Our Bosses, Ourselves | Feature | Chicago Reader

Our Bosses, Ourselves 

Turning Wage Slaves and Welfare Women Into Entrepreneurs

I'm searching for the good life

Can you help me find it?

Searching for the good life

I just might find it.

"The Adventures of Shedoobee"

Shanta Nurullah

"What you have to do," says Marti Foster, "is manage the stress. No Coke diets. No working all night. You need eight hours' sleep. And get yourselves a private spa, where you can ree-lax! You hear what I'm saying?"

Foster is a bundle of energy whose positive mental attitude is positively contagious. The ten women seated around the conference table at a downtown office building follow her words like a congregation under the spell of an old-time preacher.

"That's right!" members of the group respond from time to time. "You telling the truth."

"Get yourself some green plants and put them in the bathroom," continues Foster. "And then you light your candle. Get some music on--not that rock stuff--something soothing like Johnny Mathis. Fill the tub with warm water, and you get in and you ree-lax!"

"Oooh," says one of the ladies, "that I would love!"

"And you know why you have to do this?" says Foster, her tone suddenly becoming serious. "It's 'cause ain't none of us can afford a psychiatrist!"

A kind of nervous anticipation pervades this evening meeting. The mood is understandable. Each of the ten is about to launch into a somewhat frightening adventure: self-employment. The session that Marti Foster leads is one in a series of 12 weekly preparatory meetings for this current class of would-be entrepreneurs. It is sponsored by the Women's Self-Employment Project (WSEP), a small agency with offices at 166 W. Washington that has helped some 80 women start, stabilize, or expand their own enterprises in the last two years. Almost all of the women are black. Some are moving from public welfare to financial independence in one leap.

"There's nothing magic about what we do," says Connie Evans, WSEP executive director. "When one of our people makes it, it's because of preparation and planning." But even with the best-laid plans, some projects fall apart or grind along painfully and never really get off the ground. People have to realize, explains Evans, that half of the businesses, big or small, that are launched in the United States don't make it through the first year. Of the survivors, only 25 percent will ever be considered successful. So the odds are stacked against these fledgling businesswomen by any measure.

Tonight Foster, a WSEP staff member and founder of her own home-cleaning business, has been discussing four common failings that foul effective time management: indecision, interruption, inaccuracy, and immobilization. "How many of you are in such a hurry that you do things wrong and then have to start over again?" she asks.

Everyone nods in recognition and several raise their hands. "Just last night," says one woman, "I was trying to get so much done before supper that I burned the pizza!"

"So what did you do then?" says Foster.

"I served it anyway," says the woman, slapping the table. Everyone laughs.

"I take on too much every day," says another. "Like I gotta save the world in the next eight hours. I'm buying groceries, picking up a VCR for my sister, trying to start a day-care business--all at the same time."

"How many of you can say no effectively?" asks Foster.

"I can say it, but I don't do it," comments the pizza lady.

"If I say no, I'm afraid I'll hurt people's feelings," says one woman. "I feel guilty."

"You can stretch yourself only so far," offers another. "If you let everything infringe, your business is going to suffer."

The practical answer, Foster explains, is to learn to make practical decisions ahead of time, to isolate oneself from interruptions, to delegate tasks that can be done by others, to take time to unwind, and--when push comes to shove--to say no.

The discussion drifts around to practical examples of how to tell an old girlfriend you don't have unlimited time to talk on the phone anymore, or how to keep the kids from butting into your schedule anytime they want.

The women all have their "organizers" with them: little notebooks in which they jot down scheduled activities and keep tabs on their progress. "Next week we're going to get into bookkeeping," says Foster confidently, "and it will be sooo much fun! We'll learn about cash flow and taxes and how to open a business account at the bank. We're gonna see how to record every transaction and not keep nine million little pieces of paper in a shoe box. We're going to learn that when you get a dollar, it doesn't belong to you, it belongs to the business. So you put it in the bank!"

Some have known all along what they were really meant for. After eight years as a nurse, working mostly with the sick or dying at Children's Memorial Hospital, Pearlie Green felt burned out. "I was getting depressed," she says, "but it was a job, and we needed the money." What she really liked to do was prepare meals--the fancier the better. As the oldest of 12 children, she spent much of her youth feeding her little brothers and sisters, developing a flair for making the most of little. Green's husband, a CTA repairman, complained that the lunches she fixed for him were so tasty, his fellow workers were stealing his food.

