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May 30, 2013

Women as Peacebuilders Series - Session 6

The Reverend Laura Jervis, Guest Peacebuilder

Laura Jervis, the sixth guest in the Network's Women as Peacebuilders series of dialogues, told a group of 14 people that she has spent 37 years "doing the same thing." Unlike previous guests who described changes in their understanding of the world and in the ways they have chosen to live in it, Laura's work throughout her career has been unwavering. From the beginning, she has followed a vocation to provide safe and affordable housing for vulnerable people.

At the time she completed her seminary studies and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister few congregations were open to accepting a female pastor. When she was offered a job with the West Side Ecumenical Ministry for the Elderly, she gladly began the task of entering single room occupancy hotels to seek out elderly residents and help them find needed social services. Today, she is the executive director of the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing, providing housing for over 1,800 people in 24 buildings in New York City, on the Upper West Side, Harlem, Chelsea and the Bronx.

Laura herself grew up in an institution providing housing for vulnerable people, in that case for developmentally disabled ones, and the experience was important in forming her social and ethical viewpoint. Her mother was a social worker and her father a psychiatrist in this institution, and patients frequently roamed in and out of their home. Her parents never treated or regarded patients as "other," and Laura was 12 years old before she realized that her neighbors were "different."

Another foundational experience took place in college. Although her parents were liberal New York Presbyterians, they sent her to school in Minnesota, where she met straitlaced Lutherans and learned to appreciate in another way some people who were different from herself. On top of that, a stroke of fortune at this school took her on a semester of round-the-world travel. On this trip she encountered poverty in Ethiopia, the after-effects of colonialism in India, revolutionaries in Laos who burned down a school where her student group was staying, and a student uprising in Japan. She finished college determined to contribute to peace in the world by teaching world religions; hence her enrollment in Princeton Seminary after graduation.

Several members of the group first met Laura when all were part of efforts in the 1980s to deal with problems of homelessness and hunger. The city at that time was struggling with financial problems and services were cut to the bone. Crime was rampant. Homeless people, including the highly-visible "bag ladies," seemed to be everywhere. Discussions that took place when they were volunteering in a church where homeless people could spend the night led to collaborative work on a soup kitchen run by themselves as volunteers. Other ideas were born in that period that eventually led to the creation of the Coalition for the Homeless. The West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing emerged.

Why aren't more people volunteering today? one participant asked. Are people more self-absorbed than they used to be? More individualistic? "Everybody looking down at their I-phones" instead of at one another?

A number of participants in the group had experience volunteering in the past and a few had parents who provided an example of volunteering. Some theories were offered about a change - people can be self-conscious about volunteering; women who used to do lots of volunteer work are now doing paid work; people work long hours at demanding jobs; with new technology, employees can be reached at any time of day or night by their bosses and are; volunteer jobs aren't easy to find.

On the other hand, why should institutions depend on volunteers instead of paying people to do the work? A participant reported that at the shelter where she works, there is a policy not to pay executives high salaries while workers are not getting a living wage. In general at the West Side Federation, workers are well paid. Jobs have been created so that people can rise in responsibility and feel part of the team. Budget cuts have become a problem, however.

Laura asked, How can we change? Some thoughts: Occupy Wall Street was one model, but now is chiefly unnoticed, despite doing good work helping people recover from Hurricane Sandy. Maybe there is going on under the radar than people are generally aware of. We are going to be forced to change even if we don't want to because of climate change and resource depletion.

Some thoughts people said they would take away from the conversation:

  • It's urgent to bring religions together.
  • Being smart brings responsibility.
  • Building community is essential.
  • We need to work on ourselves - if people could take a MOMENT to stop fighting it would be a miracle.
  • Have more conversations like this.
  • Make workforces diverse.
  • In order to form communities there must be equitable relationships.
  • I'm glad to have been in the struggle. We're not finished but I'm glad I was there.
  • There could be plenty of jobs for the unemployed working with the elderly-there's a need.
  • People are lucky if they can work at something they believe in and feel passionate about.

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