K Sujata of Chicago Foundation for Women

Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW) has been at the forefront of women’s rights for more than 30 years. Their advocacy work has helped to improve the lives of women and girls in Chicago. Their Annual Luncheon attracts thousands of attendees each year, and Rebellious luminaries such as former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, journalist Soledad O’Brien and most recently actress Ashley Judd have all served as the luncheon’s keynote speaker. Founded in 1984 by philanthropists Marjorie Craig Benton, Sunny Fischer, Iris J. Krieg and Lucia Woods Lindley, CFW has awarded over 3,000 grants to organizations and programs focusing on economic security, freedom from violence and health without missing a beat.

At the helm is CEO K. Sujata, who is leading the Foundation’s ambitious efforts to end gender bias in Chicago by 2030. I sat down with Sujata and April Callen, the organization’s communications manager, in their new offices in the historic Marquette Building in downtown Chicago to discuss what’s really at stake for women and girls, the foundation’s 100% Project and what makes Sujata—and CFW—Rebellious.  

HC: What do you think are the main issues impacting women and girls in the U.S. today? What keeps you up at night?
: Well, I don’t know if things are keeping me up at night because I have a tremendous team here, which is really why I do sleep at night! But while there has been a lot of progress, and much has changed, there are still some intractable problems.

I was showing April a clip from Samantha Bee’s show this week, and [Bee] did a whole piece on the Texas abortion case. One of the data points in her show was there are 231 bills chipping away at women’s reproductive rights across the country, and there a few in Illinois as well. But 231! We just signed on to a bill to make contraception available to women.

AC: I think what was big for us right now is the budget crisis and how it impacts our grantees and how it also impacts all the women and children they are working with. We’ve heard stories about programs having to shut down because they haven’t received funding yet. On even just on a very hyper-local level, one of our organizations  had a woman who they worked with long enough who was finally able to move away from her abuser and have a place for her children, and to work. Unfortunately, with the child care crisis, she couldn’t afford both housing and childcare, so she had to go back to her abuser.

HC: And when you’re talking about a woman in an unsafe situation, trying to leave her abuser, she may not have anything…
KS: And yes, she did have to go back to her abuser because she had really no option. If we want our people, if we want Illinois citizens to go back to work, we have to make it possible for them to go back to work.

HC: Given the looming presidential campaign, what would you like to see the candidates focus on in terms of women’s rights, and what aren’t they talking about that you feel they should be?
KS: Well, I am not an expert on the campaigns nor do I watch so very closely each campaign to see what they are not saying. But certainly we want to see women’s health be a focus, and we want to see opportunities for women’s success. There are some conversations about equal pay, there are some conversations about access to education and looking at education debt, which I think is a critical factor when you consider that more than the majority of college students are women. It’s also about making a cultural shift, because on campaign trails, we are hearing misogyny and we’re hearing belittling of women. And whoever our next president is, if he or she is going to be our ambassador in chief, if he or she is going to be our chief diplomat, our statesperson, we cannot have an uncivil society.

HC: Some say that, historically, feminist organizations largely exclude women of color and aren’t intersectional. What are your thoughts, and how is CFW addressing intersectionality?
KS: So it (intersectionality) is a label that seems to divide, right? So last year, we started the year with a conversation around race and feminism. Then we had conversations with a smaller group of young women of color in their 30’s about this question of feminism, and we got both sides. There was, of course, a very strong group that said, ‘the word feminism doesn’t make sense to us. It’s a label that doesn’t mean anything to us, it’s not inclusive of us.’ But there was also a young black woman who said, ‘the word feminism has been co-opted and we need to take it back. It can be a movement that is different from what it was from back in the day. It can be more inclusive. It can have more voices.’ So our work, our 100% project is all about bringing together all these various voices and bringing in the voices of men and boys. They are equally important.

HC: Tell me more about the 100% project.
KS: The inspiration for the 100% project really came from our last strategic plan. We heard from our supporters that CFW needed to step up in a big way and put a common agenda around women and girls. For us, the movement had to be inclusive. And that really was the start. That was the seed. This was not going to be CFW’s agenda. It had to be an agenda that came from the community. We spoke with more than 500 women, men, girls and boys to hear from them about what are the most important priorities that leave women and girls behind. It became very clear, from all ages, and what we heard overwhelmingly was that if you fixed economic security for women and girls, if you can get economic prosperity and parity for women and girls, women and girls would be in a much better place with more options.

HC: Aside from the 100% project, what is the most Rebellious thing you have ever done and what makes CFW Rebellious?
KS: Well, first, it was considered pretty audacious that I went to study engineering. And I went to study metallurgy, which is not exactly electronics or computer science; it’s the study of metals. The second was when I came to the U.S. on my own to go grad school. I raised money through scholarships and worked for a little bit to make sure I had enough money to get here because my parents couldn’t afford it. Many people do that so I guess it’s not so Rebellious. But for me, for the time and the place — I grew up in a small town in India with parochial values — so it was a pretty big deal.

CFW has stepped into some rather difficult situations. And I still think of our founders when they started the organization. They were told, ‘Why do you need a women’s foundation?‘ They stuck to their guns, and here we are 30 years later. I think that was a Rebellious act.

To learn more about the Chicago Foundation for Women and get involved, visit their website.

Hilary Christian is a freelance writer and fundraiser from Chicago. She a regular contributor to "For Harriet," and her work has been featured in "Wild Sister Magazine" and "Corset Magazine." Check out...

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