"Many women don't have the opportunity and privilege to live and work in the United States. I thank God that I am able to be here and help my family back in Guatemala. My life is blessed because I am a mother. I am working here so that my son has the opportunity to go to school so he can succeed and achieve his goals. His father died while I was pregnant with him and I wanted him to have opportunities, so I came here to the United States. My son has lived with my parents, his grandparents since he was 5 years old. I haven't seen him since I left and I still think of him as my baby but he is 18. He is a young man now." - Martha Lopez lives in Los Angeles and is employed cleaning houses.
"Being a teen mother at 17, changed my life. I remember looking into my baby's big blue eyes and I was determined he would have different parenting than I did. I didn't want him to feel unloved or uneducated like I felt. So, I signed up for emotional intelligence classes and I signed up for a parenting class that I went to once a week for many years. And then I sent him off to Duke University where he will be a senior next year. I have three more children and all of those parenting and education skills trickled down to them as well. And, after getting my GED I also received my EMT and nursing licenses. And most recently I've become a licensed real estate agent." Amanda Tafoya is a real estate agent in Taos, New Mexico.
"When I was a teenager and studying to become a teacher I got pregnant and dropped out of school. At the time I thought my work and the rest of my life would be in the house and in the kitchen. But after participating in some community women's groups and raising three children with my husband, I decided to become a health promoter so I could earn my own money and go back to school. I earned Q300 which was enough to pay for my school materials and my uniform. I only had one uniform for all three years I was in school. I had to borrow money from my family so that I could buy the clothing I needed for my graduation. But I kept pushing myself toward my goals. It was hard but I just kept going. While raising 5 children, I became a teacher and now I am the Director of the School." - Dominga Lukas Castro is an educator and business owner in Huitan, Guatemala. She also gives literacy classes to her mother-in-law (yesterday's EVE) and older women in her community.
note: This project is dedicated to Dominga and you can read a longer version of her story on meandeve.com. It is the very first story published.
"As a child I only attended school for two years. Back then the thought was, "Why send a girl to school when she only is going to wind up in the kitchen?" When I was 25 years old the Catholic Nuns came to my village and taught me the value of being a woman. The priest told us that men and women are equal. He said the only ones who say women aren't equal to men are men. The priest built the Colegio Asuncion here in Huitan so that the indigenous people here (the Mams) would be educated. All of my 10 children attended that school and 9 of them went on to become teachers. Now, I go to school every afternoon. My daughter-in-law, who is the director of the elementary school here, teaches a class for older women like me who didn't have the opportunity to go to school when we were young." - Dona Juana Diaz Velasquez lives in El Plan, Huitan, Guatemala and has been a community leader for many decades.
"I was born in Sri Lanka and my family and I were planning to move to Nigeria. My parents had already bought the plane tickets. And then, fortunately their green cards came through and we moved to the United States. If we had moved to Nigeria, I would have lived in the region of Boko Haram. Here, I could become anything I wanted. This made the Let Girls Learn campaign very personal for me. It helped me have the empathy and determination to be a champion of women's education."
"I worked as a waitress for a long time. Male customers expect you to be lovely, adorable, delightful and they like it when you are sassy because they interpret sassy as flirtatious. Sassy can bring in big tips." - Rachel Smith is a content strategist at PLASTARC.
"I was passed over for a job because I was a woman. The hiring manager told me that he thought an African American woman couldn't be intelligent enough. He said that women aren't analytical or intellectual and that they tend to be unreasonable. That women tend to be too emotional to make difficult choices. The hiring manager was African American and he hired a man. Then a few months later he called me back because the man he hired failed miserably. He offered me the job and I turned it down." - Ty-Isha Harris is a clinical manager for a dental practice and is the New Jersey Chapter President of Mothers In Charge.
"There was this driver's Ed teacher in high school that was known for saying and doing inappropriate things. And he said something inappropriate to me and he refused to apologize or acknowledge it. I had a meeting with the teacher and the Principal and nothing happened. I went to the Superintendent and all the way up the Board of Ed Chain. Nobody did anything, so finally we went to the press and my Mother spoke on television about it. The next day at school I was attacked on twitter, even my Judaism was attacked. I wound up having to leave that school." - Teddie Clark was at the DNC in Philly representing Jews for Jesus.
"As an educator it sometimes disturbs me because there is an assumption that women should be teachers because we are nurturing. I maintain high expectations, I set a standard for my students and I have a real skill and talent in what I do. I believe that girls and women need to feel purposeful. What I teach them here will grow with them, they develop their talent, their minds and they understand their value as a human being. If the focus for young women is about being beautiful - then all they have is a declining asset. Music and singing is about your unique voice - and really it is all about having a voice that matters. Some girls arrive in the program they don't value themselves, they are basically apologizing for the floorspace they take up in the room. And over time, I see them see themselves as being of value." - Dianne Berkun Menaker is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus.
"In High School I had to take a Home Economics class but I wanted to take Shop class. I was learning to drive and would have a car soon and I thought that taking shop would be helpful. But back then, girls weren't allowed to take shop and Home Economics wasn't an elective it was a required course. They told me I had to learn to cook and clean and take care of children."
