Lee Roper-Batker, left, and Carol McGee Johnson

SAINT PAUL, Minn. (WOMENSENEWS)–In a roomful of Latinas gathered in southern Minnesota as part of a statewide listening tour by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Lee Roper-Batker heard something that surprised her.

"Through a translator, one woman said that it was easier to find family planning in Mexico than in Willmar, Minnesota," said Roper-Batker, the president and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis-based foundation. "That was a wake-up call."

In other communities, comprehensive sex education seemed to have gone underground, said Carol McGee Johnson, vice president of community philanthropy and programs at the foundation. "We heard a lot about a culture of silence," she said.

The comments were delivered in an 18-stop listening tour that is one segment on a multi-stage program by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota to improve the status of girls in the state. The results of the outreach tour were released in a report, "On the Road to Equality," in February. Upcoming stages include a policy summit and an appeal to other grant-makers in Minnesota to increase their support to women and girls from a mere 3 percent of their overall funding.

Other women’s funds, such as one in Ohio, are taking notice of the process as a model for their own communities.

Venerable Fund Pushes Priorities

The 26-year-old Women’s Foundation of Minnesota is the oldest women’s fund in the country and, with $965,027 in grants to 116 nonprofit groups in fiscal year 2008, is one of the largest. It hopes that policymakers and legislators also will heed the voices of women and girls in the state, and prioritize them, despite tough economic times that have impacted state budgets. At the same time, many foundations have watched their endowments shrink.

Amy Brenengen, director of the state Office on the Economic Status of Women, said that with the support of the women’s foundation, her agency will sponsor a women’s policy summit in the state capital on April 17 for legislators, state policymakers and community advocates to discuss the economic, education and health situations of women and girls.

One clear need, said Roper-Batker, is to make more child care available to women. The foundation’s research discovered that women have difficulty finding adequate and affordable child care, especially if they need to work second-shift jobs. As a double whammy, girls are often asked to care for younger siblings instead of focusing on their own educational needs.

Other recommendations call for providing access to reproductive health care and comprehensive sex education; offering enhanced job training programs, especially for nontraditional careers; and applying a gender lens to improve schooling programs.

Initial policy directions were also developed based on a research report that was completed by the Women’s Foundation in April 2008 with a $75,000 grant to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Tale of Two Minnesotas

"We found two Minnesotas: one for girls from middle-class and upper-class circumstances; and another reality for girls of color, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender), and homes of poverty, where there is an experience of higher exposure to sexual and physical assault, and impacts on mental health," said Roper-Batker.

Economic stability is the most significant barrier to girls’ success, according to the foundation’s "Status of Girls in Minnesota" report. Young women face a greater likelihood of poverty and economic hardship as they enter adulthood than do young men.

The disparity extended to women in urban and rural areas and was particularly sharp for women of color, which in the 5.3 million population of Minnesota includes African Americans (4.3 percent), Hispanics (3.9 percent), Asian Americans (3.5 percent) and Native Americans (1 percent), according to the 2007 U.S. Census data.

"We collected qualitative data and quantitative data that hears the voices of women and girls. But doing research for research’s sake is not where we want to be," said Roper-Batker. "We don’t want the research to sit in people’s file folders. We want it to have legs."

Listening in on Local Issues

In stage two of the effort to improve the status of girls–the listening tour–members of the Women’s Foundation heard a police officer in a far north region of the state known as the Iron Range agonize about violence against girls and women, which had recently spiked. In another community, the head of a local chamber of commerce talked about the need to train girls for its future work force.

They also heard of what was described as an "epidemic" of teen pregnancy. One suggestion of a focus group member was adopted wholesale by the Women’s Foundation: renaming sex education as "Smart Choices." "We need to this to be depoliticized and to link it to the health and well-being of children," said Roper-Batker.

In a similar fashion, the Women’s Fund of Central Ohio in Columbus released its own report in mid-February, "One Girl," on the status of girls in its seven-county service area. Like the Minnesota group, the Ohio foundation will be spending the next few months taking its findings to the community, said Kelly Budros, grants manager. "We were looking at the best practices and we really like this listening idea," said Budros.

Research by the Central Ohio fund discovered that girls are doing well in math and reading, but falling behind in science. They are one-third more likely to be living in poverty than in 2000, and 1 in 10 attempt suicide or cause self-harm. It posted its findings on its Web site in a video created by Andi Boutelle, a teen volunteer.

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist, living in New York.

For more information:

Women’s Foundation of Minnesota

The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio

Women Donors Network

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