Sustainable Support for Women: What We’ve Learned from the Centro Santa Catalina
There’s an idea out there that women have to claw their way to success, often over each other. We’re here to tell you: it’s tired and just plain wrong.
Time and time again, we women are continually proving that we benefit from collaboration over competition, and that when we amplify each other, we all rise. As gender equality activist and founder of The Female Quotient Shelley Zalis put it, “a woman alone has power; collectively we have impact.”
At Junes, we see the mission of women supporting women as a global goal. Statistics continually show that we make up nearly half of the world population and who better to join arms in the endless battles our gender faces than those who experience the same daily hurdles and challenges? The ability to understand and empathize are powerful forces, only to be outdone by the fire to fight.
We’ll always value both the small and large-scale acts of “helping a sister out,” and actions like donations, personal favors, and other deeds of aid and assistance absolutely have their place. But one thing we’ve really been focusing on is the idea of sustainability and how that applies not only to our commitment to the planet, but our efforts in supporting women as well. We know that real, systemic change in how society views and treats women and women’s issues requires a much larger approach. True support is more than charity, reposting ideas, or brunch with a friend. And it’s certainly more than wearing a $30 t-shirt emblazoned with “FEMINIST,” “EMPOWERMENT,” or “GIRL POWER.” As it turns out, we need look no further than our own partner - the Centro Santa Catalina women’s sewing co-op - for lessons that can apply to gender issues in everything from friendships to business to crisis.
A non-profit founded in 1996 to foster the spiritual, educational, and economical empowerment and growth of economically poor women, the Centro Santa Catalina is not only supporting women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico but the welfare of their entire families. The center is unique in that it doesn’t focus on giving away charity or material things – they teach and provide opportunities for happiness, art, earning an income, and the feeling of usefulness. Moreover, the Center structures time to support women holistically, balancing work with the space and resources to nurture the spirit as well.
Basically, it’s the female version of “teach a man to fish,” but sewing. Facing high rates of poverty and gender-based violence in a male-dominated culture of machismo, Juarez women are taught to create various products for a sewing co-op, which Junes also employs for additional work. Profits are shared equally among members, providing a basic income for their families.
The Center also has a program for the women’s children and community children at large to supplement schooling, which is typically only a half-day and can be lacking in subject matter beyond the basics. Over 200 students per year receive help with homework as well as programming designed to teach additional values like care for the environment, entrepreneurial and life skills, health, arts, and music. In addition to the enriched learning opportunity, the program provides a safe haven for children who have parents that work outside of the home and provides them with nutritious food they may not otherwise have access to.
Many of the CSC’s tutors/educators came from traditions of marrying extremely young and not having opportunities for academics, work, or fulfillment – the same societal conditions and traps from which many of their female students still come. These women utilized and were later trained by the Center themselves and now aim to provide opportunities for the next generation through education and empowerment, working to break the cycle of abject poverty and social marginalization once and for all and to provide a sustainable path forward for women and girls in Juarez.
The power of the Center’s programming can be felt in the community at large. Beyond the spiritual, moral, and financial support, the Center brings likeminded women from similar backgrounds and circumstances together – both the women seeking knowledge and guidance, and those providing it. Connecting and working towards a common goal for themselves, their children, and gender alike unites them in purpose. And a group with the ability to understand and empathize from shared experience is uniquely equipped to support each other and encourage success amongst members, with effects rippling outward. Much inspiration can be taken from St. Catherine of Siena, the Center’s namesake. A Dominican woman who devoted herself to the sick and poor, she exemplified the strength of women to have a voice in society. It is a common refrain from the CSC women that as they find their purpose and voice and take on a less submissive role, their whole family benefits. And when empowered women work collectively, society benefits as well.
The Center’s teachings have practical applications for us all as we work to better support and lift the women in our own lives and our gender at large. Taking a look at the challenges at hand and at every step of the lifecycle helps us root out causes and create sustainable change. At Junes, this means working with other female-owned businesses, professionals, and creators whenever possible - From the scientists behind our eco-friendly materials and practices to the artists we collaborate with on designs. From retailing in female-owned stores to hiring females ourselves. And in using our voice and audience to amplify female voices, perspectives, and causes at every turn. If we have the chairs, it’s our job to provide more seats at the table.
We can take this mentality into our own daily lives as well. Choosing to support women with our purchases is a great step, as is providing opportunities for women to rise – professionally, athletically, politically, or in any organization, really. But we can also let it color how we provide personal support to our female friends and family. We may be inclined to offer our shoulders, ears, and sympathy in times of hardship – but where are the opportunities to help the women we love not just feel a little better, but thrive? For the friend that just had a child – a cute onesie and a visit is nice, but are you checking in on her down the road… is she overwhelmed, could she use a break, is she really ok? For the friend who lost a job – a few meals or gift cards are appreciated when money is tight, but can you amplify her employment search, make connections, or help her identify or encourage her along a more solid and fulfilling career path? For the family member who is on a destructive path of beliefs – will you do the work to find the way through and assume the risk of the confrontation everyone else is too “polite” to consider? Can you have the uncomfortable exchanges? Will you work to understand and raise your voice for ideas that don’t personally affect you? In our connections and conversations, going deeper always goes further.
We have learned so much from the women at the CSC, which is why we choose to celebrate them on this International Women’s Day. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit them and their work especially hard. Not only is the co-op unable to meet at the Center for group experiences and education, but they’re unable to sell their goods after church and along the streets. While they are able to sew and create out of their homes and Junes is still providing one revenue stream, the in-person sale of their own handmade products was the main source of income for the group. They’re currently relying on donations and small grants to keep the larger mission afloat, but the individual women are taking home much less. We’re helping them set up an Etsy store, in the hopes that selling globally online will help them continue to provide for their families through this difficult time – keeping their children fed, in school, and looking towards a better future. We’ll be handling all the distribution and shipping and will keep you all posted on additional opportunities to shop and support the CSC beyond the purchase of our bags.
At Junes, we talk a lot about closing the loop on plastic pollution. We’ve seen firsthand how the critical work of the Centro Santa Catalina is closing the loop on the cycle of poverty and violence for women. We hope the message you receive on this International Women’s Day goes a little deeper and inspires more sustainable work on the female friendships and causes in your own life. As always, giving back to women and the planet creates a better future for all.