Jeremiah Program Announces First Alumni Fellowship Cohort
Thirteen graduate JP moms will help strengthen the organization’s advocacy efforts
Adrienne van der Valk
“I’m hoping to basically give what I’ve received.”
- Angelina Kery
Angelina Kery is a legal assistant at a civil litigation law firm, the mother of two middle-school-aged children, and a 2019 graduate of Jeremiah Program’s Boston campus. Now, as of October 2020, she’s also a member of the first-ever cohort of Jeremiah Program Alumni Fellows.
“It's exciting to be the first group of fellows for this program,” she says. “I'm hoping to mentor new moms, be a support for mothers in the program, and continue being a support to the community.”
Since its founding in 1993, Jeremiah Program has remained connected to moms like Kery who volunteer to lend their expertise in a variety of capacities such as fundraising and speaking on behalf of the organization. But these relationships haven’t been as consistent or as intentional as either JP or the alumni would have liked. Sharin Park, Director of Parent Programming with Jeremiah Program, says the new Alumni Fellowship Program was designed to change that.
“[The program] is about bringing people into the tent of JP and having them stay in that tent,” Park says. “Having them continually engage with us, having them be advocates and talk about us, but also having a value that they gain from it as well.”
As CEO and President Chastity Lord points out, JP moms can offer knowledge and insight that no one else can. They are the experts: in their own lives, in the program, and in the realities of a single mom experiencing in poverty.
“Proximity matters,” Lord says. “The disparities between women in poverty and their more affluent peers can only be dismantled by an aggressive investment in women closest to the challenges we are trying to solve. Single mothers can serve as key bridge-builders between decision-makers and communities, designing solutions to the challenges they experience as individuals and helping scale those solutions to meet the needs of their families and broader communities.”
Lord, Park, and other staff hope that, by regularly engaging with a diverse group of moms at different stages of post-JP life, the organization will improve its programming for families and keep them anchored to a strong and growing network after they leave. Feedback and data from the network will also inform Jeremiah Program’s best practices for helping parents and children break the cycle of poverty two generations at a time.
The First Cohort
When deciding how to structure the fellowship program, Park says Jeremiah Program staff and leadership felt it was important to open the opportunity to any mother who had gone through the empowerment course, not just those who graduated from JP. This meant that over 500 moms were eligible. Friends, family, staff, board members, and current JP participants and alums nominated 54 moms to the fellowship program; of those, 34 applied. The first-ever cohort of 13 fellows emerged through a rigorous review process involving the national governing board’s community boards of trustees, JP staff members, community leaders, and current JP participants. It’s a diverse group representing moms from five of the six campuses with program departure dates ranging from 2002 to 2020.
Christine Smith is another alum who joined the fellowship program this fall. While she has maintained regular contact with Jeremiah Program since leaving the program in 2006, being a fellow, she says, allows her to contribute expertise she felt was missing when she was going through the program.
“The alumni are a huge untapped resource,” says Smith, who has a master’s degree in family life education and works for the Minnesota Department of Health. “Some of us are moving into national leadership roles. We can really provide some good insight into helping build a program, making it more robust, finding opportunities where there have been barriers. I helped write the Minnesota Family Investment Program manual. I trained that entire welfare system. We need to equip these women on how to navigate the system. That should be part of the orientation process, so they understand and don't have all the barriers that I did.”
“These women are superheroes—people who have the type of backgrounds that some of us do and soar past every statistic that was set for you and your children.”
– Christine Smith
Brittany Block graduated from Jeremiah Program in 2014 and is now a small business owner; like Christine, she stayed involved as a volunteer and is eager to deepen her relationship with the program.
“I've done all kinds of work with Jeremiah and other campuses. It made such an impact on me that I'm just like, ‘Everyone needs this,’” Block says. “I've been saying to Jeremiah for a long time that there needs to be some kind of way for us to loop back to alumni and show donors how our lives have been impacted. Let us tell you how this program has changed our life. Listen to us when we say, ‘this or that was helpful or wasn't helpful.’ They've always been so responsive to the things that I've said.”
“Let us tell you how this program has changed our life and stand up and be experts in your program.”
– Brittany Block
Setting the Agenda
Now that the fellows have been selected, the next phase of the alumni program is determining priorities for the year. Decisions about those priorities, and how to act on them, will be driven by the fellows—women who have faced multiple social and economic barriers and experience overlapping oppressions.