Two years ago, Green, then 38, took a class at a cooking school, threw caution to the wind, and opened her own catering business. However, her first brief excursions as a caterer convinced her she didn't have any idea how to run a business. "I didn't know how much to charge, how to plan ahead, how to keep records straight--nothing!" she says. "I'd end up losing a whole lot of money on a little job."

Someone told Green about WSEP, and she went through the 12-week course with a group of other hopefuls. "The biggest thing I got out of it was confidence," she says. "I saw there were ways to do things, and I could do them--with planning."

A year ago, Green, with the aid of three of her sisters, launched the Sisters Exotic catering service. She does most of the cooking for her affairs in the basement kitchen of a Rogers Park church that she rents for a modest fee. That holds down costs. So does Green's liberal use of nieces and nephews to help cater large parties. "There's at least 30 of them we can call on for special occasions," she says.

The motto of this flexible operation is "no job too large or too small"; Sisters Exotic has catered everything from intimate dinners for two to corporate banquets for more than 350. "I specialize in gourmet foods and fancy hors d'oeuvres, like mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat and pea pods with cheddar cheese," says Green.

Business so far, she says, is pretty good, but Sisters Exotic is not yet an established institution. The reputations of catering businesses grow slowly.

Her piece de resistance is a cheesecake made from her own recipe. It has prompted so many rave reviews that Green and her sisters may extend their operation into cheesecake baking and marketing. Several months ago representatives from a major Chicago bakery sampled the cake, complimented Green, and casually asked for the recipe. In the old days, says Green, she would have been so overcome by the honor she would have handed it over on the spot. This time she said, "No sir, no way. I've got other plans for that recipe."

Others who have become involved in the Women's Self-Employment Project came to realize their true vocations only later in life. Irene Crane, 53, says her family and friends used to wonder occasionally about her mental health. She had this lifelong love affair with fine fabrics--elegant silks and colorful cottons. Every so often, for no special reason, she would buy a piece of superb material and hang it in her closet. There it would stay, gathering dust. "I really had no idea why I was doing it, other than that I like the feel of sensuous material," she says.

She should have known. With a degree in psychology, Crane had worked for years as a clinical therapist, helping others determine their unconscious motivations. One day last July, while browsing through Jerome Fabrics in the Beverly neighborhood, she came upon an "incredibly beautiful" black-and-raspberry print. She saw it not as a swath of cloth but as a robe.

"It was an electrifying feeling," says Crane. "I knew for the first time that I wanted to design and make beautiful garments. I wanted to cut and sew and create." That, she eventually came to realize, was what her fabric-acquiring compulsion had been all about.

Crane took out a loan; bought a fabric cutter, mounds of materials, and supplies; and opened a one-person, home-based lingerie-manufacturing business called Hidden Secrets. She began holding successful home shows; she also sold some of her robes, lounging pants, and teddies to exclusive downtown boutiques. Her specialty from the first: leisure garments for the full-figured lady, whom she euphemistically refers to as the "Renaissance woman."

"I wanted other women, especially black women, to experience the pleasure of fine things close to their bodies," she says. "I worked like I never had before, and I did everything but grow the cotton." However, hard work and enthusiasm could not substitute for business acumen. Crane found out she was not making enough to cover expenses. "You'd be surprised how much elastic and thread cost," she laughs.

Her newfound career took a major turn for the better after she went through WSEP last fall. She says she emerged from the course with at least a beginner's grasp of business fundamentals, and feeling "like I could take on the world." She incorporated her business, hired a part-time consultant, and developed--as WSEP insisted--a comprehensive business plan.

She is still a long way from full financial stability. Late last year she noticed that she was falling behind on her tax forms and other financial records, and that her inventory was "all out of whack again." She called her mentors at WSEP.

"They pulled me through," she says. "I got things stabilized again." Today Crane puts in long hours at her cutting, sewing, and finishing machines--far longer than she ever put in at the mental-health clinic. "I love it, I love it!" she says. "Just to see a piece of charmeuse silk or a big floral cotton print turned into a garment--it's a feeling I find hard to describe." Sales to boutiques have gone so well that Crane has opened her own boutique, also called Hidden Secrets, just off North Michigan Avenue. She is also thinking of launching her own line of cosmetics, to be called Faces Plus. "Once you get creative," she says, "something happens."

