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Women’s work

Celebrating two decades of feminism at WORD


Teen fathers aren’t exactly the demographic a feminist nonprofit organization is expected to take under its wing. But for Missoula’s WORD—Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, Inc.—supporting and educating young dads is a small but critical piece of a much bigger puzzle.

“A lot of people interpret feminism as working only with women. WORD’s belief is that feminism aims to create the conditions where every human being can realize their potential,” says Cris Mulvey, executive director. “The issues we take up all affect women, but we believe that if they improve women’s lives, then they’ll improve everyone else’s and society as a whole.”

Program Director Naomi Thornton says WORD’s work with teen fathers grew out of its efforts to help teen mothers.

“We really saw that they have many of the similar disadvantages [lack of education and job skills, alcohol problems, family violence] as the moms in our program, but they weren’t being addressed. Often their voices have gone unheard,” Thornton says.

With a five-year, $1 million grant the group recently pulled in, WORD plans to continue expanding that line of work, and that award complements a $2.9 million, five-year grant WORD recently won to expand programming that supports parents’ involvement in their children’s education.

Both successes come as WORD prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary Dec. 2. One of Missoula’s longest-running nonprofits, WORD has transformed over the last two decades from a small group of women aspiring to help other women realize their potential in the face of economic injustice to a well-established organization with six distinct programs directed toward helping women and low-income families become self-sufficient and successful. Besides maintaining its own programs, WORD has also seeded a number of other Missoula organizations, including Montana Women’s Vote, the At Risk Housing Coalition, Montana Community Development Corporation, homeWORD (which began as a WORD affordable housing program but later spun off as an independent nonprofit) and WEEL (Working for Economic Equality and Liberation). Along the way, WORD has changed internally, too. The group that long eschewed traditional organizational structures, including positions like executive director, due to the belief that such hierarchies contravene feminist values, is now two years into its relationship with Mulvey, its first executive director. But despite 20 years of internal and cultural evolution, the issues with which low-income women struggle remain much the same, as does WORD’s driving purpose.

In 1987, WORD first made a splash when more than 75 women marched to Missoula legislators’ homes to protest the economic hardships facing women on welfare. The group of women who pioneered the University of Montana’s Women’s Resource Center had recently left campus to launch a community collective—WORD—dedicated to addressing economic justice issues. The conditions that offended them then are still reflected in today’s statistics: Montana women are paid 58 cents for every $1 a man earns; in 2000, 60 percent of working Montana women earned less than $20,000; 40 percent of women over the age of 65 meet the federal definition of poor or almost poor, while the corresponding figure for men is 13 percent.

Judy Smith, the one WORD founder still in Missoula, says members created programs to address emerging needs in the community, including nontraditional job training, teen parent education and career support, affordable housing and school-based family support, and those programs remain more or less intact today.

For its first several years, the organization was managed on a consensus model, but WORD rethought that approach when the group’s size and scope grew large enough to make full participation in all decisions unwieldy. WORD then switched to a management team model, with one member from each program joining to form the decision-making body. Inadequacies in that structure showed themselves when the programs faced differing funding or staffing challenges, which particularly became an issue around 2002 when a national tightening of social-services dollars hit home locally. At that point, WORD decided to hire its first executive director after coming to the conclusion that “it isn’t so much about your structure as your culture,” Thornton says.

Mulvey, who worked with low-income women in Ireland before moving to Missoula and being hired at WORD, says the group still works and generates many decisions collaboratively. The leadership position has also boosted WORD’s stability in an era of shaky public funding, upon which WORD chiefly relies, she says.

After adjusting to the structural changes, WORD now aims to improve its profile in a community that by and large recognizes the group’s name but not its mission or role, Mulvey says. Besides running programs that strive to connect with local women in need and empower them to help improve circumstances for themselves and their families, WORD also works toward broader policy change. For example, besides just helping a mom and her kids escape homelessness by offering matching funds for a security deposit and counseling on housing options, WORD also works to promote government policies that bolster support for at-risk families.

The women’s movement has achieved much change over the past decades, but for large segments of America economic injustice rooted in gender remains a prevalent issue, Mulvey says. The nation’s Secretary of State and Speaker of the House may both be women, but extraordinary numbers of women are still single mothers mired in poverty.

That’s why feminism is still at the core of WORD’s vision, and of its programs. And as WORD looks toward its next 20 years, Mulvey says the organization is determined to keep itself attuned to Missoula’s changing needs.

“There’s so much work to be done,” Mulvey says. “[Missoula’s] a great community, but just below the surface there are a lot of problems, despair, poverty and violence, and they still need to be recognized.”

And passing on that recognition and commitment to change—from those whose feminism is rooted in the ’70s or ’80s to those whose understanding of feminism’s role is emerging in the new century—is also key to WORD’s ambition of creating a socially just future.

“Our vision of a world of opportunity…has not been realized,” says Mulvey. “And we know that women’s role in achieving that is central.” ?

Celebrate WORD’s 20th anniversary at the Glitter Ball on Saturday, Dec. 2, at the Doubletree Hotel from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. Tickets cost $40, or $20 for those living lightly. Call 543-3550 for more information.

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