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AmeriCorps Alum Helps Shape Policy on “Women In the Workplace”

February 24, 2014

Today’s guest post comes to us from Kristin Ginger (AmeriCorps ’09), Communications Coordinator at Women Employed, and is part of AmeriCorps Alums’ REALTalk series on race, equity, and AmeriCorps alumni as leaders.

We want to talk with YOU about women in the workplace!  If you have thoughts on women Alums in the workplace, join us at 3pm EST on Friday, March 7th for a Twitter Town hall using #ALUMSNOW.  The first Friday of each month, AMERICORPS ALUMS hosts a monthly twitter discussion on Alums in leadership.  You can follow AMERICORPS ALUMS on twitter at https://twitter.com/americorpsalums.  

2014.02.Kristin GingerWhen I became an AmeriCorps VISTA, it was because I had no idea what else to do with my life after graduation. It wasn’t entirely random—I’d been passionate about human rights and an active member of Amnesty International for seven years, and my VISTA position was at MCC Refugee Resettlement, where I was the New Arrivals Education Coordinator—but it wasn’t something I planned out, either. I was terrified of the real world, and when I heard a friend talk about how he was going to do a year of AmeriCorps to buy himself time to figure out longer term plans, I decided to steal his idea.

Within my first few weeks at MCC Refugee Services, it was clear to me that the year would permanently change how I viewed the world. I was teaching survivors of genocide how to use computers, teaching refugees who’d never lived outside of a refugee camp how to interview for a job, and interviewing survivors of torture.

The year burned me out. I didn’t know how to keep boundaries between myself and such difficult work, and I didn’t want to keep boundaries between myself and these people who were trusting me with their stories. After my VISTA year, I took a break from service: I went to graduate school and earned my MFA in Creative Writing. I went to an elephant sanctuary and shoveled hundreds of pounds of excrement into wheelbarrows, and I spent a year and a half as a copy writer for Groupon.

It was fun, but describing a mani-pedi for the 100th time—even while also getting to write about why a yeti would go ice skating (Groupon copy is not your standard advertising copy)—was never going to be as meaningful as trying to make the world a better place. For all of its ups and downs, and there were plenty of both, my VISTA year helped me realize that the only way I would be happy is if I was working for an organization with primarily altruistic goals.

That year also helped me realize that I would be able to live on a shoestring budget. Knowing I could make do with a small salary freed me to prioritize other things when I started looking for a job that would let me return to the nonprofit world. When I accepted a job at a Head Start school in Family Literacy, I knew I’d be able to make do with the unimpressive hourly wages I’d be paid.

And when the Family Literacy department was dissolved, thanks to sequestration, I knew what kind of jobs I wanted to look for: I wanted to continue to work in jobs meant to help low-income Americans. The AmeriCorps mission, to work toward bringing individuals and communities out of poverty, has become a guiding principle in my career.

2014.02.WE.logoI was lucky enough to find a position as Communications Coordinator for Women Employed, a Chicago-based non-profit whose goal is to expand educational and employment opportunities for low-income working women. The women’s movement has accomplished amazing things, but problems such as the wage gap and gender bias in the workplace still persist. And many women don’t have the luxury of being able to just “lean in” the way an educated white woman in middle or upper management might. Women are half the U.S. workforce and fully two-thirds of primary or co-breadwinners for American families, but 42 million of them are living on the brink of poverty. These are the women whose lives are examined in the recently released The Shriver Report, which boasts essays from contributors ranging from Hillary Clinton and Anne Marie Slaughter to LeBron to Beyoncé, and these are the women that WE aims to help. Founded in 1973 to improve working conditions and opportunities for working women, WE helped define sexual harassment as illegal sex discrimination, worked to pass the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and has repeatedly sent experts to testify before Congress.

Today, my work with WE focuses on those women that have been left behind even as advancements have been made. Nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers are women, and the minimum wage is nowhere near a living wage. Low-wage working women struggle with unpredictable and inflexible schedules that keep them from being able to plan for childcare or bill payments, schedule healthcare appointments, or attend classes to earn degrees that would help them get better jobs. A lack of earned sick time means they aren’t able to care for themselves or their sick children. They’re also held back by the American workplace structure that inhibits even those women who are lucky enough to earn an education and find mid-level jobs or join upper management: when it comes to paid family leave, the U.S. is one of the worst-ranked countries in the world, since it joins just a handful of undeveloped countries in not mandating any paid leave at all.

My time as a VISTA still shapes how I think about sustainability, and it was an invaluable experience to have when I was just starting out in the working world. It was by no means an easy year, but it’s part of why I know that wherever my life takes me, I’ll always be working toward societal change.

Kristin Ginger can be contacted at kginger@womenemployed.org

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