The Women’s Resource Center has played an increasingly important role during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering crucial support to women for housing, food and employment at a time when each is shrouded in uncertainty for some. In the first two months of the pandemic, the Grand Rapids-based nonprofit served nearly as many women as it typically does in a year, said CEO Sandra Gaddy. Recently, the center also has partnered with the Kent County Sheriff’s Department to help women re-enter the community after being released from jail or prison to avoid overcrowding. On top of the pandemic challenges, Gaddy also is closely involved in the empowerment of people of color — particularly Black women — in a region where she says too few have attained leadership roles. Gaddy recently spoke with MiBiz about the ongoing challenges of the pandemic as well as barriers to leadership roles for women in West Michigan.
How has COVID-19 shifted operations or priorities for the Women’s Resource Center?
Like almost everyone else in the world, we’ve had to go virtual, although we have reopened our center at full capacity somewhat. During the primary portion of the shutdown, we were open with limited hours. We continue to have those special time frames serving women and their families with critical needs around gift cards for food and resources. We still continue to provide services around making sure they’re able to keep their homes or apartments or helping with the replacement of major appliances that go out. Those are necessities we continue to help support with funding partners we’ve been blessed to have over this time frame. Our team has really gone nonstop since the pandemic.
We also serve women coming out of Kent County corrections. Jails and prisons are having to release men and women at high rates to reduce the number of folks in jail and prison to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. As that was happening, we just saw that if we didn’t help manage that, they could go into some situations that would be detrimental to them re-entering the community well.
What role does the Women’s Resource Center play in helping women re-enter from jail or prison?
We’d receive the phone call from Kent County and would then help coordinate their re-entry, especially if they didn’t have a safe space to go. Whether finding temporary shelter, ensuring they had clothing, food and also helping several women obtain employment upon re-entry.
As an employment resource agency, what challenges have you seen during the pandemic?
Across the country, women are facing the highest numbers of unemployment. It’s women who are at that lower to moderate income level who are facing the crisis around that area. Because we haven’t had classes, we are doing just as many virtual sessions for coaching appointments with volunteers or coaching teams for employment opportunities, including mock interviews and resume help.
We’re really just helping ensure these women and their families do not get kicked out of their apartments or lose their homes or vehicles. Even though there’s a mandate by the governor to not evict tenants from their apartments or homes, that (rent) has come due and in many cases we’ve seen these rental and utility payments building. How are these families going to afford to pay such high rental or utility payments when they haven’t been employed or are working part time?
We’ve been able to assist these families with support from funders in our community to ensure they can stay housed, can continue to feed and and also ensure their utilities and services are not just shut off. To give you an idea, we normally serve 600-650 women a year. Between March 19 and May 22, we served 459 women and made over 100 referrals to other partners.
You mentioned the role of community funders: Has that dropped off at all during the pandemic?
I haven’t seen any real challenges currently. I think West Michigan is known for having very generous donors in our community. My biggest concern is for the fall and what that will look like for us and other nonprofits in the community so we can continue to support and serve the families that are going to be facing the greatest economic challenges and burdens because of COVID-19. Based on what we’re hearing, this is going to continue well into the fall and possibly the winter. Right now, we’ve been able to support the needs of the women that we are serving, but we continue to seek funding. The support is very important to take care of women and families.
Last month, you were a panelist in a virtual town hall forum called “The Urgency of Now: Economics and Empowerment in Black GR,” which addressed systemic barriers to the advancement of African Americans in the community. Revisiting a point you made: Why do you feel there aren’t more minorities, particularly Black women, in leadership positions in Grand Rapids?
Just so often we’re overlooked. I do believe there are still stereotypes that exist for Black women. Within our community, we have just a wealth of women with experience and education. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see more Black women in senior level positions. I also believe it’s a lack of understanding. I believe people truly do want to have some level of diversity and equity and inclusion in their companies. But that has to happen at the very top of the organization. I challenge the CEOs and leadership teams to look at their leadership team: Does that reflect the community and does that embody what you want your organization to reflect?
In the wake of the George Floyd killing, many companies have stated their support for and made commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion. How do companies get beyond statements?
They have to put real action into place. So often, companies will reach out to one or two African Americans, Black or Latino individuals and expect them to speak for the entire communities of color they serve. That is an unfair position to put those individuals in.
There are many companies in our community that have had Black or Latina female leaders and for whatever reason, many of these women have been denied those positions (given) to white male or female counterparts. If they can examine the obstacles they’ve put before these women and the lack of opportunity they’ve presented to women of color, I think they’d be able to see the challenges they have within.