*We sit atop milk crates, stacked on top of each other, six feet away. It is a cold November evening in Massachusetts. S has been experiencing homelessness for nearly fifteen years. She does not go to shelters and prefers to live outside. Her high IQ is often overshadowed by her deep paranoia and disabilities that render her unable to access many resources. We are discussing the book, Why Nations Fail,and how to apply these lessons to nonprofits and social systems. She tells me about her experiences in her youth, family drama, and her opinions on the stock market, international trade, and politics. We laugh and chat for a few hours.The box of hand warmers I brought for her lay at our feet, a reminder of the gulf between us. As the night darkens and freezes, I say goodnight to go back to my warm home and S heads to the train station to catch a bit of WiFi before her trek to her makeshift campsite in an abandoned bus station.*
S is one of over 1,000 women who utilized the Cambridge Women’s Center each year. Like S, many of the folks who utilized the Center were experiencing homelessness - but what sets the Center apart is its integration of folks housed and unhoused, young and old, similar and different.The Cambridge Women’s Center (CWC) is a supportive community space for anyone whom the term woman is a meaningful identifier or lived experience. They offer a safe space for learning, emotional support, and resources. Each year they, pre-pandemic, utilized over 300 volunteers to run a drop-in space six days a week providing food, material aid, a helpline,volunteer support, and a wide array of groups and workshops.
During my work there as the Director, I met and got to know hundreds of incredible women. The single best part of the job were the relationships I built. Women like S - who are often ignored or judged, yet have brilliant minds and big hearts. Women whose stories and experiences stick with me each day. Women who developed their own businesses out of recycled clothing from donations. Women who were undocumented and found refuge in our walls.Women who survived unimaginable atrocities. Women who felt forgotten and isolated. Women who used our computers to get a job, do their taxes, and learn English. Women who made new friends in the bustling kitchen. Women who did and did not get what they needed from this community space.
While I ultimately left the CWC at the end of 2020, my experiences there have had an indelible effect on my understanding of humans,my passion for ameliorating social injustices, and my career as a whole. During my time there, I was all hands in. I played every role from toilet plunger to de-escalation crisis manager to relationship builder to program evaluator to fundraiser to chief executive officer. I left the CWC in better shape than I found it, with structured trainings and new partnerships, an increase in revenue and program use, and a name in the community. I could not have done it without the support of the amazing team members and volunteers who kept the Center running each day alongside me.
Now, armed with a decade of experiences in the heart breakingly underfunded and under-supported social service industry, I am pursuing a Master in Business Administration and launching my own coaching and consulting business. My aim in pursuing this degree is to develop a plan for a business system that does not exploit the oppressed in its fundraising efforts and compensates staff adequately - the antithesis to the nonprofit industrial complex. My coaching and consulting consists of customized trainings, leadership and career coaching, communication strategy consulting, and an anti-racist lens. I work with nonprofits, mission-driven businesses, and individuals with a creative, mindfulness and emotional awareness based process. Though I am in the nascent stages of these next career steps, I know my experiences in Thailand on my Fulbright and as the Director of the Cambridge Women’s Center, have helped me to be a stronger leader with a more thoughtful understanding of cross-cultural communication and mutual understanding.
Note: Jessye Kass was 2013 Fulbrighter under English Teaching AssistantshipProgram (ETA) to Sansai Wittayakom School, Chiang Mai. She is a former Directorof the Cambridge Women’s Center and a current Principal Consultant of Jessye Kass: Coaching, Training, Consulting.