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NCNW Reunion Highlights Grassroots Women's Activism (December 2004)

In February 2004, more than 30 life-long community activists gathered at Smith College for "Sharing Strategies: 30 Years of Grassroots Women in Community Development," the 2004 Kathleen Ridder Conference. Organized by professor of government and women's studies Martha Ackelsberg, the conference reunited members of the National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) and some of its affiliates, in celebration of the organization's 30th anniversary.

NCNW Neighborhood Women Leadership Forum, 1982, Bertha Gilkey at the podium. (NCNW Records).

Founded by a group of working-class women in 1974 in Brooklyn, New York, as the voice of a "new women's movement," the NCNW set out to address the needs of poor, working-class, and "neighborhood" women. Within just two years, the NCNW had established the first battered women's shelter in New York City, begun a neighborhood-based college program, and received a $2.6 million dollar federal grant to place unemployed poor women in jobs at feminist non-profit organizations.

Since then, the NCNW has built partnerships with groups of grassroots women activists locally, nationally, and internationally. Members from several of those partner organizations came to the conference to remember, discuss, and analyze their collaboration with the NCNW. Public housing resident advocates arrived from New York, New Jersey, and St. Louis; rural activists traveled from the Appalachian region of Tennessee and Virginia; and global organizers gathered from GROOTS International (Grassroots Women Operating Together in Sisterhood). The diversity of participants testified to the NCNW's impressive ability to bridge differences of race, class, religion, geographic location, and nationality in bringing women together to mobilize for social change.

In addition to chronicling their successes and sharing lessons from their community development work, the grassroots activists took part in a lively exchange about campus-community partnerships with Professor Myrna Brietbart of Hampshire College and Alan Bloomgarden, community-college relations coordinator at Smith. East Harlem public housing leader Ethel Velez noted that, "students need to see the community as a classroom, to recognize that they can develop skills there that you don't get in school." Holly Hansen of Mt. Holyoke College agreed, stating that, "From the perspective of the colleges, the issue is: How do we find the learning techniques to draw the academy into really profound social transformation?"

Other highlights of the conference included a presentation by Marina Grasse of the East-West Women's Network in Berlin, Germany, on how to develop a community-based oral history project; and a talent show, which featured song, dance, and lots of laughter. Camden, New Jersey, activist Cathy O'Bryant noted, "It's been a long time since I've connected with women in the movement. This weekend has taken me back to the joy and the fun and the fellowship of it all."

One of the most moving sessions of the conference came when participants gathered at the Sophia Smith Collection, where the NCNW's organizational records are housed. Welcomed by director Sherrill Redmon, historian Kathleen Nutter, and assistant curator Margaret Jessup, the NCNW members had a chance to look through documents detailing their long record of activism. As they descended into the stacks and realized just how much space, literally, they have been accorded in this repository of history, several women were overwhelmed with pride. Camden, New Jersey, activist Rosemary Jackson summed up her association with the NCNW: "It was the experience of my life."

The conference also provided an opportunity to add to the NCNW collection. A group of Smith undergraduates, Professor Ackelsberg, and I conducted oral history interviews with many of the participants. In addition to video recordings and extensive written documentation of the proceedings, these will constitute an invaluable resource for future research into the NCNW and grassroots women's organizing.

--Tamar Carroll

Tamar Carroll is a PhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Michigan. She is completing her dissertation on Women's Activism, Identity Politics and Social Change in NYC from 1955-1995, which includes two chapters on the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. She spent five weeks at the SSC this past summer as a Grierson Scholar-in-Residence.

For more information on the National Congress of Neighborhood Women Records, View the finding aid.

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