Women United: Armed with Information and Taking Action through Advocacy

Panelists Jennifer Caraway, YWCA; Melanie Bridgeforth, The Women’s Fund; Katrina Watson, Literacy Council; Kristina Scott, Alabama Possible; and Sara Newell, United Way

Information is knowledge. Knowledge is power. The members of Women United understand the power of advocacy in bringing about positive change in our community. That’s why they’re intent on learning as much as possible about matters that impact the lives of other women in Central Alabama – the conditions on the ground and opportunities for improvement.

One recent example of this quest for knowledge came on July 31st when Women United of United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) hosted a panel discussion concerning the barriers that women face when attempting to enter the workforce. Panelists included Melanie Bridgeforth, CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham; Jennifer Caraway, Chief Programs Officer of YWCA Central Alabama; Kristina Scott, Executive Director of Alabama Possible; and Katrina Watson, Executive Director of The Literacy Council. The discussion was moderated by Sara Newell, Senior Vice President of Community Impact at UWCA.

Driving the discussion was the key point that, in Alabama, more than 47% of female-headed households with children live below the poverty level. More than 47%. That’s a staggering statistic. One of the main reasons that number is so high is due to the difficulty many women have in securing a well-paying job, although it’s not because they don’t want to work.

“Many women in Alabama aren’t looking for a hand out or a hand up, but just a chance,” said Sara Newell in her introduction. “When you invest in women, you invest in communities.”

Delving into the topic, Kristina Scott said that low labor participation by women is, to a great extent, a symptom of structural inequalities – including issues that require major shifts in thinking and the way business is done. Melanie Bridgeforth added to that point saying, “When you increase pay for those at the bottom, it helps everyone…even those already at the top.” Scott also said that that two major hurdles for women trying to enter the workforce are lack of affordable childcare and easier access to transportation. These are not simple problems to solve, but they are things that can possibly be addressed at the community level.

Another major barrier to employment – and job advancement – is illiteracy, which affects as many as 92,000 people in UWCA’s five-county area alone. Katrina Watson said that improving literacy skills is transformative and can have a major economic impact on most all individuals. Studies show that a woman’s wages can increase by 27% when she learns to read at even just one grade level higher.

All the organizations represented on the panel are working hard to increase and improve economic opportunities for women in Central Alabama. About half of The Literacy Council’s clients are women. The Women’s Fund is promoting a gender-inclusive workforce by investing in quality healthcare, and YWCA’s SMILE (Single Mothers Invested, Learning, Empowered) program gives mothers the chance to train as a dental or ophthalmic assistant while their children receive quality education and childcare services.

It was clear that progress is being made through these and many other efforts of concerned, forward-looking groups and organizations in Central Alabama. However, after an extended and eye-opening discussion, one participant in the audience asked what she could do personally to help break down the barriers to women entering the workforce and lifting themselves out of poverty. Bridgeforth’s answer was straight and to the point: “Advocate. Use your voice.”

You can learn more about our panelists’ organizations and their important, transformational programs by clicking on any of the links above. Arm yourself with information and put the power of advocacy to work for those in need in Central Alabama. To find out how you can be part of Women United and join our mission to become agents of positive change in our community, please click here.