Research & Action Report Spring/Summer 2008

Erika Kates, who recently joined the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) as a senior research scientist, previously served as research director at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her fields of most extensive experience include women in prison and the effect on women of the intersecting policies of welfare, workforce development, and higher education. She has published extensively, especially on the latter subject. The Educational Development Center recently included her in a book featuring 20 people who have made significant contributions to gender equity in education.

Kates has taught at Smith College, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Boston, and Tufts University. She holds a Ph.D. from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, a diploma from the Architectural Association, London, and a B.Sc.(hons) from the University of London.

You are joining Monica Driggers in reactivating the Gender and Justice Project at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Will the project’s agenda remain the same?
EK: The Gender and Justice Project was initiated a few years ago to focus on battered mothers. What we’re doing is focusing on women both as victims and as offenders. Much of my work prior to this has dealt with women as offenders; Monica’s great expertise is on women as victims. She’s a lawyer, I’m a social scientist, so we have lots of complementary skills and interests.

What were you doing before you came to WCW, and how did you begin working with Monica?
EK: While I was research director at the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, I wanted to create a project focusing on the family connections of women in prison, and on pre-release services for them – that is, preparation for release to the community and preparation for reunification, if possible, with their children. Monica had a lot of experience with parole that would be helpful to the pre-release aspect of the project, and she offered to help me craft the proposal. When it was funded, I hired her to work on that part of the research, and then she really became a general project advisor. We turned out to be very good working partners. So when I decided to leave the Center, Monica suggested that I come over to WCW to talk about possibilities here.

What’s the core of your own professional interest?
EK: My focus has always been on impoverished women and on women confined in institutions, whether or not they’re behind bars. The two streams of my work have been women trapped in the institution of welfare, especially their access to higher education as a way out of poverty, and women in prison. The conversations Monica and I had with [WCW’s executive director] Susan Bailey originally focused on the gender and justice aspects of my experience, but Susan encouraged me to bring in my work on access to education, too. So we incorporate the whole thing in Gender and Justice by calling it justice for victims, justice for offenders, and economic justice.

How did you arrive at your focus on impoverished women and confined women?
EK: Even as a child I was very concerned about issues of social justice. I think that stemmed from the fact that my parents were Jewish refugees who came to England from Germany, with nothing, in 1938, and I’ve always been very aware of prejudice and social justice issues. At the University of London I studied sociology and quite a bit of criminology. When I came to the United States in the Vietnam War era, and lived in D.C., I became much more politically aware and involved in all kinds of street theater. I actually participated in trying to levitate the Pentagon! It didn’t budge an inch.

It was also the era of Nixon’s war against crime, and I became the first criminal justice planner hired in Massachusetts. I did a lot of work with the police, the courts, houses of correction, and probation, researching and collecting data on funded programs. It was a very exciting time. I was close to some interesting experiments and changes: pre-trial diversion, juvenile justice, alternative schools, community policing – a lot of those ideas were developed during those years. That period also saw the dawning realization that women in the criminal justice system had special needs. And I ran a pre-trial diversion program for women in the Boston courts.

Does that mean the program offered women an option to going to trial?
EK: Yes. If women whose cases met certain conditions agreed to participate in a program that would look at their schooling, their work skills, and their family needs, and to take part in programs of various sorts related to their specific needs, then after 90 days – or it could be doubled – they could have their cases actually dismissed. Those cases would have no record. Forty percent of the women were prostitutes, a group usually regarded as not amenable to change; but we had a lot of success.

What was next?
EK: The same week I got that job I was accepted into the Ph.D. program at the Heller School at Brandeis University. (And I had a one-year-old! That was one of those weeks you never forget!) So I negotiated with the Heller School to start part-time, then later went full-time. I did my dissertation on women in prison and developed a feminist framework for looking at women in the criminal justice system. For that reason, although a lot of the literature focused on the role of victimization in the lives of women prisoners, I focused on women prisoners’ activism.

