Participants in the Economic Empowerment Program (EEP) head to Macy's to shop for office-appropriate attire.

Courtesy of Sanctuary for Families

Working Their Way to Independence

An innovative program in New York is helping abused women develop into career professionals. Could the model work for other at-risk populations, too?

On a recent Monday afternoon, in an office tower in Manhattan, Judy Matthews sat around a table with three other domestic violence victims and talked about her résumé. Through a nonprofit, she’d recently taken a Microsoft Word course for the formatting, but Matthews, a black, middle-aged mother from Brooklyn, was worried about the content. The problem? A 10-year gap, the result of pressure from her abuser to drop out of the workforce.

“For the past decade, I spent most of my time near the window, while my husband went to work,” says Matthews. “I didn’t have any friends, and I didn’t have a career. I completed my degrees and I put them in a box. I didn’t know who I was, other than who [my husband] told me I was, which was a woman who’s got nothing to offer. It was a sense of: ‘Why did you even waste time going to school?’ That’s why I spent my time at the window, watching everybody else walk their kids to school, go to work, do everything they need to do.”

About a year and a half ago, Matthews (whose name, like other survivors quoted in this story, has been changed) packed a few belongings into a plastic Marshall’s bag and made her way to Sanctuary for Families, New York’s largest nonprofit for victims of domestic abuse, sex trafficking and other gender-based violence. There, she enrolled in the Economic Empowerment Program (EEP), a workforce-development program to help survivors regain the self-sufficiency and financial independence they lost during an abusive relationship. Today, Matthews, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who was once too scared to take the subway, has an internship with the city’s Human Resources Administration, which distributes public assistance.

Founded in 2011, EEP’s 15-week program prepares survivors for entry-level openings in fields with potential for significant career growth. During the first two weeks, sessions focus on workplace readiness: punctuality, email etiquette and proper attire, for example. But the bulk of EEP’s training focuses on math, literature and computer programs. Throughout, the women revise their résumés and practice mock job interviews.

“We don’t want them working in fast food or at a clothing chain. Not that those aren’t honorable work, but it can’t get a person off public assistance,” says Judy Harris Kluger, who was a New York State judge for 25 years before becoming Sanctuary’s executive director in 2014. After EEP, she says, “I hope they’re in a position to support their children; to live on their own in an apartment, not a shelter; and to find healthy relationships and people who care about them.”

Nationally, an estimated one in four women and one in seven men will experience serious violence at a partner’s hands. Within New York City, police responded to 279,051 domestic violence incidents in 2015 — roughly 32 calls every hour. For each of these victims, an intimate link binds her checkbook to the risk of abuse by her partner. When a couple’s finances are strained, the chance of violence triples. An abuser who can’t find work for months may lash out at his spouse, the one aspect of his life he can ruthlessly control. The victim, meanwhile, her bank account depleted, can’t afford to stay at a motel for a few nights, much less pay for her children’s basic needs or see a psychiatrist or divorce lawyer. Money, in other words, can force victims to stay with their abusers.

EEP attendees attend classes in math, literature and computer skills, as well as receive guidance on resume-writing and office culture. Courtesy of Sanctuary for Families

And when battered women do work, holding down a job is a constant struggle. In one survey, nearly two-thirds of victims said abuse interfered with their work performance. Of that group, two-fifths were harassed by a partner’s phone calls or in-person stalking. For others, the difficulty started before they even left home. To disrupt a victim’s schedule, an abuser might deprive her of sleep, unplug the alarm clock, hide clothes or car keys, refuse to babysit the kids, cut and bruise her or physically bar the doorway. Distracted or depressed, these survivors showed up late or not at all; one study showed these women earn less as a whole.

Faced with these challenges, how does EEP perform? In its five years of operation, 564 survivors enrolled in the program, and nearly all of them — 88 percent — completed it. By the end, two-thirds of the graduates land internships or jobs. A year later, at least 65 percent of those alumnae report keeping the position. EEP aims to place enrollees in fields such as workplace administration, construction management and medical billing. On average, EEP graduates are paid $13.71 an hour, well above New York’s $8.75 minimum wage.

Angelo J. Rivera, EEP’s director, believes the model works because it establishes a clear path off welfare. When a person starts the program, Rivera’s team sits down with a chart of seven “keys,” which demonstrate career readiness and includes benchmarks like reaching a 10th-grade reading level, earning a high school diploma or GED, and gaining intermediate computer skills and prior work experience. (On average, participants enter with only three or four of these skill sets.)

To start meeting the seven keys, EEP readies survivors for office culture, beginning with how they dress. At the program’s start, each class heads to Macy’s to pick out a suit and two blouses, which they’re required to wear to class on Mondays and Wednesdays. Dressing professionally — or in other words, putting on the appearance of success — is an important first step in the transition to the business world, explains Sarah Hayes, EEP’s deputy director. “A number are homeless and living in shelters. They’ve had to leave their possessions behind to flee an abusive situation,” she says. “Being able to put on a suit is dignifying. They don’t feel like they’re different from anyone else traipsing around Wall Street. It’s a powerful anonymity that you get to wear, and it helps you envision yourself as the professional that you want to be.”

Once they look the part, the women in EEP run through a crash course in sophistication, in part by catching up on well-known literature. Under Rivera, the reading list is a guide to power relations: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Animal Farm” and writings by James Baldwin. The group also recently toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art, many for the first time.

Though EEP’s classes avoid discussions of the women’s abusive relationships — a marked shift from other social programs that deal with trauma through support groups — counseling and other services are available at Sanctuary. Immigrants who need work authorization can seek remedies from the legal team, for example, and someone facing an eviction can receive emergency monetary assistance and defense in housing court.

But there’s another reason why EEP so clearly divides its efforts from the rest of Sanctuary’s services. Below the surface, EEP’s architects have an ambitious plan: To see their workforce-development program applied to other demographics, like foster youth, single mothers in public housing and the formerly incarcerated. The victims of gender-based violence that Rivera sees regularly come in believing they are worthless, after hearing it repeatedly from their abusers. The 15-week program works to reverse that by convincing battered women they’re worth a decent salary and empowering them to work their way to independence. The question for Rivera and his cohorts now is whether the EEP model can uplift other struggling populations toiling under their own trying circumstances.

If you are experiencing physical violence, emotional abuse or financial control at home, you can call 800-621-HOPE in New York City, 877-384-3578 in San Francisco or 800-799-7233 for all other locations.

Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]