Giving Women a Hand Up
Look in Webster's under "Catch-22" and you might find the following definition: A plus-size woman who desperately needs an appropriate outfit for a job interview, but who can't afford to buy clothes until she gets her first paycheck.
Now throw in a few curveballs: She's a single mom. She's a former battered woman. She's on welfare, but her benefits may be cut off because of welfare reform. She hasn't been in the workforce for over ten years because she couldn't afford childcare. She has virtually no job skills because she missed the computer revolution.
You'd think that this is a scenario from which even Houdini couldn't escape. Kim Austin, though, not only surmounted obstacles like these, but also has turned her life around. Austin, 33, the mother of two boys, 10 and 14, and a girl, 15, is a former battered woman. Welfare reform and her kids' growing independence motivated her to speak to her caseworker about entering the workforce. Austin's path led her to the Philadelphia Industry Council, which helped her get into DPT Business School. There, during a visit by a representative of the Working Wardrobe, Austin found the key that unlocked the door to a successful job interview.
The Philadelphia-based Working Wardrobe gives low-income women a boost in their efforts to achieve economic self-sufficiency by providing them with no-cost interview attire and guidance in career development. The Working Wardrobe's Program Coordinator, Barbara Pittman, explains that clients, who are referred from job training programs, welfare-to-work programs, battered women's shelters and halfway houses for formerly incarcerated women, are given an outfit for their interview. "And after she gets the job, she's invited back to get two or three more outfits for work," says Pittman. The agency also offers a variety of workshops, including those on resume writing, interview skills, and how to put together a wardrobe.
Kim Austin particularly liked the "relaxed, laid back" atmosphere of the Working Wardrobe. "It's like going into a department store but not having a sales person up your butt. I was able to pick out my own outfit, so it went to my taste as well as being free. And they added accessories to the outfit to make you feel more successful in what you're trying to accomplish."
Austin says that, since connecting with the Working Wardrobe and subsequently landing a job as a data entry clerk at Interstate Steel and Metals USA, her self-esteem has increased, and, "I have the feeling that I can conquer the world." She adds, "I feel fortunate and would like to give back. As soon as I make enough money to donate to the Working Wardrobe, I'm giving."
Philadelphia isn't the only place where women are getting a hand up in honing their skills, finding prospective employers, and acquiring the outfit that will give them the self-confidence and professional appearance to land a job. From Seattle to Tampa Bay, groups of women have rolled up their sleeves and sprung into action, forming a myriad of agencies, including Dress for Success, Bottomless Closet, A Miner Miracle and Suited for Change.
Sometimes the organizational leaders were once in the position of needing the kind of help that they're now able to offer. The Working Wardrobe's Pittman is a former battered woman who worked on behalf of spousal abuse victims for 13 years. She refers to her career at the Working Wardrobe as a labor of love, and her reward is "being able to help people who are in circumstances that I was once in. When I left my abuser, I didn't have money to go out and get clothes. We now have resources to help women, where there weren't resources when I needed help."
In other instances, organizers were simply inspired by their counterparts in other cities. Ricki Weiss, executive director of Dress for Success Cleveland, saw the parent organization's founder on the Today Show. At the time, Weiss was a buyer for Higbees department store, and had been an employment agent for ten years. She said, "I called my friend Sheryl and said, 'Okay, we're going to work.' We dressed the first woman on October 5, 1998, and have helped over 200 women since then."
But in the beginning, there was Laurel Baer, founder of Chicago's Bottomless Closet, the first organization of its kind. In 1990, Baer heard a radio interview with a woman who spoke about the challenges she faced transitioning from welfare to work. According to Executive Director Kathy Miller, "The woman made an offhand comment, something to the effect of, 'After I pay my rent and feed my children, I really don't have enough money on a public aid budget to pay for transportation, much less clothes for work.' This was undermining her self-confidence and ability to get a job, simply because of a lack of clothing." Baer took matters into her own hands, thinking, "I have something in my closet right now that could help her get a job. How many women in the Chicagoland area do, too? This is a problem that can be fixed."
Baer, an entrepreneur, went to three of her like-minded friends, and together they approached the problem as they would a start-up business. The four women did needs assessments, formed focus groups, and talked to social workers and women who were successful in getting off welfare and getting back to work. Since their doors opened in 1991, the Bottomless Closet has not only provided over 6,000 women with interview-appropriate attire, but has expanded to provide career skills, job retention and job growth training, as well as a mentoring program called "Women with Ambition." According to Miller, "Once a client has come to us, she's considered part of our family. She can visit us, attend our workshops and - hopefully - come back and volunteer once she gets on her feet."
