This month, at the first-ever Jeremiah Program alumni summit on Saturday, Christine Smith spoke to activist Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement. They chatted on Zoom from the intimacy of their homes, and shared their own life experiences, including their struggles and success in fighting for equity and personal growth.
At one point, Smith asked Burke, “If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self to prepare her for this journey?”
“I would tell her to be gentler with herself, to be kinder with herself, to be patient with herself, more compassionate, have the same empathy she wants to put into the world and apply it to herself, to speak softly to little Black girls,” Burke said. “We go from discipline in the house to discipline in school, to the street. We don’t have a lot of soft places to land.”
The words surely resonated with Smith, who first came to Jeremiah in 2002 in desperate need of support. Today, she is helping a new generation of women find their footing.
The Jeremiah Program, which began in Minneapolis in 1998, provides educational and career coaching to single mothers living in poverty, as well as early childhood education and access to affordable housing. Their goal is to “transform families from poverty to prosperity two generations at a time” and intervene before families reach a crisis point. They emphasize the strength and resilience of mothers to be agents of their own change, while also providing a community and a soft place to land.
“It’s about putting moms in a space where we recognize and celebrate that they are the experts of their own lives and have the ability to identify solutions to respond to the challenges that are impacting their families and communities,” said Chastity Lord, the president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program.
The organization first grew from its Minneapolis home base to sites around Minnesota, and it has since expanded to cities across the country, including in Massachusetts, New York, Texas and North Dakota.
In its 28 years of operation, it has served an estimated 4,000 mothers. The vast majority have been women of color, Lord said.
The alumni summit marked the beginning of new hopes to expand. Lord said they plan to grow by at least 25% this year to serve more mothers who were laid off during the pandemic. “One of the things we’re really focusing on is the role of higher education and workforce development training,” she said. “Jobs are important. Careers are what disrupt generational poverty.” Smith is part of this expansion as one of the inaugural Jeremiah Program fellows, a yearlong paid opportunity for alumni to develop leadership and advocacy skills as well as mentorship skills. The fellows also learn about organizing and how to talk to the media and write op-eds to affect change in their communities.
Smith, who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, first enrolled in the Jeremiah Program in 2002 when she was a single mom in her early 20s with two toddlers. She graduated from the program four years later and earned a bachelor’s degree from Augsburg University in Minneapolis and later a master’s degree from Concordia University. She has built a career around helping other people, and she now works as a health equity and tribal grants supervisor in the Minnesota Department of Health.
When she first joined the program, however, Smith could not have imagined any of this. She had divorced her husband after he relapsed in his addiction to crack cocaine, and she suddenly found herself the sole breadwinner for her family. She had a GED but no higher education, and she realized quickly she needed to do something else to provide for her children. She credits her tenacity and the relationships she developed with other women in the Jeremiah Program for getting her to where she is today. Now, she is preparing to be a mentor for other women who are in the program.
“I remember looking at professional women who seemed like they had it all together,” Smith said, reflecting on her time in the program. “They had a home, they had a car, they had their careers. I imagine that I appear that way to people now. A lot of those very things those women had in their lives, I now have in my life.”
Lord, who has led the Jeremiah Program for a year and a half, conceived the idea for the fellowship in the first 90 days on the job. She sees the mentorship aspect as a way to provide the women with “windows and mirrors into what they will become as well as what they have been.”
Lord also says it’s important for the women in the program to reframe how they view themselves and their life circumstances. She emphasizes that intergenerational poverty is a social justice issue, not an economic one. This theme was reinforced in the alumni summit, with Smith’s conversation with Tarana Burke and another alum conversation with Mónica Ramírez, the founder of Justice for Migrant Women. Both conversations focused on how to fight for justice in your community and how to care for yourself in the process.
Ramírez spoke about the power of stories and voice: “As mothers, we have many stories to tell, some that are our own, some that are our ancestors’, some that are our children’s,” she said.
“We try to make sure that those of us who have complex identities and stories aren’t boiled down into a flat, singular character.”
For Lord, part of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty is recognizing these identities and elevating women’s voices. “We want moms to be at the table and in positions of power to influence change around social justice issues” she said. “We want them to be at the table and to feel a level of confidence around their identity to influence the agenda.”
But for moms who are new to the program, certain basic needs must be met first. Millions of people have lost jobs during the pandemic, but women — particularly women of color — have been hit hardest by unemployment. Lord said the Jeremiah Program is planning to help 1,100 women this year, but she says this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Part of the reason the program succeeds, however, is that it has a snowball effect. Helping single mothers leads to better outcomes not only for them, but also for their children and grandchildren. “It’s hard to do things that you don’t know exist,” Lord said. “What moms represent, which I think is really beautiful, is possibility for their kids.”
Smith attests to the impact that her life trajectory has had on her children. “I have adult kids now, and they are extremely ambitious,” she said. “They have multiple streams of income, and the sky is the limit for them. I think a lot of that is because they saw me be able to do that, because I had the opportunity and support from the community in the Jeremiah Program to be able to do that type of thing.”