What kind of activism were you looking at?
EK: The ultimate action is a court case, either a class action suit or an individual case; a quasi-judicial action is one involving the administrative grievance mechanism within a correctional system, which often has to be exhausted before a prisoner can bring a legal action. My research team and I interviewed more than a hundred randomly selected women in five large prisons in the Northeast. I found that there was far more activism than nearly anyone realized, even the women’s own lawyers. The general surprise at learning of this level of activism is a prime example of how stereotypical views of women color the way we look at their lives, even when we’re not aware of it – even when we’re trying to help them, as many of their lawyers were. Stereotypes have great power.

These lessons have stayed with me; they’ve been very important. The prison system is set up so that women are infantilized in many ways. The women in one prison were allowed to request materials from the legal library of the men’s prison, which was across the street, but they had to go through a tortuous process to actually have the books sent over. Their own library was thoroughly deficient, although Supreme Court decisions have said that all prisoners must have access to full legal resources.

How did you expand your work to include women on welfare and their access to higher education?
EK: In the final chapter of my dissertation on women in prison, I said that many facets of my findings were reflected in the lives of women who were imprisoned even though they weren’t behind walls, especially women in the welfare system. After that I began to look harder at public welfare and its impact on women’s opportunities for higher education. Later, there were huge changes in federal policy drastically limiting those opportunities; but this was back in 1986, when most colleges had women students who were on welfare.

I was working and teaching at Smith at the time, and Mount Holyoke was nearby. Both of those colleges had women on welfare, and so did three community colleges in the area. Women from each of those colleges and I connected with a similar group from UMass Boston and created an informal statewide organization with the goals of the students’ supporting each other and influencing state policy. Shortly after, the Smith students decided to form an official organization, the Association of Low-Income Students, or ALIS.

What kinds of policy did these students help change?
EK: Financial aid was one. The chancellor of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education was convening a task force on state financial aid, and two of the women who were very active in ALIS asked for a seat at the table and were granted ex officio status. They really helped the other members understand what “unmet need” is – that is, the amount of financial need not met by tuition wavers, loans, and grants. In the case of these women, it truly was unmet need; they had no other resources.

There was also a big problem with federal policy, in which food stamps were considered income and therefore counted against federal aid. They shouldn’t have been, but many financial aid advisors didn’t know that. So another group of students from an array of Massachusetts colleges launched a campaign called “Let them eat books,” because many low-income students were having to choose between requesting food stamps and losing income, on one hand, and having enough money to buy books but not food, on the other. Fortunately, Congress soon acted to clarify the law – but the misunderstanding still lingers.

Then I did a national study and found similar movements and support groups, many of them student-initiated, all over the country. Eventually, I was able to describe the framework of a supportive educational environment for low-income women students with children. This information was widely disseminated through articles I wrote, and I presented it in Washington at a special congressional meeting.

There really are very basic survival skills that women students can share with each other, and important administrative supports that can be provided. For example, the manager of a women-in-transition program in a community-college setting told me, “You always need to have a refrigerator with food in it. Women run out of money. I always have bread, peanut butter, and jelly.”

You said that subsequently there were changes in federal welfare policy limiting the access of women on welfare to higher education. What were those changes?
EK: The biggest change came in 1996 with the passage of the new so-called welfare reform act, which ended lifetime cash benefits. It was a huge change. It required women to work and put enormous restrictions on their access to education, even basic education. The states were allowed a lot of variation in applying the act; and Massachusetts switched from being one of the most permissive in terms of helping women earn a bachelor’s degree, and so on, to being one of the most restrictive, and in fact didn’t allow any kind of education or training for women on welfare.

What was your response?
EK: I was at Tufts in early 1996 when Massachusetts’s version of the law was passed. A few friends and I immediately called a meeting, on a snowy Saturday in January, to say that we were very much alarmed by that law and wanted to change it. We had an enormous response, and quickly formed the Welfare Education Training Access Coalition (WETAC) – involving students, administrators, and faculty – with branches in both eastern and western parts of the state. Later that year I decided to leave my day job and focus on WETAC. Fortunately, the dean at the Heller School at Brandeis agreed to give WETAC an office, and I raised money to support the organization. WETAC worked with a large coalition of organizations to conduct research and outreach to low-income women, and to change the regulations. We filed state-budget amendments every year.