“The women we serve are often overlooked and underinvested in,” says Lord. “It’s time to step aside and give the largest stakeholders in people of color communities—women, often single mothers—the mic and the pen to author policy and agendas.”
Central to the design, according to VP of Parent Programming, Archana Patel, is the goal of centering the voices of single moms in policy conversations. “The fellowship is designed to ensure our alumni have the tools and the social capital to be at the tables where decisions that impact their lives, and the lives of countless other families like theirs, are made - all too often without anyone with that lived experience in the room.”
“The tagline of the fellowship is that they’re ‘experts in their own experience,’” Park says. “Like any alumni initiative, it isn’t powerful unless it’s coming from the alumni.”
While each alumni fellow has the common experience of raising children alone and overcoming poverty, they each bring distinct lenses and skills to their roles. Angelina Kery is committed to helping mothers maintain or regain financial stability as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course. Christine Smith wants to focus on helping Jeremiah Program’s services become more culturally- and trauma-responsive. Brittany Block would like to help bolster financial literacy and other transitional supports for moms immediately after they leave the program.
Anita is a special education teacher and nonprofit founder who graduated from JP in 2012. Her main priority is promoting healthy relationships and preventing domestic violence, areas in which Jeremiah Program is deeply committed to addressing through a trauma informed lens.
“Domestic violence is beyond domestic. It can follow you wherever you go. And it can be more than just physical. It’s emotional abuse. It can also be financial abuse. I feel that may have been something missed along the way when I was coming through Jeremiah,” she says.
All the moms interviewed for this story identified one important cultural shift that would benefit every Jeremiah Program participant: reducing the judgment, assumptions, and stigma surrounding single motherhood.
“Single mothers are individuals just like anybody else,” says Anita. “Put aside your preconceived perceptions of what you think their reason is to be single. Put aside your preconceived thoughts about anything that would be a stereotype. Every single mother has their own story as far as what happened to get them there. And if you put your bias, thoughts, and opinions out there, instead of finding out who they are ahead of time, what you're really doing is just holding them back. Listen to who they are as individuals.”
One way Jeremiah Program is supporting the fellows in telling their stories and moving their agenda forward is by offering training in relational organizing, a tactic focused on empowerment, mobilization, and change-making through community building.
Sharhonda Bossier is an organizer and trainer who specializes in relational organizing with parents in low-income communities. She partnered with JP to offer the training to all 54 alumni program nominees.
“Relational organizing is helping people identify their self-interest, helping them build relationships with other members in their community through very targeted strategic relationship building, strategies, and tactics, helping them identify a challenge or problem they would like to solve, and then helping them figure out how to go about solving that challenge,” Bossier says.
The Jeremiah Program training focused on three things: developing mothers’ storytelling skills; deepening their relationships with the Jeremiah Program organization and with each other; and learning how to leverage their stories and their community to build out an active and effective alumni base.
“What we are talking about is helping women realize their power to affect change in their own lives, the lives of the other members of their family, and in their broader community,” says Bossier. “It’s not just about ensuring that we have advocates and cheerleaders for Jeremiah Program. It's also about investing in these women and teaching them another set of leadership skills.”
Looking to the Future
The group is already putting their skills to use planning a virtual summit in 2021, an inaugural event during which any mother who has ever been a part of Jeremiah Program will have the opportunity to connect with and learn from one another. The content, recruitment, and execution will all be driven by the new fellows. Sharin Park is also hopeful that some members of the cohort will help JP build out programming for mothers who want to become homeowners and that others may choose to share their stories and expertise as empowerment facilitators.
“They've gone through empowerment,” she says. “They've obviously latched on to the curriculum and have applied it to their own daily lives. And, for our new empowerment moms, they could see their identities and life experiences reflected in the facilitators.”
For Anita, putting her own life experience into her work as a fellow is a major motivator.
“My vision is to be able to have other women learn from my mistakes and successes,” she says. “I want them to be able to grow beyond how they've grown within Jeremiah. Even after leaving Jeremiah, I want them to be able to overcome any obstacle, no matter what they've faced.”
For Smith, the appeal of being a fellow isn’t just about the opportunity to give back; she’s also energized by the prospect of joining a unique, resourceful, and inspiring network of women.
“This opportunity is really cool because it brought me back into my community,” she says. “These women are superheroes—people who have the type of backgrounds that some of us do and soar past every statistic that was set for you and your children. You don't find that every day.”