As it has developed during the last two years, the Women's Self-Employment Project has become multidimensional. Besides providing technical assistance, WSEP has also established a revolving loan fund to provide short-term amounts ranging from $300 to $5,000 (at 15 percent interest) to those who complete its program to purchase equipment and supplies. Many WSEP clients can't borrow from established institutions, explains director Connie Evans, because they have insufficient credit, their business idea is considered too risky, or the amount they need is too small. So far WSEP has lent only about $50,000--almost all in amounts of a few hundred dollars--with virtually no defaults. Borrowers are required to open a savings account, and the loan is monitored carefully by WSEP staff from application to payment of the final installment. In addition, WSEP has created the Full Circle lending program, which brings together small groups of women who are working on their own business plans; the members make sure each woman makes her payments on time--an idea modeled on lending arrangements pioneered in Asia.

Other organizations--such as the Women's Business Development Center, 230 N. Michigan, and the YWCA, 180 N. Wabash--also assist women in developing their own enterprises. But WSEP has a kind of missionary attitude toward developing independence.

Evans, who is in her mid-30s, formerly worked for the Chicago Housing Authority developing residential management at the LeClaire Courts project. "It was there I saw low-income people taking control of their lives and empowering others," she says. "It was a natural move from there to this self-employment project."

Like many connected with WSEP, Evans, who is from Franklin, Tennessee, is highly self-motivated. Her father died when she was a child, leaving her mother with a family of four to feed. Rosa Evans plunged into the business world as a self-employed caterer. "She kept everything in her head--finances, recipes, her schedule, even phone numbers," says Connie Evans. "When she had a job, she'd work out the menu, cook the food, pay the help, and bank the profits."

Her dedication and hard work impressed the children, three of whom have received postgraduate college degrees; the fourth is a career Air Force officer. "Getting an education and making something of yourself was never discussed in our family," says Evans. "It was just assumed."

Evans can become almost ecstatic as she lists the micro-businesses begun by WSEP clients: building maintenance, jewelry making, child day care, interior design. One lady has a motorized hot-dog stand from which she dispenses lunches at south-side industrial sites. Another launched a child-care referral service exclusively for doctors and nurses. And another won a contract from the U.S. Defense Department to make flame-retardant suits.

To be sure, every endeavor has not blossomed. One woman had to close down her Italian beef shop on the south side because the place was too big and the customers too few. Another abandoned her dressmaking operation when her husband announced he wanted a divorce and precipitated a family crisis. A third had to lower her expectations and living style when she couldn't make the rent on her near-north-side lingerie store.

There are certain vulnerabilities women bring to the business world, says Gail Christopher, one of the founders of WSEP. "Whether by nature or conditioning, a woman tends to be a giver, an enabler, a nurturer. She finds it extremely hard to say no. Women also tend to undervalue what they do, and they overcommit themselves. Besides, women often don't have math and communication skills that are well developed, so they don't fit well into a bureaucratic system."

At first glance, Christopher, the 39-year-old executive director of the Family Resource Coalition, seems a contradiction of her own assessment. She is articulate, self-assured, and successful in what she and her agency do: assist local school and parent groups to function effectively. She is divorced and the major support of her two children, who are 8 and 15. She is also the founder of several businesses, including Gail Christopher Enterprises. But Christopher offers herself as Exhibit A in any list of women's vulnerabilities. "Believe me, I've made every mistake in the book," she says.

In the late 1970s, Christopher, with a degree in naprapathy, founded Nutrassessment Centers, which offered private diet and exercise consultations and health-education programs largely to black organizations and clients on Chicago's south side. A disciple of Dick Gregory, she extolled the importance of good eating and wholesome activity as keys to the creation of "a healthy black nation."

Nutrassessment did so well, in fact, that Christopher moved her office to North Michigan Avenue and won a foundation grant to share her insights with public-housing residents in the Grand Boulevard area."I believed that if people could get a handle on their physical well-being, they could control other aspects of their lives," she says. "And I still do."

She looked at the dull eyes and scaly skin of the mothers she met in the projects and developed an exercise program that soon had scores of welfare recipients stretching, bending, and dancing to disco music like a pack of misplaced yuppies. "It is a middle-class solution," Christopher acknowledged at the time, "but it works beautifully in another context." As word of her program spread, several major newspapers, including the Dallas Morning News, ran long features on her work.

Christopher was inundated with requests and offers. She found she could not say no, and she had extreme difficulty delegating authority. Her private consultation service suffered as she concentrated on public-housing residents and new programs. "I tried to supervise everything, do everything, and be everywhere," she says. "I took out a $40,000 loan for expansion, and the fear hit me that I wouldn't be able to pay it back. I couldn't sleep at night. I began to think I would fail."