"I never felt hindered in any way being a woman. My father wanted me to be educated, he wanted me to be financially independent. It would have been nice if my father, who was a cabinet maker, had taught me how to make cabinets because I like making things with my hands. In fact he said he wrong not to encourage me to go into construction if that is what I wanted because obviously a woman could do that work too. But he didn't graduate from High School and he wanted me and my sister to go to college. I became a nurse."
Mary was sitting on a bench in Stuyvesant Town and I saw her beautiful blue eyes flash in the sunlight and I stopped to photograph her. "I was Special Ed teacher in Brooklyn at P.S. 10 for more than twenty years. I loved it," explained Mary. One of Mary's daughters is also a teacher and ironically works at the same school in Brooklyn where Mary worked. She is a mother to four children and a grandmother to five children who all live in Peter Cooper Village Stuyvesant Town. " I was raised in Queens but my husband was from Manhattan and we moved into Stuyvesant over forty years ago and just stayed, " she said. While interviewing Mary several people passed and waved to her and I got the sense that Mary has a big community of friends here. One of Mary's daughters is also a teacher and ironically works at the same school in Brooklyn where Mary worked. " I get to see my kids and grandchildren but not as often as I'd like. They are in school and working and busy. But, I get to spend a lot of time with them in the summer at my beach house in Springlake," she said.
After finishing up a photo shoot in the Bronx River Park I was making my way to the subway when I saw a woman selling water at the intersection. Smart idea. It was hot and humid and I stopped to buy a bottle. And then like always, out came the story and out came my camera.
I had to ask if she was really making any money sitting there in the sweltering heat. Turns out, she can make between $200-600 depending on the day and I guess the temperature. "I only do this in the summer. I'm a teacher during the school year. " (sad side note here: I am fairly certain she is making more money per hour selling water than most teachers earn during the school year.) And being a single mother with four children she needs a summer job.
At 12 Ana was pregnant. Spoiler alert! There is a happy ending.
She needed an escape, her father was an alcoholic and her older brother's beat her and her safety net from the beatings was a boyfriend. His grandmother lived in an apartment downstairs and she spent a lot of time there." When my mother found out I was pregnant, she threatened my life" recalled Ana, "And she refused to let me have an abortion - and I would have." Her daughter is now 21. "I kept going to school even while I was pregnant. There was a daycare at my high school, but after a while I couldn't take it so I quit." Ana got a job at McDonald's and her GED through associates.
This is a list of jobs that she has had; McDonald's, Volunteer office at Jacobe, Patient relations at North Central Hospital, Jeans Plus, Intern at the career services at Monroe College, Hospitality at Monroe College, medical billing at an Optometrist's office. Six years after she had her first child she had another. But as Ana puts it "I pulled through." While working all those jobs and raising two children, Ana got a bachelor's degree in Business. And then, while working as a dialysis technician she completed her Masters in Education. She teaches 2nd grade at ICAR charter school and is a TA for ELA to help mediate reading. "I know," she said, "I beat the statistics."
When Dominga was 18 she and her boyfriend were both studying to become teachers. Her boyfriend became a teacher while Dominga became pregnant. In the Highlands of Guatemala when a woman becomes pregnant her education is over, if it wasn't over already.
I met Dominga in 1993 she was nearly 20 years old and I was a 25 year old Peace Corps Volunteer. She was vibrant, smart, funny and beautiful. She taught me how to speak a few words in Mam and how to bathe in a Chuj (a sweat lodge used for weekly bathing). I taught her how to make apple pie. I urged her to go back to school, that is wasn't too late. And then two years later, my stint in the Peace Corps was over and we returned to the United States and Dominga was pregnant again.
Then in 1999, I sat in her one room house that had plastic for windows and talked about life while she nursed her third baby. Her husband was drinking and beating her and she needed help. She had never asked me for money before, but that day she asked for $100 so she could buy a propane stove. I thought, "How is a stove going to help?"
In March I returned to Guatemala. Dominga's mother-in-law told us she was at the elementary school. I found her in an office, her office. Dominga was now the Director of the elementary school.
With $100 Dominga bought a stove and cooked faster in the morning and then could heat up the food in the evening. This gave her the time to go to school in the afternoons. When she graduated the government assigned her to a school that took hours to walk to. Her second year she protested. She insisted that a mother of 4 children should be able to teach closer to home. She got a position teaching in the school closest to her home and after 8 years of teaching she became the director of a brand new school even closer to her house.
She said she went back to school because I encouraged her and that kept her going. I asked her, "Why did you listen to me?" She said, "Because you were the only one who believed in me. You were the only one who acknowledged that I could learn more, do more and reach my goals."
Dominga knew what she needed - a propane stove to free her from the long hours of cooking over a wood stove and an open fire. There is of course the saying, "Give a man a fish and he eats for one day. Teach a man to fish and he is set for life." I think there should be a different saying for women. "Listen to a woman and give her what she needs and then stand back and watch it happen."