A recent article in the Washington Post (Oct. 25) describes a report for the Colin Powell School for Civic Leadership of the City College of New York that evaluates the failure of international aid organizations to empower women by narrowly defining empowerment as the ability to provide a livelihood, believing “a woman is empowered once she’s given a chicken or cow or sewing machine, even though there is no evidence that this leads to long-term economic gains.”

It touches on a critical difficulty in aid organizations’ abilities to find funding: it is easier for a non-profit group to find funding if they a) stay out of politics; b) can provide quantifiable data, such as “number of chickens distributed or sewing classes attended.”   Sadly, these programs “were actually disempowering… They kept women at home, disconnected from their networks and from opportunities to organize.”  It takes both money and community to even begin to press for political change.

While TLCC is deliberately non-political, we combat the problems of disconnection by providing first a foremost a community : a place where women with very different backgrounds and ethnicities who find themselves in very similar situations can share experiences and insights, learn a skill that gives them a chance at earning an income in a non-standard work environment with non-standard hours, learn financial and parenting skills, and get referrals to other agencies that can help them. By providing each woman who enters the program a Goal Assessment Form and walking them through the process, TLCC helps women set their own paths for their own empowerment.

More than just a sewing machine, we give women in our program a chance to see themselves as capable, independent human beings. Sewing is just the platform, and helps provide two very important and fundamental things for women living in the margins of our society: a creative outlet, and tangible proof that they are capable.

One of the biggest issues we have is how to quantify our success: it takes a lot to actually work with individuals rather than numbers, and consequently the number of women we help with the dollars available is smaller than the number a large shelter might provide. The numbers are good for number of meals, number of clothes distributed, number of people crowded together on the floor of the shelter, but they do nothing for empowerment. It’s not the number of sewing machines distributed, it’s the women we’ve actually helped, when we’ve actually given them the tools they need to make a difference in their lives. A sewing machine is just one tool. In our case it’s also a symbol of a commitment to community and to individuals.