By:Rebecca Saltman Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration, June 22, 2011
When you first look at Susan Kiely you see a kind face on a statuesque woman who could clearly command a room. What you may not note on the surface is a woman with such dedication that no part of the world is too big or exempt from her touch.
After six years of serving as chaplain to 800 senior citizens living in government housing in downtown Denver, where she did everything from planning day trips to counseling, Kiely decided to take a sabbatical. Serving seniors was a full-time volunteer job, filled with challenges and rewards. Then Kiely came across a different calling largely by accident.
As she assessed her last six years she knew she was ready for a change. In December of 2005 she received an invitation to attend the World Vision AIDS Breakfast. She sat and listened to the plight of women living in the developing world. In Africa and Asia women have little education, many dying in their 20s. Her heart broke, her sabbatical ended and her new adventure began. This was the catalyst for the Women With A Cause (WWAC) movement.
Kiely was inspired with the idea of designing clothing that would be manufactured by India's Dalit women; a lower caste prevalent in India’s society, who had never been offered real employment opportunities, much less learned a marketable skill. Months of travelling to India, constructing a definitive for-profit business plan, and assembling a team of American seamstresses led to the creation of the first Women With A Cause programs.
The Dalits, more commonly referred to as Untouchables, outcasts, and most recently “slumdogs”, comprise nearly one quarter of India’s society, with population estimates of 250 million people. The term Dalit means “those who have been broken and ground down deliberately by those above them in the social hierarchy.” Dalits constitute the largest group of people in the world categorized as victims of modern-day slavery. Their plight is enforced by the cyclical nature of the caste system, and societal bylaws which provide stability for the populace as a whole, while severely curtailing individual growth. Although officially outlawed throughout India, the 93% Hindu population has not adopted any new measures to counteract an entrenched Hindu norm. “They (Dalits) receive no education and are not allowed traditional jobs,” Kiely described. “The jobs they can get – cleaning human waste, house servants, other “untouchable” tasks – exist solely for the Dalits. No one else is expected to perform them.” And yet she was impressed by their tenacity. She found their widespread adoption of rigorously healthy personal hygiene remarkable, especially given these outrageous tasks.
For the first four years Kiely self-funded Women With A Cause, while she created teams of collaborative partners that had similar missions. The goal is always to empower women through improved skill sets; thereby attaining self-sufficiency with an eye towards ownership once they demonstrate the skills necessary to sustain the enterprise. One of WWAC’s first partners was the Dalit Freedom Network. The Dalit Freedom Network is a human rights, non-government organization that partners with the Dalit people in India. They represent a vast network of justice-minded, modern-day abolitionists committed to freedom for India’s “untouchables.” They believe there is an end to Dalit injustices, such as human trafficking and child labor, while dismantling slavery in all its forms - historical, cultural, legal and illegal - throughout India. Kiely saw that Women With A Cause and its programs could grow to encompass, then accomplish, both organizations’ missions.
We wanted to create an environment where they realized in God's eyes there is no caste system - all women are equal. - Susan Kiely Understanding both the depth of injustice toward Dalits as well as the delicacy of their mission in its early stages, WWAC embarked on a very emotional tradition. American women washing the feet of the Dalits working for Women With A Cause brought a new dimension to the work. This simple, time-honored gesture showed that they as women and their work were valued. As Kiely puts it, “We wanted to create an environment where they realized in God’s eyes there is no caste system - all women are equal.”
All of these experiences in India have evolved an uncompromising mission. Women With A Cause is providing economic development programs focusing on education and skills training for women, which will enable them to earn a sustainable income.
Women With A Cause built an economic training center in Hyderabad, India, where a team of six seamstresses currently produce her SK Designs clothing. "The $100 to $150 Western-style jackets, made from vibrantly patterned Indian silk cloth, were designed with women over 45 in mind," Kiely says. She points out “I have worked very hard to get the prices down keeping in mind that I want my women to get a good wage!”
