The frequently celebrated triumphs of media mogul Oprah Winfrey and increasing talk of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton becoming the country's first woman president could lead many to think American women at long last have achieved a social, economic, and political status equivalent to American men.
From where Gale Sky Edeawo of Project Welcome Home and Miriam Center of the Daughters of Destiny Center stand, that conclusion would be wrong.
Education, employment, parenting, and housing are issues common to both women and men. However, additional social factors like domestic violence, sexual abuse, discrimination, and health issues continue to place women at a disadvantage.
Take, for example, the fact that some six million women, according to the National Organization for Women and various government agencies, are beaten every year by a husband or boyfriend. Of that number, some 1,500 result in death.
Or consider that sociologists estimate more than one third of all female children suffer physical or sexual abuse. As adolescents, young adults, and more mature women, some 132,000 annually report being raped.
Law enforcement agencies estimate the number of unreported rape cases more than doubles that number.
Such a barrage of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence generates consequences. Sometimes they take the form of drug abuse, or sometimes long years in psychological therapy.
At their most extreme, more and more, they take the form of retaliatory violence that includes "murder in self defense."
As women working to help other women survive debilitating conditions and thrive as healthy productive individuals, Edeawo and Center are local representatives of a growing national movement.
Project Welcome Home
In 1998, Gale Sky Edeawo accepted an invitation from Linda Hill of the Savannah Runaway program to address a group of youth and employ her literacy coaching skills to help them utilize writing as a tool for coping with the frustrations of their lives.
Edeawo discovered that many of their difficulties stemmed less from hardcore delinquency on behalf of the youth themselves than from the fact that many of their parents were incarcerated.
The problem was bad enough when the imprisoned parent was a father no longer able to provide for his family; but it was far worse when the absent parent was a single mother no longer able to shelter, guide, or nurture her children.
In fact, an estimated 200,000 children have mothers in jail and more than a million have incarcerated fathers.
Unfortunately, the number of imprisoned women in the United States has risen steadily since the 1990s. The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimates that, on any given day, more than 100,000 women, whether mothers or not, are held in a prison or jail.
Most are there for non-violent property crimes, drug abuse, or theft related to abuse issues. More than half have a history of having been physically or sexually abused. Of those released from jail annually, tens of thousands end up going back.
"In Chatham County," says Edeawo, "the rate of recidivism is 85 percent. And that's way too high." Especially when compared to a national average closer to 68 percent.
Attempting to help break the cycle of children losing their mothers to prison, and women in general losing control of their lives to conditions likely to lead to prison, Edeawo joined a volunteer project to work with women inmates at the Chatham County Sheriff Complex.
The life skills counseling she offered women behind the bars evolved, in January 2001, into an extended referral service called Project Welcome Home for women exiting prison and reentering society.
"Project Welcome Home was actually created in Cell Block 2-C of the Chatham County Jail with the assistance of the female inmates who participated in my life skills class," says Edeawo.
"It was my idea and they said, 'Yes, let's go for it.'"
In addition to moderating forums in which the women were able to express their feelings, she also helped them to improve their communication skills through writing letters, learn to manage anger, recognize different patterns and forms of addiction, and become more aware of relationship dynamics. The program also offered strategies to help women acquire essentials upon their release, including transportation, shelter, and employment.
Even after obtaining these basic necessities, maintaining them could prove overwhelming. Edeawo's role has often become an extended one, with clients seeking her counsel on everything from job interviews to where they should turn in emergency situations.
Her unwavering commitment to them earned her the nickname "Mama Sky."
Among those obstacles women face upon leaving incarceration, Edeawo says housing is the most crucial.
"We don't have any halfway houses for women in Savannah and they usually don't have any money to pay for lodging when they get out. So unless a family member or friend is willing to take them in, they have nowhere to go," says Edeawo.
"A woman who's a former offender is not eligible for low-income housing, or even average housing. If she can finally get some type of housing at all, it's usually in a drug-infested area that's unsafe for her kids, and unsafe for those women who are former addicts," she says.
"Women who can't get shelter end up homeless. Then the same ones I started working with in the jail can become the ones I start working with at the Salvation Army, Interfaith Hospitality Network, Hope House, and many other places because they become destitute."
As if to underscore the significance of Edeawo's work, her client Phyllis Brown paid an unscheduled visit to the Project Welcome Home office during our interview. The 47-year-old Brown met the 59-year-old Edeawo while incarcerated at the Chatham County Sheriff Complex and attending a substance abuse class. She discovered in Edeawo a role model and motivator.
Brown credits Edeawo with motivating her to transform the writing and artwork she did as a hobby in jail into a serious professional goal.
"In jail, I used my art and poetry to make greeting cards for other inmates because I found that what's on the market didn't really address the things we were feeling, or the things we needed to say to our families because of our situation," Brown says.
"Now I'd like to start a line of those kinds of cards. I'm also completing a book of poetry and I've started on an autobiography."
