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Melinda Lackey's quiet nature belies her subversive organizing methods. The unique organization that she founded and directs, the Welfare Rights Initiative, helps women on public assistance stay in college--their best chance to move out of poverty--despite punitive workfare requirements. It also acts as a training ground for activists, offering a course in leadership that turns welfare recipients into antipoverty advocates who speak out to bust stereotypes of women on welfare.

Housed at Hunter College, part of the vast public City University of New York (CUNY), WRI operates on the radical notion that women who have firsthand experience of poverty must be included in the process of reforming the welfare system. A former professional ballet dancer, Lackey herself has never been on welfare, but WRI is staffed almost entirely by women who have. "When women come to WRI, they're greeted by other women who have been there and have discovered some options," says Lackey. "Our staff helps them see that they aren't the stereotypes they have internalized from the media and from welfare policies."

A self-assured, clear speaker with the confident posture of a dancer, Lackey is nonetheless deliberately unassuming in her leadership style. "I try to help awaken in each participant her power to create and her unique capacity to contribute to the whole," she says. "I try to model leadership defined as service to the greater good, and to quietly--imperceptibly, if possible--foster an inclusive, creative social-change process that is in itself powerfully transforming."

"Melinda's soft-spokenness is very important," says Maureen Lane, WRI's coordinator for campus and community organizing and a graduate of the program. "As a person on public assistance, I was used to being yelled at and people being loud and rude to me. Her gentleness touched me; it was so tender." In 1995, Lane received a mailing about the newly formed organization and its inaugural leadership class. At the time, she was on Home Relief, New York State aid for single adults without children, after being hospitalized for alcoholism. "This was my first experience of any kind with welfare. Like most people, I knew nothing but stereotypes. What I learned was mind-expanding."

"Eighty-seven percent of students who graduate college move permanently off welfare," says Lackey. "Education can alleviate poverty, not just reduce welfare rolls." Lackey and the half dozen members of the WRI staff advocate for hundreds of CUNY students who receive public assistance, offering them emotional support, legal counsel, and technical advice on how to manage the welfare system. The program is designed to politicize students and encourage them to join WRI's efforts to educate the public and influence the welfare policy debate on local, state, and federal levels. Each year, more than a dozen students receive college credit for a leadership seminar and hands-on internship at WRI.

Previous welfare regulations made it relatively easy for recipients to go to college. But in 1995, New York City instituted the Work Experience Program (WEP) requiring welfare recipients to perform unpaid labor for the city. Over the next few years the enrollment of welfare recipients at CUNY fell precipitously, from 28,000 to 10,000, as students dropped out to fulfill their workfare obligations. Lackey and two professors cofounded WRI to help students on public assistance throughout the CUNY system--90 percent of whom are women, most of them single mothers--remain in college despite time-consuming, dead-end workfare requirements as well as other roadblocks the system puts in their way. Even with their paperwork in order, for example, students may be called in weekly for face-to-face meetings with state Human Resource Administration (HRA) caseworkers, regardless of their class schedule, or find themselves at a hearing about their benefits on the day of their final exams.

A year after WRI began, the sweeping federal welfare reform legislation of 1996 turned welfare funds and jurisdiction primarily over to individual states. Hundreds of thousands of people were removed from the welfare rolls with no guarantee of employment training or education. While WEP's exact requirements are specific to New York City, the new rules enacted in many parts of the country are similar to New York's.

"The workfare program is not training people for work," says Lackey. "It is purely punitive. So women on public assistance are being forced out of college to work for the parks department cleaning bathrooms, which a lot of women already know how to do." Workfare requirements begin at 35 hours per week, but using a complicated formula that weighs credits and exemptions, a person in the know might be able to whittle her hours to 20 per week. "Mandating people into workfare programs traps them where they are," Lackey says, "taking up all the hours in a day so they can't pursue anything that's a route out of poverty."

WRI graduate Regina Buxton, who had been on public assistance for ten years and planned to get off welfare when she completed her degree, was called in regularly by the HRA. "One caseworker gave me a lecture [about not working] without even asking me if I was in school. When I told her, she said, 'Why didn't you say so?' Then she wrote me up, saying that I had failed to comply with regulations. I turned to WRI and they helped me prove that she was wrong."