All of the products are sold at home shows and third party retailers. Eventually, Kiely hopes to sell products in retail locations and in partnership with fair trade organizations. Kiely says, "I want the women who buy these products to really understand our mission."
Kiely is also taking her years of experience and making it even more personal by bringing it home. Women With A Cause is in the process of implementing its extraordinary systems and mission, enabling women to learn skills and earn a sustainable income right in their home town of Denver. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the current recession and a 10% - 15% unemployment rate will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years. As a result, Women With A Cause has decided to launch the WE Initiative 2011 – Women: Educate, Empower, Elevate.
Tthe current recession and a 10% - 15% unemployment rate will force 1.5 million more people into homelessness over the next two years.
Kiely and her team have been assessing where the jobs are and how to get women back to work here in the U.S. They found that medical professionals were desperately needed - there has been a 27% increase in nursing job openings. The need within the healthcare industry is burgeoning as boomers, the largest segment of any over-25 demographic, continue to age and nursing replacements in the upcoming rank-and-file are few. Nursing is a sustainable profession with salaries starting at $52,000 per year. So WWAC has decided to focus its work here in the U.S. on homeless mothers. Understanding the root cause and trends endemic to this particular brand of homelessness is crucial; these are not chronically homeless women, drug addicts, diagnosed mentally ill or paroled criminals. In fact, 47% of these women have some education past high school; but issues such as divorce, downsizing, or voluntarily exiting career paths to take care of sick children or aging parents are reasons most often cited as catalysts for their homelessness.
The First Lady was impressed by the concept of women creating sustainable enterprises by themselves, for themselves. Kiely has engaged in partnerships with schools such as Regis University that educate nurses, and in 2011 will start with 3 women in each of the participating schools. WWAC will work with local nonprofits focusing on this community, to identify the best candidates. Over a 3 to 6 month period, candidates will be put through a rigorous assessment to make sure they are ready for the commitment and also to ascertain the strength of their support systems. Once accepted to the four-year program they will have mentors always working with them, temporary assistance through TANF, tutors to assist with hard sciences or math that may be lacking, stipends for babysitting, and case managers. The mentors will be women experienced in nursing from a variety of industry backgrounds who are entering the twilight of their careers. The biggest issue currently is class space in the nursing programs for these women. Considering the huge gaps in geriatric nursing, there is a great hope that these women may find themselves reaching towards fulfilling careers in Gerontology.
If all of this wasn’t enough, during the month of April 2010, team members of WWAC traveled to the east coast of Africa, specifically to Ghana and Ethiopia. There they investigated candidates for partnerships with an eye towards creating a women's training facility that would provide the women with the embroidery skills to make purses and other craft items. WWAC found its connection to Ghana through Project C.U.R.E. and the First Lady of Ghana, Her Excellency Mrs. Ernestina Naadu Mills, who had visited Denver in July 2009 and graciously met with Kiely. The First Lady was impressed by the concept of women creating sustainable enterprises by themselves, for themselves. The trip was a tremendous success. They are now sending 24 computers to African partners: six to Ethiopia, and 18 to Ghana. Kiely and her team are committed to finding a teacher in those countries to imbue women with a new sense of esteem and purpose. Because there are only two facilities in Ghana currently allowing Americans to travel and reside there, a larger plan is being formulated to bring some Ghanian women to the U.S. in the role of “ambassadors” where they will be trained so they can return and train others.
The synergy here is undeniable. Kiely’s drive and perseverance are paying both spiritual and tangible dividends, in ways that are rapidly growing beyond the immediate scope of WWAC’s programs. The women being helped through WWAC’s efforts will in turn become the bedrock of geriatric nursing in Denver, and eventually throughout the country. Not bad for a sunny but unassuming chaplain looking to comfort an inner-city flock of 800 seniors just a few short years ago.
“Next to being a Grandmother, I am having the time of my life!” exclaims Kiely.
Rebecca Saltman is a social entrepreneur and the President and Founder of an independent collaboration building firm designed to bridge business, government, nonprofits and academia.