In addition, Brown is studying patient care technology at the Savannah College of Technology. Her determination to leave her past of addiction permanently behind her has allowed her to take on a more supportive role within her family of four adult children and nine grandchildren.
Another client, 36-year-old Joyce Johnson, a mother of five, called during the interview. Johnson was released from a transitional facility in Atlanta in June 2004.
Her story was less inspiring than Brown's because she just received a week's notice to vacate her apartment after falling behind on her rent.
She explains that, "I was paying my rent fine until I fell behind because I got hired for a new job so I quit my old one. After I had quit my old job, the new employer said they did a background check and decided that they couldn't hire me again even though I had already told them about my past before they hired me and before I quit my other job."
In her frustration, Johnson voices a dilemma that virtually every former inmate faces: "A lot of people don't want to give us a chance because they're afraid we're going to steal from them or hurt them some kind'a way, but we have to have some kind of trust because if nobody gives us a chance, then we're basically forced to make the same mistakes we made before."
Edeawo estimates that she has worked with more than 600 women, behind walls and outside of them, through Project Welcome Home. She continues to visit the prison at least once a month and also to assist in group sessions at the Drug Rehabilitation Center. Grants and donations from organizations and individuals have allowed her to acquire an office on Abercorn Street.
In addition to being the founder and director of Project Welcome Home, Edeawo also participates in the Fraternal Order of Police, serves on the board of the Interfaith Hospitality Network Board, on the Regional Youth Detection Center's Advisory Board, and works with many other organizations. She is, moreover, known as much for her literary achievements as she is for her community activism.
Even more than the funding that she says her organization needs, Edeawo maintains that what her clients need is a community more supportive of her efforts. She particularly stresses a critical need for more adult males to serve as mentors to at risk male youth.
"If we don't save the children we're all going to be doomed because without them we have no future," she says.
For information on Project Welcome Home, call 920-9411.
Daughters of Destiny
Every Monday night at Savannah's newly founded Daughters of Destiny Center, founder Miriam Center rings a chime, leads a group of women in prayer, and recites a text intended to strengthen women's self image and general sense of empowerment.
Recently at such a meeting she read a passage from Melody Beattie's Journey to the Heart, encouraging women to exercise greater self-love.
"Women are afraid of loving themselves," says Center. "They're so used to being caretakers that they don't even realize that they have the right to love themselves. That's why they're so co-dependent and want somebody else to give them the love."
Center's quest to help women live more fulfilling lives began in the late 1980s, when at the age of 50 she got in her car and drove solo from Savannah to California. The move was part of a major spiritual rebirth that included the dissolution of a 30-year marriage and closing her successful real estate company.
Although she had lost her oldest son, she raised two others to adulthood and recently become a grandmother, but felt her life remained incomplete. With the establishment of Daughters of Destiny in Los Angeles, she found the missing piece to the puzzle of her existence.
"Although I didn't know it at the time, I was making a life passage which would encompass all women in transition," Center says. "Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if there was a network for women assisting each other, when their families were unwilling, or were unable to hear and help them."
The powerful significance of what she had stumbled upon became more evident as she interacted with different women in diverse, yet similar, situations. The first Daughters of Destiny meeting was held in the home of a former nightclub performer who had abandoned her career to marry a Hollywood executive, become a mother, then developed agoraphobia (fear of the outdoors).
Another woman had been a college professor who unexpectedly lost her job and became suicidal. Upon joining Center's group, she regained enough self esteem to file and win a suit against her former employer for several million dollars.
As the meetings continued, transferring to Center's home, the issues they addressed expanded until Center found herself confronting battered wives, sexually abused daughters, victims of gender discrimination, women addicts, and others whose lives had been somehow derailed.
The platform provided by Daughters of Destiny, in Center's terms, could help these women heal their wounded souls. In doing so, they could then heal, or more greatly fulfill, their individual lives.
In 1998, she moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where she established another branch of Daughters of Destiny.
Five years later, her spiritual journey brought her back to Savannah. She again started holding meetings in her home.
The location for the meetings changed after Center acquired a small house at 12 E. 41st Street and opened its doors to the public in April. In addition to the weekly Monday night meetings, Daughters of Destiny hosts and promotes women artists, and participates in the monthly First Friday open hoses with the Starland Dairy group.
Center also takes her message of hope and renewal once a week to those undergoing treatment at the Drug Rehabilitation Center.
One artist who has already benefited from the center is Brenda Massie-Yates, who recently relocated to Savannah from New York and set up a studio in the facility.
"I wasn't sure how I was going to go about pursuing my art here," says Massie-Yates, "so this worked out perfectly for me."
While she hopes to see Daughters of Destiny spread to different cities and communities, for the time being Center is content to see the nonprofit organization continue developing in Savannah.
"This is my church, the Church for Women," she says. "I'm a church lady (laughs)."
For more information on Daughters of Destiny, call 663-0894.
Aberjhani is co-author of the award-winning Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance and author of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry.
For more on Mama Sky's activism, Click Here.