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Considered one of the great American pioneers in the field of social work, Harriett Bartlett was born in 1897, the year before the first social work class was offered at Columbia University. Since then social workers have led the way in developing many of the systems and programs that serve people in need. Harriett received her Bachelor’s degree from Vassar in 1918 and went on to study at the London School of Economics and the University of Chicago. Her deep connection with Greater Boston took root in 1921 when she began serving as a caseworker for Massachusetts General Hospital. Later, she would teach classes in ‘social economy’ at Simmons College. And in 1969, Boston University awarded her an honorary doctorate for her contributions to the field of social work. When she died in 1987 at the age of 90, she left a major bequest to the Boston Foundation. Her gift was virtually unrestricted, except that she wanted it to be used for “community building.”
Grants from her fund are doing exactly that. One of the efforts they are supporting is the Family Independence Initiative (FII), a national project that came to Boston just two years ago, is this country’s long history of low-income people forging a path to the middle class by turning to informal networks of family and friends. They have pooled resources, asked advice of each other and followed the example of those in their circle who found success. FII has taken this model and helped to catalyze networks of families and friends throughout Greater Boston who are working together to set goals and take control of their lives.
The concept is brilliant in its simplicity—and you can see it in action in a remarkable group of young women, all immigrants from Colombia, who are part of a larger group of seven women who have been meeting for the last year and a half, under the unobtrusive but attentive eye of FII’s Family Liaison Wandy Peguero. On a beautiful September evening in East Boston, the women got together in a room in that neighborhood’s Social Center for one of their networking meetings. They always bring food to their sessions, for sustenance, and arrange for child care so that they can focus entirely on their conversations.
“The first time we met, we didn’t know what to discuss,” said Beatriz Alvarez, who has emerged as a kind of natural leader of the group and takes notes during meetings on a laptop provided by FII. “Wandy wanted us to decide for ourselves what issues we would discuss. One of the women had a credit card problem and so that became our first issue.” The women decided that they wanted to consult an expert on credit cards, so, at their request Wandy helped them find someone to give them a workshop on credit. “It was helpful for all of us,” added Beatriz. They have not had to worry about finding topics for their meetings ever since. Several of the women in the group want to go to college and are helping each other apply and seek financial aid. Others are interested in starting businesses and nonprofit groups and have been working with the Center for Women and Enterprise to develop business plans.
They contribute to a joint savings account that is used for gifts for children and for events to which all FII participants are invited. As they learn about the resources that are available to them, they are even helping other families, asking businesses to donate school supplies for children who can’t afford them. And a while back they consulted an expert about how to plant a garden so that they could grow fruits and vegetables for their families. The idea of a garden, planted by these wise and resourceful women, is a perfect metaphor for their work together. And their garden is most definitely growing.