Pittman, Weiss, and Miller all elucidate the mutual support that exemplifies these like-minded organizations. For example, while Dress for Success has 25 affiliates, they will not open an affiliate in an area where a community-based program already exists. Recently, Bottomless Closet, the Working Wardrobe and similar agencies came together to form an umbrella organization, WAGES (Women's Alliance for Gainful Employment and Self-Sufficiency), with the intent of facilitating collaboration, taking advantage of national funding opportunities, and gaining national visibility. Says Miller, "We're all basically doing the same work, even if we do it differently. We're allowed to maintain our individuality and do what we do best, and at the same time benefit from others' expertise."
One area in which every agency needs to excel is in soliciting donations of interview-appropriate attire. Dress for Success sponsors an annual "Clean Out Your Closet Week" to encourage women to contribute their barely worn suits and dresses. Many organizations have partnered with corporations willing to sponsor clothing drives and give other forms of assistance. In Chicago, Sara Lee, Bank of America and Kraft Foods are among the supporters of Bottomless Closet. According to Miller, "Corporations understand why it's important to invest in this though donations and volunteers. Ultimately, they will have a wonderful new pool of employees from which to hire. With the market the way it is now, everybody is scrambling for good entry level employees. And we've got them."
But despite individual, community and corporate support, there is one need that is never fulfilled: the need for plus-size careerwear. More than half of the client base served at these agencies is size 14+, and organizational leaders are dismayed about their inability to solicit more plus-size donations. Barbara Pittman says, "As soon as we get plus-size clothing in, it goes right back out the door. We have to put names on a list and call them when we get clothing in." Because of the scarcity of plus-size donations, Dress for Success has resorted to actually purchasing plus-size clothing from Focus 2000. Cleveland's Ricki Weiss says, "We ask our friends, we ask our manicurists, we stop women on the street who are plus-size. It's a continuous problem."
Luckily, a plus-size outfit was available for Chicagoan Pam Jones, who was referred to Bottomless Closet through the Women's Self-Employment Project. Jones, a single mother of two sons, ages 11 and 26, hadn't bought a stitch of clothing in over two years: "I was on public aid trying to take care of my kids. What did I know about fashion?" Jones was surprised at what Bottomless Closet offered. "When you first go in, you can see all the clothing. The women were very kind, and so patient with me."
The blue silk dress that Jones selected has served her well in her effort to launch Madame Pompadour, her candy-making business. A woman that she encountered while promoting her new business recognized the designer of the dress. According to Jones, "She said, 'Your outfit is so beautiful. You look so great,' and I thought to myself, had I not had Bottomless Closet, I couldn't have made the impression I made."
Jones, who says, "Making chocolate is my passion," boasts that her 27 varieties of fudge and pink champagne truffles "are better than Godiva." Perfecting offbeat flavors such as pumpkin, cranberry, and eggnog has taken ten years, but Jones feels it's well worth it. "I want people to close their eyes and say, 'Mmmmm, this is Madame Pompadour.'"
Since receiving that first blue dress, Jones has taken advantage of every opportunity offered her. Through the Women's Self-Employment Project, she met Hillary Clinton, to whom she gave three samples to distribute to the First Family. On April Fool's Day, she got a slip in her mailbox saying that there was an envelope from the White House waiting for her. Thinking it was a joke, she was shocked to discover that President Clinton had written her a note, thanking her for the chocolate. "I could hardly walk down the street," she says. "A fat chick on the South side of Chicago. Who would believe it?"
How You Can Help
You can help other plus-size women gain economic self-sufficiency by
1. Cleaning your closet - pull all those clothes and accessories you haven't worn during the past year. Face it - you probably will never wear them again, and they just may change someone's life. Agencies can use:
- Interview-appropriate skirts, blouses, jackets, dresses
- Shoes and handbags
- Scarves, belts, and jewelry
- New, unopened pantyhose
- New, unopened cosmetics
2. Donations - monetary donations to most organizations are tax-deductible, and many employers offer matching gift programs. Consider
- $25 will suit one client for a job interview
- $75 will suit three clients
- $500 will suit a whole day of clients
3. Volunteer - Each organization has many volunteer opportunities. Contact one nearest you for more information