In 1985--at the very time the press was running upbeat coverage about her work in Grand Boulevard--Christopher's health did fail. She spent a month in the hospital and the better part of a year recovering. She had to let go. Nutrassessment closed.

During that year of recovery, Christopher reflected on what went wrong. It wasn't failure that did her in; it was success. She had overcommitted and had taken the whole burden on her own shoulders. She could not see when it was time to say no and relax. Christopher was convinced her experience was not unique, that much of it had to do with being a woman in late-20th-century America. She met with several other women, including Mary Haughton, vice president of South Shore Bank, and Elspeth Revere, then president of the Woodstock Institute. Together they developed the Women's Self-Employment Project. It began operation in 1987 and has been evolving ever since.

Christopher designed the basic curriculum, which takes business concepts like marketing, management, and contingency planning and rearranges them under more-graspable people-related headings like energy, talent, time, and human resources. "What I try to do," says Christopher, who is presently revising the curriculum, "is marry business knowledge with life skills. You have to make abstract ideas relevant. Our people bring lots of life experience with them. The idea is to focus that experience constructively."

Funding for WSEP has come from private foundations and government agencies, including the Illinois Department of Public Aid and the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training. "The project is definitely not for everyone," says Christopher, "but it can be a way for some people. And if the avenues of opportunity were fully open in society, it could accommodate large numbers. But we have to face the fact that racism and sexism are still alive and well in the land."

"You gotta watch out for the habit of feeling sorry for yourself!" sings Shanta Nurullah as she entertains a group of third-grade students at the Field Museum's "World Music" program. Shanta, as she calls herself professionally, is a storyteller and perhaps the quintessential advertisement for the potential of self-employed women. As this tall woman with an enormous smile bounces around in front of her audience in a colorful African costume--alternating stories, songs, and raps, accompanying herself on a sitar, then shifting to other exotic instruments--she is clearly having the time of her life.

Shanta is in regular demand for performances at the Field Museum, the Art Institute, and the DuSable Museum of African American History, and in schools and libraries throughout the Chicago area. She has produced a recording of her songs and skits, which she distributes through her own company, Storywiz Records and Services. She does commercial videos and has started another company to popularize New Age meditation and channeling techniques. "I'm doing what I love and getting paid for it," she says. "It's like everything has opened up."

Shanta, who gives her age as "30-something," did not just fall into this profitable dream gig. A graduate of Hirsch High School and Carleton College in Minnesota, she started out as a social worker in Chicago and moonlighted after hours as a musician. "I kept getting laid off my job when funds would get cut, then coming back to work and getting laid off again," she says. "I'd see people like me giving all they had to social work and then getting canned. The survivors, those with seniority, just took it easy. I really got to hate the regimented life."

In 1975 Shanta plunged into black creative music full-time, organizing an all-women band called Sojourners. She started telling stories to audiences between songs and found she had a talent for holding people spellbound. But living off her art proved a disaster. "I was an artist!" she says. "I had no plans, no guidelines. I didn't approach story telling as a business." So she maintained several other "hustles" to help support her and her children--she now has four. She sold industrial lighting on the side and dabbled in soap and cosmetics sales--all in a futile effort to buttress the creative efforts.

Shanta's experience during the 12-week program at WSEP persuaded her to let loose of her sidelines and do what she liked to do on an organized, professional basis. Today her lexicon is full of terms like "motivation," "affirmation," and "consistent focus," and her spirit soars.

"I gained a lot of self-confidence," she says. "I learned to approach story telling as a business." She evaluated her markets, started setting realistic fees, wrote and distributed press releases. When she became a regular at the Field Museum last year, Shanta says she finally got the full legitimacy that opened up scores of other doors. In her performances, often built on stories about her fictional character Shedoobee, she stresses developing common sense, making healthy choices, building self-respect, and using time well. She wants children to reflect on their own lives, and she is convinced that story telling, unlike television, "can ignite the spark of imagination" and make a deeper impact than the tube ever could. Her approach is direct with all audiences, but especially so with black kids, whom she wants to "grasp hold of life, not just let it happen. I want them to know there's more important things out there than doing drugs and wearing Air Jordan jump shoes!"

The acid test for women's self-employment comes when the clients are welfare recipients. WSEP, in cooperation with the Illinois Department of Public Aid (IDPA), is currently the sponsor of a demonstration project with such clients. If public-aid mothers can actually create their own business opportunities, then self-employment may have wider potential than most people would suspect.