Finally, the regulations were changed. By 2004, all women on welfare could fulfill their so-called work requirement through 12 months of education and training – but the required hours were increased to 24 or 30 hours a week. Since a full-time course load in higher education is never more than 12 or at most 16 hours in the classroom, the regulations had to be interpreted to include homework and travel. But some case managers interpreted the act to mean women not only had to go to school full-time, but had to work as well! And there were other problems with understanding and implementing the regulations.

In 2006, when I had been at UMass Boston for several years, I decided to do a small case study in Boston among women of color and immigrants who said they particularly wanted and needed education, to see what these women on welfare knew about the regulations and to what extent they could take advantage of them. Using participatory evaluation research, we found that very, very few of these women had been correctly informed by their caseworkers about their rights to education of any kind, even basic English at a high-school level. Then I looked at statewide data to see whether the participation of women on welfare in education, both basic and post-secondary, had increased under the new regulations – and I found that it had actually decreased!

I also interviewed 13 welfare, higher education, and workforce administrators in Boston. What I learned was that yes, there was this policy offering women access to education, but no, it wasn’t being implemented. And there was a lot of confusion about how it should even be interpreted. We then presented these data to a task force of Massachusetts women legislators, the new commissioner of public transitional assistance, and four other major Massachusetts policy makers in higher education and workforce development.

What kind of response did you get?
EK: Encouraging! Many of us in the advocacy community are very optimistic about the willingness of the new commissioner to listen and to work on correcting the problems. I asked her recently, in a question from the floor during a big public forum, about a follow-up to our meeting and presentation. And now a group of us are going to meet with her to pursue the recommendations from that presentation.

You said earlier that your project with Boston women of color and immigrants used participatory evaluation research. What is that, and why use it?
EK: Participatory evaluation research means involving as many as appropriate of a project’s stakeholders in planning and implementing the study. At its core it refers to the shaping of research studies by a group that includes people who are typically thought of as research “subjects.” Many low-income people and people of color become skeptical of researchers because once they’ve opened themselves up to questioning, which may be painful, they seldom receive feedback or see any results from their efforts.

It takes a tremendous amount of work to train appropriate low-income research-team members – to find them, work with them, to get them to trust or even discuss research – but they’re very valuable. They help ensure that our research questions are tactful, the tone is respectful, and the language is accessible. Their leadership of focus groups helps minimize the social distance between researchers and the “researched,” and that encourages fuller participation. And it’s really thrilling to see some of them get turned on by how exciting research can be and how valuable and helpful it can be in their lives, and by the skills they learn in doing it. Low-income women and women of color were compensated participants in all phases of the Boston project – project planning, recruiting and training community researchers, recruiting focus-group participants, conducting focus groups, writing research notes, analyzing results, and disseminating the final analysis.

Looking ahead, what kind of new projects would you and Monica most like to work on?
EK: I’m actually quite excited about the proposal that I’m writing at the moment, which addresses the problem of escalating violence, even homicide, after a woman has reported her abuser. It involves putting together risk-assessment tools that will somehow measure the risk in such a case, with the hope that it will become possible to predict the likelihood of escalating and even lethal violence. There’s another possible approach that focuses on sheltering the family, having them develop safety plans, and really taking care of their needs. In any jurisdiction, the organization of pre-trial services that work to support such efforts is very complex. We want to do a national study addressing the need for coordination among the agencies and venues offering services and risk assessments, and then to write a handbook that will be a toolkit of resources that pre-trial services can put together to suit their own environments.

Another idea we’ve discussed is looking at how parole of women works in Massachusetts. Women need not a sequential track of services, but a holistic array of them that addresses all their issues together. Parole isn’t set up to do that very well, but some jurisdictions are trying, and I’d like to look at those efforts.

In the broader view, Monica and I are doing a Massachusetts needs assessment. We’ve talked to many colleagues in the field to find out who’s doing what and who needs what. In the process we’re finding out about potential collaborators. Besides forging ahead in our own directions, we want to further an agenda that others find useful.