For her internship, Buxton advocated for women who were facing WEP assignments, prepared them for appeals, and showed mothers who didn't have child care how to work the system. A graduate of CUNY's York College, Buxton is currently working as a counselor for the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and plans to attend Hunter College School of Social Work to earn a master's degree.

"I actively use everything Melinda taught me in my work," says Bianca Vela, a graduate of WRI's first class and now a general contractor. "Melinda inspired us to go from feeling fearful and ashamed to becoming empowered and taking control of our lives." A graduate of CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Vela founded Collins Construction company, where she makes a point of hiring people on public assistance; is raising a 16-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son; and just started law school. "When I say it out loud, it sounds amazing," she remarks about all she has accomplished.

In 1978, with $1,000 in her pocket that she had won in a local poetry contest, Melinda Lackey came to New York City from her hometown of St. Louis to study ballet. After a decade of performing as a professional ballet dancer and dancing in Broadway musicals, films, and commercials, Lackey decided to enroll in college at the age of 29.

While earning a combined bachelor's and master's degree in social research/policy analysis, she took a series of jobs and did internships in line with her commitment to social justice. She signed up for an AIDS care course sequence, working as a case manager. "I'd lost a lot of friends in theater to AIDS," says Lackey. "I tested different means of approaching the AIDS crisis, helping people to cope with oppressive living conditions. Soon, I wanted instead to learn how to change the structures that make people need all that help in the first place."

She landed an internship at then Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger's office, where she was instrumental in the creation of Iris House, the first multiservice support center in the U.S. designed by and for women infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS.

For a graduate research project, Lackey evaluated CUNY's existing programs for students on public assistance. She interviewed CUNY students and graduates who had gotten off welfare. "These women were so inspiring," says Lackey. "To see how much they were doing with so little, how committed they were, and how much hope they had. After trying every other way of to get off welfare, now they were in college. They all had the feeling that they were finally doing something that would change their lives and their children's lives." The women she interviewed had an avalanche of suggestions for improving their circumstances and the programs.

"I made a list of all of their concerns, experiences, and ideas and carried the list around with me for weeks, talking to lots of people about it." Lackey finally brought her research to Hunter College's Center for the Study of Family Policy. Center director Jan Poppendeick and CUNY poverty expert Mimi Abramovitz were intrigued by Lackey's lists. "We three put our heads together," says Lackey, "and dreamed up Welfare Rights Initiative."

Lackey created and teaches the leadership course that is the cornerstone of the program. The two-semester, seven-credit course opens with an introduction to social welfare policy, and then plunges into hands-on leadership skills--planning and facilitating meetings (students run WRI staff meetings and are required to attend meetings of community activist groups), active listening, public speaking, fund-raising, and coalition building. Immersed in the details of ever-changing welfare policy, students complete a four-month internship at the WRI office--staffing the hotline, coordinating campus organizing, testifying at legislative hearings, and speaking to school audiences and community groups. Although the course initially was open only to female welfare recipients, the current seminar students are a mix of gender and class. Lackey believes this allows for a richer mix of perspectives and a broader range of voices advocating for the rights of poor women.

Three years ago, Lackey approached CUNY's Law School to seek pro bono legal assistance for CUNY welfare recipients. The school responded enthusiastically: it has trained about 45 law students, 70 WRI undergraduates, and several social work graduate students to provide peer support, legal advice, and representation for students. "We leapt into a service provision role," she says, "because if you know that you have rights and you know how to protect your rights, you can stay in school.

"Workfare has been designed with the assumption that everyone on welfare is the same person," explains Lackey. "That person is supposedly lazy, unwilling to work, unqualified, and incapable of contributing to society, one who needs to be given an alarm clock and forced to show up to work. Our students challenge and alter the stereotypes of poor women.

"I don't have a vision for the future of WRI--it only exists because it has to," she explains. "In the future, I do hope to see a welfare entitlement system that meets an individual where she or he is, to provide whatever is necessary to become independent from public assistance. And if we impose a five-year maximum lifetime limit, then let's spend those five years helping people to become economically self-supporting."

 

Kristen Golden is a "Ms." contributing editor.

 
Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009