In 1988 a trial group of 20 welfare mothers with business hopes went through a 20-week WSEP program and were provided small loans to purchase supplies and start operations. The graduates have been allowed to continue receiving their full welfare payments for one year, even though they will or already do have their own businesses and may be earning substantial profits. This concession goes well beyond the provisions of IDPA's Project Chance, which allows recipients to deduct half of their earned income in computing their benefits during the first four months of a new job.

According to Connie Evans, many of the work-training programs offered to aid recipients channel them into hotel cleaning, data processing, typing, or other positions for which they have little motivation and no likelihood of advancement. The experience of creating something of their own might provide a different, less dependent outlook on the world, even if the original self-employment doesn't have long-term potential. At least, that is Evans's hope.

Of the 20 women who started the WSEP program last year, 16 completed the course. By last summer 11 of those had begun their own business. Since then, two have been forced to close down. Five of the others are doing well; the rest, says Evans, are "shaky." If IDPA cuts them off or radically reduces their grants in August, they could be back where they started. Of paramount importance is the health coverage provided to welfare recipients. A woman might make far more in her business than she ever got in her monthly welfare check, but if she has to start paying health premiums for her family, her overall financial position could be worse than before.

The final tally on this demonstration project is not in yet, but an IDPA spokesperson says the department "is very pleased with the results so far" and firmly "believes in the self-employment option." Whether the program will be continued or expanded when its time expires in August has not been determined, however. Major considerations, says the spokesperson, include the program's cost-effectiveness and whether the IDPA can obtain a continued waiver from the federal government to provide full benefits to fully employed persons.

Carmen Cedeno, a member of the demonstration project, is in the process of opening her own modest hairdressing and cosmetology business in the Logan Square neighborhood. Cedeno, 35, of Puerto Rican descent, tried to start such an operation last August after finishing the WSEP course. She couldn't make it then because she didn't have enough clients. So she has been working for another hairdresser, making contacts and saving some money. Besides the $370 a month she gets from public aid for herself and her four-year-old son, she earns about $500 a month on the job. Cedeno's bills are not excessive since she lives with her parents in Humboldt Park.

When she got pregnant five years ago, she had a breakdown, went on aid, and began to doubt she would ever get out of the doldrums. "The public-aid people tried to help me through work training," she says, "but I'm just no good at typing, and I can't cook for nothing. I've always wanted to be a cosmetologist, to work for myself. It's creative, friendly work. You know, helping people be their best. I know I can do it well."

Cedeno now feels she has the emotional and financial stability to rent a chair in a salon and operate as an independent entrepreneur. Although she realizes she will have to supply her own towels and materials, not to mention customers, she is buoyant about prospects. What scares her most, she admits, is the likely cancellation of her welfare check when the demonstration project expires. "I'm a little nervous about that," she says, "especially about losing insurance. It takes a lot of time to get on your feet."

The most unusual WSEP program aimed at putting women on their feet is the Full Circle loan fund, which puts micro-business operators in touch with one another but also makes them responsible for each other. The concept was borrowed by WSEP organizers from the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which hardly seems a likely locale for creative financial ideas. Nevertheless, some ten years ago reform-minded economists, observing the poverty and fragmentation of the peasant masses in that country, determined to use credit as a vehicle for social reform. Small clusters or circles of poor people were formed in rural areas, and members were urged to devise individual micro-businesses or cottage industries. But lacking collateral or any credit history, none of the peasants were in a position to afford a conventional loan to finance their operations.

That is where the Grameen program came in. Its loans are granted on a staggered basis. Only after the first member of a circle has been approved, received her money, and begun to pay it back does the second member become eligible for a loan. Thus the granting of loans proceeds on a slow, gradual basis. When the circle is complete and the last member is paying off her loan, the first borrower becomes eligible again, presumably for a new loan to expand her enterprise. If one member of the circle reneges on or is late in her payments, the whole procedure is held up. Hence, participants take more than cursory interest in their neighbors' plans, and a unique kind of solidarity develops within the group. Thus far some 300,000 loans have reportedly been made, with a 98 percent return rate.

