By Ceylan Yeginsu
The pressure of living in an African American community amid the civil rights movement in the 60s pushed Jan Peterson from Harlem to Williamsburg, where she entered what was then an Italian neighborhood at the start of the Women’s Rights Movement.
Peterson was an active member of the radical feminist movement of the time but she had no interest in burning bras and protesting about abortion. Instead she focused on the woman in her neighborhood. She wanted to know who they were, what they wanted and what they cared about.
What started out as an informal gathering in a local library at the time has turned today into two global coalitions, Groots International and the Huairou Commission, which work toward developing the work of worldwide grassroots women.
A sign reading “Neighborhood Women House” is attached to a small red brick house on a quiet residential road in Williamsburg that marks the headquarters of the UN-backed coalitions.
Jan Peterson spoke to The Brooklyn Ink:
Q: What was it that the women of Williamsburg wanted at the time?
Peterson: Women did not think about what they wanted because they didn’t believe that they had an identity as a woman. When I first asked them they started talking to me about their kids, sewing and driving lessons and I thought, “God, I’m going to end up with some school with sewing in it.” But after some time it turned out they wanted to go to college but without having to leave the neighborhood, which is what started our neighborhood college program.
Q: How did you come to realizing the program?
Peterson: We went to the La Guardia College and asked them to consider our structure for a community-based college program. We asked why colleges have to have their own campuses and why a neighborhood can’t be a campus. We wanted to know why all the work done in university ivory towers couldn’t be done from here. Eventually we talked them into it. We created a whole scheme and theory of thought and associated art degrees with skills you need to become a leader. A lot of women got involved and most of them are leaders in the community today. As people started going to school they started thinking and this is what formed out association of “The National Congress of Neighborhood Women.”
Q: What were the biggest challenges and problems you faced while developing this national congress?
Peterson: We brought a lot of diversity together as women from all races, classes and ethnicities joined. In doing this they did not have to choose between any of their identities. We let everyone come together in one group, but this caused problems. I wish I could have filmed some of the fights the women would get into. They would quarrel over who is really poor? Who is grassroots? Who is working class? They just weren’t getting along so we formed our leadership college program to help overcome this.
Q: What was this program and what made it work?
Peterson: The idea behind it is to assume that in order to be a good functioning human being in the world you not only get a job but also you are active in the community. We wanted to move away from the idea that only the poor and working class people take care of the neighborhood, while those with college degrees do nothing for the community. It is a program where we made women talk and develop a consciousness about other woman and taught them to care of themselves to overcome internalized oppression.
Q: How did these small-scale initiative programs develop into the giant international organizations they are today?
Peterson: We began from the beginning to look at the international on the global stage especially in developing countries. We thought we could learn from these women in other countries because we figured that they would be facing similar issues to the poor and working class women from our neighborhood. We went to the UN’s first woman’s conference and we started to make the global thinks there. It took a long time to get it running. My strength in life is that I have no idea how to do something but I assume it can be done. We had no money, we had to raise it but in the process we carved out one grassroots voice for women everywhere.
Q: What happened to local initiatives as the organization branched out and the neighborhood became gentrified?
Peterson: As all this grew neighborhood women declined. The female leaders that came out of the local initiatives stayed but the initiatives themselves stopped. We are getting women from Williamsburg and Greenpoint involved now in terms of creating a legacy. We want to create a walking tour to show what the woman of Williamsburg did. People are also moving in with money so we are working with women in the area to organize fundraisers and invite them into an open house to discuss what can be done locally. But local, national and international we have always been a north and south organization. From our small office in Brooklyn we are on a global stage of 54 countries, which gives us great possibility to probe, that grassroots women can speak for themselves and have a stack hold in women’s movements worldwide.
By Ceylan Yeginsu