around talking to college classes and faith communities about our work and the realities of homelessness, and our Homeless Organizing Academy, where we provide homeless people with trainings in computer use, job searches, community organizing, and more. We showed powerful videos where our members fought back against illegal shelter evictions, built tent cities on abandoned lots, and held policy briefings for elected officials.
“The way Picture the Homeless centralizes the people you are organizing with is inspiring,” provider Liz Carlson, of Duluth, Minnesota, told us later. “The power and dedication of Arvernetta, DeBoRah and Charmel to make social change around the circumstances of homelessness is testament to how action impacts stigma and is a conduit to purpose. The Battered Women’s Movement was founded on such action, but over the years has drifted away from that tenet. Meeting you-all was a fantastic reminder of how critical it is to organize with, not for, others.”
“Women dealing with issues of domestic violence and sexual assault face a lot of the same challenges as homeless people,” Mrs. Henry continued. “So much of it has to do with stigma. For me, that was the big common denominator. If we’re going to change things, we have to change the conversation. We need people to get involved, speak out, show the world their experiences, challenge the misperceptions, expose the hate and lies and victim-shaming that people have been surrounded by.”
“When you’re dealing with these issues on your own, you think you’re the problem,” PTH member Charmel Lucas told the attendees. “Organizing breaks you out of that. Coming together with others is so empowering. People think their case manager is the problem. No, it’s not. It’s the system. It’s the people profiting off of you. It’s the politicians in the pocket of the real estate developers who don’t want to see real housing get created.”
“Our guests were really enthused about what we brought to the table, and the ways in which community organizing can advance their own work,” Arvernetta Henry continued. “No matter how different our issues might be, at the end of the day it’s about getting the people who are most impacted by a problem to get involved. They were excited about the tactics we use, from direct action to coalition work to meeting with decision makers. They were especially interested in our Homeless Organizing Academy, and the classes we hold to help our members learn how to do these things. No one is born knowing how to do an interview with a journalist or disrupt a City Council hearing, but by sharing our knowledge we can turn everyone into an effective agent for social change.”
And we’re already hearing about how our training has helped them! One of our guests is hard at work creating a Speaker’s Bureau of their own, and others are meeting with their organizations to figure out how they can expand into the uncharted territory of fighting to fix the policy and legislative issues that survivors of violence against women face.
Nor was the excitement a one-way street. Arvernetta and Charmel and DeBoRah were so energized by the experience that they immediately began talking about how they can revitalize the PTH Women’s Committee… which then hosted a meeting of the planning committee for New York City’s celebration of International Working Women’s Day, which we’ll help lead – right here in Harlem, highlighting sites related to gentrification, health disparity, police violence, and other issues that affect the lives of working class women.