A social agenda was also built into the Grameen program. The organizers insisted from the beginning that all those participating in a circle agree to a 16-step betterment program. They had to pledge to send their children to school, to help construct latrines for sanitation in their area, to erect sturdy houses, to rotate crops on their small farm plots, and to refuse to pay dowries when their daughters married. Many of these innovations contradict hidebound traditions and have therefore met stiff opposition from wealthy landowners, moneylenders, Muslim leaders, and some government officials. But for participants the opportunity has apparently overwhelmed caution and tradition.

Perhaps more important in the long run, the program has brought tens of thousands of rural poor together and altered the fabric of their society. The program is incredibly successful, says Connie Evans, one of several WSEP staff who have studied it in detail. She recalls one instance in which a woman who was having difficulty paying off her loan was observed getting on a boat to sail to another province. Several of her partners clambered aboard, offered to find her a cosigner, then persuaded her and the ship's captain to return to shore. "The concept is breaking down barriers in Bangladesh," says Evans.

Transferring this form of shared credit to inner-city Chicago is the task of Susan Matteucci, a WSEP staff associate. To date, she has helped establish three Full Circle groups in Rogers Park and one in West Town. Two more are soon to emerge in the Howard area of Rogers Park. During several preliminary meetings with a pool of prospects recruited from a small geographical area, Matteucci explains how the program works. She encourages people to mingle, and if interested, to form a group of five. None of the five may be related, and none may be in partnership with the others. "We're looking for people with some talent and skill," says Matteucci, "the kind of people who probably need money and some help on organization more than technical training."

After a group creates itself, Matteucci meets with members weekly for a month or more. Business plans are discussed, and the amount needed for start-up is determined. As in Bangladesh, there are rules. Attendance at meetings is mandatory. If a member of the group is absent or even 15 minutes late, the meeting is adjourned and everybody's plans are delayed. Everyone is expected to open a savings account and to bring her outstanding debts under reasonable control.

When the first two members have their enterprises solidified and applications filled out, each is granted her loan--the largest to date was $750. After that, the group meets every other week. When the first two loan recipients have made three consecutive payments on their loans--over a six-week period--the next two in the circle who are ready to apply step forward. The cycle continues, and the mutual dependence grows. One woman's late payment or misuse of capital jeopar- dizes her peers. One woman's successful struggle to stay on top is cause for general rejoicing.

"It works," says Susan Matteucci. "It really works. Circle members don't argue or threaten one another. Their obligations remain usually unspoken but clearly understood by everyone." Thus far, she notes, the payback record is 100 percent.

Rosalind Dawson speaks glowingly about her circle of five women, known as the Lotus Group. "We have taken a liking to each other," she laughs. "We actually look forward to meetings. And we all have to be there. None of us is any good without the other four. I always want to give my report. There's just a lot of excitement about what we're all going to say."

Dawson came to the United States from Honduras in 1966 when she was in her early 20s. Separated from her husband and without children, she worked as an interpreter and medical secretary. Her passion, however, has always been interior design and sewing: customized curtains, slipcovers, draperies--"anything you can make with a machine." But Dawson could not afford the sort of sophisticated sewing apparatus she needed to produce quality products. Last fall she was among five who formed a group in the Rogers Park area, and in December she and another member were the first in the circle to win approval for loans. "It was a big deal, and a lot of celebrating among us," she says.

Every two weeks she pays back $27 on her sewing machine and--as required by the rules--puts $10 into her savings account and a similar small amount into an emergency fund for the circle. Four of the five members now have their loans and have started their businesses: lingerie sales, bridal-dress making, and accounting. The fifth is still getting her act together.

Dawson admits she still has problems charging enough for her creations. Recently she got considerable applause for a beaded bridal headpiece she made. "The colors blended into the girl's complexion, and the shape was perfect," she says. "It took about ten hours of work. But I didn't charge that much for it, you know. It was such a loving thing."

Last month Dawson attended her father's funeral in Honduras. When she returned, her first callers were the four other members of her loan group. They stopped by with sympathy cards, hugs, and a few dollars. "They're friends--no, more like family," says Dawson.

The kind of alienation and isolation people experience in a large city is obviously different from that in rural underdeveloped areas of the third world, notes Susan Matteucci. But there are common threads in day-to-day life and perhaps common ways to help people discover a sense of community and even fulfillment.

Connie Evans believes that similar creative thrusts to win women financial and vocational independence will sprout up in many fields. After all, she notes, "Single women with children today are found most often in the deepest bowels of the underclass--the overwhelming majority of single-parent homes are headed by women. And besides, when a woman earns a dollar, statistics show it's more likely to be spent on her family than on personal gratification."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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