National Congress of Neighborhood Women Records
The National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) is a support network for grassroots women's organizations and community leaders dedicated to empowering, and providing a voice for, poor and working-class women working to improve their communities and their own status in low-income urban and rural areas on local, national, and international levels. The history of NCNW begins with the remarkable vision and energy of Jan Peterson, co-founder and long-time director of NCNW, as well as the spirit and commitment of the neighborhood women in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, New York.
Jan Peterson had recently arrived in New York City in 1969 when she joined the Conselyea Street Block Association with neighborhood women of Williamsburg-Greenpoint, a predominantly working-class and mixed ethnic (Italian, Polish, Irish, Hispanic, and African American) area of Brooklyn. Inspired by the community activists of the civil rights movement she had worked with as a volunteer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in Harlem, as well as the burgeoning anti-poverty and feminist movements, she had a vision of creating an inter-racial, multi-ethnic community organization within a poor and working-class neighborhood, similar to the one in which she'd grown up in Wisconsin.
In 1973, at a meeting sponsored by the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, Jan Peterson got together with other grassroots leaders and professional women to plan a national conference of working-class women in Washington D.C. for 1974. It was at their second conference in 1975, that "the first national federation of blue collar, neighborhood women" (National Committee letter, 1977) was founded, with an office established in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. The Brooklyn office would administer both national and local programs in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, serving as a "laboratory" and model for other community organizations. Their primary goal was to empower poor and working-class women to become community leaders -- to give them a voice, and to raise their consciousness of their own power so they would be better able to define and solve problems facing their communities. They aimed to accomplish this through education, as well as job skills and leadership training, always with an emphasis on preserving family and community cohesiveness. In addition, NCNW had a vision of developing a national network of grassroots women to share resources, experiences, and knowledge.
NCNW's flagship program was their community-based higher education program, begun in 1975. Developed in collaboration with local community colleges and with input from the students, courses were designed especially for mature women, most already active in their communities, who had a desire to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become effective community leaders. Closely tied to NCNW's first employment program, Project Open Doors, courses were supplemented by apprenticeship experience in women's and community organizations throughout New York City. In the 1980s, NCNW expanded its education program to include pre-College adult education courses in literacy, math, English as a second language, and preparation for the high school equivalency degree (G.E.D.). In 1986, NCNW opened the "You Can" Community School, an alternative education, pre-employment and leadership training program for youth.
Another one of NCNW's core programs is the Leadership Training and Support Program, of which an integral part is the Leadership Support Process (LSP) developed by Lisel Burns. Begun as part of the College Program, leadership training and support groups were soon offered as workshops in regional and national conferences, and incorporated into affiliated organizations across the country. The support groups include consciousness-raising to allow neighborhood women to develop an awareness of how oppression based on class, ethnicity, race or gender might impede their sense of empowerment as leaders. For more information on NCNW's programs, see "Series Descriptions" below.
In the early and mid-1980s, NCNW underwent restructuring of its organization in order to expand its national program and lend more support to grassroots women leaders around the country. In 1986, the Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg/Greenpoint (NWWG), an independent but affiliated organization was created to administer the local programs including the education programs, employment training, leadership support, and public housing tenant training and organizing. The national office continued to network with, and offer training and technical support to, other grassroots women's organizations ("affiliates") across the country, in urban as well as rural areas, including Appalachia, the Pacific Northwest, and the Dakota Nation. Members exchange information and experiences including tenant organizing, the formation of rural land trusts, reforming public schools, and creating leadership support groups.
In 1985, NCNW members attended the UN Third World Conference on Women in Kenya, where they noticed a lack of involvement by poor and working-class women. With other grassroots women from developed and developing countries, they created a network called GROOTS International (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood). NCNW is the North American representative. GROOTS was successful at bringing grassroots women's representation to the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. NCNW also has gained consultative status with the United Nations and has opened an office there, enabling them to more easily disseminate information and resources to policy makers and grassroots community leaders and to ensure that low-income women have a voice in community development policies around the world.