She was crying so hard I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. But I knew it was Brenda because her name popped up when the phone rang. “What’s happened, Brenda? Tell me what’s happened,” I pleaded.
“I can’t take it anymore. Elaine, I just can’t take it any more,” she said through sobs of utter, utter defeat. “Could you meet me? Just for a little while. Please.”
We made arrangements to meet at a coffee shop near where I just finished a yoga class. The daytime class was a new found luxury for me after leaving my full time job and declaring myself on indefinite sabbatical.
I first met Brenda over twenty years ago. With her young son in tow, she cleaned the offices of the YWCA. She could have been any other cleaning lady except for the gold star in a front tooth that sparkled when she smiled and hinted at a soul that shone brightly.
The YW was still relatively small back in 1995, but we had big ideas—a job center where women could obtain a GED and get job training in nontraditional fields like the construction trades; affordable housing combined with wrap around family support services; and a women’s business incubator to provide a path to financial security through entrepreneurship. It was all part of the vision for the Women’s Enterprise Center we were building on King Drive.
I was in charge of fundraising. I don’t remember exactly how much we needed but it was more money than me or the YWCA had ever raised before. The Michigan-based Kresge Foundation offered a challenge grant of $500,000 if we could just raise the rest and demonstrate that we had community support.
How did the YMCA always manage to raise so much more money than us? Why did the Boy Scouts always raise so much more money than the Girl Scouts? How did universities like Marquette manage to gather a room full of businessmen, ask them to write checks, and raise gigantic sums. Couldn’t women do that too?
With the support of a small group of feisty determined volunteers, we launched The Circle of Women event in the spring of 1996. The strategy was to ask women to bring their friends to a luncheon without a ticket price, and then inspire them to make contributions through the testimonials of women who benefited by the YW’s programs. No other local women-focused nonprofit had done that before. More than one of our corporate supporters cautioned that we wouldn’t be successful without the support of male leadership and that women would never write checks for as much as $100 without permission from their husbands.
We did it anyway.
Brenda was one of three courageous women who told their stories to the audience of more than 500 women at the packed Bradley Center that day. She talked about how her cleaning business was growing through the YW’s support and her pride in being able to provide a living for 20 employees. She talked about the difference her success was making in her family. She and her husband, a Milwaukee County bus driver, purchased a home and were saving for their sons’ college education.
There were tears, a standing ovation, and donations that surpassed our wildest dreams. We raised over $100,000. The Kresge Foundation awarded us the grant. The YWCA realized it’s ambition and Circle of Women was established as one of the premiere annual fundraising events in Milwaukee.
A few years after that first event, Brenda was ready to turn the cleaning business over to others and look for a new challenge. With support from a YWCA board member, she secured a spot in a bank training program and quickly rose through the ranks to become a branch manager recognized for her dedication to customer service.
I eventually left the YWCA in pursuit of my own next challenge and Brenda and I lost touch for a while. But in 2003, when my husband and I refinanced our house, she was the closer at the title loan company. She had advanced her career yet again.
Through no fault of Brenda’s, a scandal embroiled the title mortgage company and it closed. Brenda let me know when she landed a position with Select Milwaukee, a nonprofit dedicated to helping first time home buyers achieve and maintain home ownership. When my son was ready to buy his first house in 2005, Brenda helped him work around his nonexistent credit score to secure a loan to re-roof the dilapidated fixer-upper. The home deal would not have gone through without her.
In 2011, Brenda invited me to lunch at her family’s new home in the Walnut Crossing Development. She told me that she felt it was her duty to invest—to reclaim what had become a high crime, dangerous place. She gave me a tour of the beautifully constructed home making sure to point out special features like easy to clean counters and a built in vacuum system, a real point of pride for a former cleaning lady. Brenda served an elegant chicken salad luncheon on china paired with crystal goblets of sparkling water. We talked about our next career steps and reminisced about our days at the YWCA. We agreed that we would be table captains for the upcoming Circle of Women event together. And we’ve been doing that ever since.
Until this year.
After our conversation in 2011, Brenda had taken another job in banking but banking and the home financing industry had changed drastically in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Brenda lost her job seven months ago. Not a comfortable place for this hard working woman who didn’t expect to be in this position in her mid 50s.
At the coffee shop, I hold Brenda’s hand as she tearfully recounted the last several months of crushing disappointment. Within the last three weeks, she had been offered two consecutive jobs at banks which were both rescinded because of her credit score which apparently is important in the financial industry regardless of the position. She and her husband were doing their best to keep up, but bills weren’t always getting paid on time. Recognizing that not having a college degree was catching up with her, she had enrolled at a local university last year but now she wondered if it would be worth it. Would she ever be able to repay the student loans? The breaking point, what led her to call me today, was an interview with a local property developer. The opening looked promising until she learned that it would pay only $10 an hour. The indignity of it was crushing her spirit. “I might as well be a felon,” she cried. I noticed that the gold star on her tooth was gone. Maybe it had been removed a long time ago.
Feeling powerless, I fumble around giving her ideas of people to call who might be in a position to help her and of companies outside of the banking industry who might be hiring. Of course I want to help if I can. But the injustice of it all is setting my hair aflame. How can this be happening?
I had planned to write a glowing story about the 20th anniversary of the YWCA’s Circle of Women, about all that women had accomplished by supporting one another and how the gifts we give come back to us. The friendship between Brenda and me is indeed proof. But instead, I’m writing about injustice. Brenda, who has always lived within her means and invested in our city, faces a decline in economic status as she approaches what for most of us are peak earning years contributing to the retirement nest egg. An honest ethical professional, she is denied a job at a bank because she’s a little behind paying bills while Wall Street pays multi million dollar salaries to people who are responsible for the collapse of the economy. Brenda’s lack of a college education is restricting her opportunities regardless of decades of experience while the Governor of Wisconsin, who also doesn’t have a college degree, is mounting a run for the presidency.
I realize that the story isn’t finished. I must believe that Brenda will rise again. And that somehow, women will circle to work for social change that will make a difference for Brenda, for me, for our collective daughters and sons. But damn it, we shouldn’t have to.