Anthropology Students Help to Empower Homeless Women

November 21, 2016 -- Fifty students in two of Matt Oppenhein’s Anthropology 1101 classes are helping homeless, near homeless and low-income women through a program designed to empower them with skills they can use to earn a living.
November 21, 2016

As part of their Anthropology class, the students are participating in Service Learning that allows faculty to integrate classroom instruction with community service at selected non-profit agencies.

“The CNM students are assisting the women in multiple ways,” said Oppenheim. “They are helping them in organizing community events and supporting them in obtaining sewing contracts after they graduate from the one-year program. It’s real hands-on learning for our students.”

The program, TenderLove Community Center, was founded three years ago by Debbie Johnson, who was homeless herself at one point in her life. TenderLove Community Center teaches homeless women to enter or re-enter the job market after traumatic circumstances, such as surviving domestic violence, incarceration, rape or living on the streets. The program, which teaches them sewing skills and other life skills, is free for qualifying women and takes place six hours a day, four days a week for 50 weeks. The life skills curriculum gives the homeless women a sense of accomplishment while learning marketable skills. In addition to sewing skills, they learn culinary arts, learn to follow directions, take projects from beginning to end, design their own projects and think and create independently.

While at TenderLove Community Center, participants also are instructed in basic financial skills, basic employment etiquette, and how to start their own small business after graduation.

They receive safe shelter during the day, warm lunches, transportation and coordination with caseworkers. To date, about 35 women have graduated from the program.

Oppenheim said that he became aware of TenderLove Community Center a year-and-a-half ago when he and his Anthropology 1101 students organized an Empowerment Festival for the Homeless, which drew about 350 people. As part of the festival, the participants were broken into focus groups to discuss issues that were important to them.

“We learned they wanted jobs but also to be part of the decision making process that impact shelters and organizations that serve the homeless,” Oppenheim said.

He met Johnson and realized her sewing program for homeless women was just the type of organization he wanted his students to use as a class project.

As part of their anthropology coursework, the students reached out to homeless shelters and nonprofit organizations; they talked to homeless people on the streets; and put up posters. They also raised more than $1,200 for the Empowerment Festival for the Homeless. Their first event for TenderLove Community Center was to help organize a fashion show where the women displayed some of the clothes they made.

Through this effort, the CNM students were following the applied anthropology process Oppenheim was teaching them, including: identifying an issue that needs to be addressed, in this case empowering homeless women through the development of life skills and personal development; investigating and researching the issue; brainstorming a plan or project with people from TenderLove Community Center using anthropological skills; carrying out a project; and evaluating the impact and effectiveness of the project.

“The students learned a lot from working with TenderLove Community Center,” Oppenhein said. “The biggest takeaway was that initially many students were hesitant to be around homeless people. This class and program changed their stereotypes of the homeless.”

For more information on how to become involved in TenderLove Community Center or help the women find sewing contracts, contact Oppenheim at (505) 888-2828.