Jan Peterson can’t be more than five feet tall. Her short, light hair perfectly frames her face, fringed with bangs at her forehead. She gingerly walks up the turquoise stairs of a narrow hallway, lined with black-and-white photographs of Peterson and her friends, neighbors and colleagues. At the top of the stairs there hangs a collage—an homage to the outspoken women of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, who fought tirelessly for their place in the community. Jan Peterson doesn’t raise her voice, nor is she particularly demanding of attention, but make no mistake—she deserves it. While her stature is unassuming, Peterson—standing in the foyer of the Grassroots Clearinghouse at 249 Manhattan Avenue, which hosts the four non-profit organizations she has founded over the past four decades—is a firebrand, an activist, a feminist, a neighborhood woman.
A native on Cedarburg, Wisconsin, the moment Peterson stepped foot on Brooklyn soil she became an active participant in the New York civil rights and women’s rights movements, which later led her to neighborhood and community organizing surrounding issues pertaining to ethnicity and race, housing and homelessness, poverty and politics. Throughout her time in Brooklyn, Peterson has founded the Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, which operates on a local community level; the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, which consists of a coalition of community-based neighborhood women’s groups across the country; GROOTS International and the Huairou Commission, which both function as global coalitions of networks, institutions and individual professionals working for the advancement of grassroots women-led community development work.
“I’m the outsider that came to Brooklyn,” Peterson said with a smile. “I came from a working-class family in a small town in the Midwest. I didn’t come from a political place. But in 1969 when I came to Brooklyn, I immediately signed up for Corp—a big civil rights group up in Harlem—and they wondered why I wasn’t sticking with the white community. I literally had to be dropped off at the office by somebody I had just met. I instinctively related to those issues.”
Shortly thereafter, Peterson moved into Williamsburg, to take a job at the School Settlement House as a social worker, developing innovative programs in the community—one in particular, the creation of a new senior center now known as Swingin’ Sixties, launched Peterson head-first into the world of racially-, ethnically- and socially-charged politics, advocacy, organizing and activism. However, amidst the social and cultural flux that defined the seventies—shifting racial values, urban renewal and suburbanization, the ethnic movement—the distinct voices of women in the community were rarely heard. And so, after joining the Conselyea Block Association, where Peterson banded together with a group of women from the community, she founded her first non-profit organization, Neighborhood Women.
“After leaving School Settlement House, I set up a storefront and ran a program— to build Swingin’ Sixties Senior Center, with people from the neighborhood,” Peterson said. “There were a lot of the Italian women working with me, and there was a whole group of political men who were really upset, thinking who is this broad, running around the neighborhood with the women and reaching out to blacks and Hispanics, and she’s trying to build this center and it’s not us? This was a machine-controlled neighborhood. In this battle, the men didn’t see women as leaders at all—they had never even mentioned women. So, literally we got threatened: ‘your kids won’t make it to school unless you back off,’ kind of thing.”
Apart from a gender battle, the sponsorship of the senior center also had major racial implications—in an all-Italian neighborhood, residents were convinced that, unless their local elected officials—mostly Italian men—controlled the building, the services offered would not be for them, but for residents of bordering neighborhoods who were mostly black and Hispanic. Ultimately though, after taking the issue to City Hall, Peterson and the other members of the Conselyea Block Association—comprised of women of all ethnicities including Italians, Hispanics and blacks—won the right to construct and control Swingin’ Sixties. And, from there, in 1974, Neighborhood Women was born.
“This was the main time for women’s movement. Everyone was hearing about abortion and gay rights, and everyone thought, ‘Oh no! Lesbians have hit the neighborhood! Everything was turning around,” Peterson said. “After Swingin’ Sixties, we went to Washington DC, to interface with this something called the National Urban Ethnic Affairs organization, which was starting to deal with urban neighborhoods. We were organizing in ethnic neighborhoods. But if you organize by race, and by ethnicity, you are always pitting people against each other. We wanted to look at neighborhoods and bring more diverse people together by way of looking at whole communities—but then I thought, why aren’t they talking about women? They were talking about blacks and Hispanics and Italians and Polish, but where were the women?”
During their trip to Washington DC—declared as the Neighborhood Women National Congress—150 women from all over the country officially established Neighborhood Women, as an entity dedicated to addressing issues pertaining to women on a grassroots community level. Their first endeavor? A community-based college program—in partnership with LaGuardia Community College—designed to educate and empower women in the neighborhood, teaching them about the political system and how to become dynamic community organizers and activists.
“We wanted to create a women’s movement in which poor working-class ethnic women didn’t have to choose which of their identities they were going to organize around. We wanted them to feel that they could be whole, as women,” Peterson said. “People’s bases, their support systems, are their community and family and often they don’t want to go to college because you gain a set of values that separates you from the very families from which you came. We thought, why can’t the neighborhood be the campus? We were questioning. Women were questioning everything, and we were questioning why education had to be away from the neighborhood, away from our everyday lives.”
Steadily, Neighborhood Women and the National Congress grew and grew—always abiding by its founding philosophy of bridging nationally, internationally and globally while building locally, on the community and neighborhood level. The college program lasted fifteen years, during which time Neighborhood Women opened the first battered women’s shelter in Brooklyn, formed their own political club—The Williamsburg/Greenpoint Women’s Action Alliance—and founded an alternative high-school. In addition, Neighborhood Women birthed two additional organizations, working globally to identify issues pertaining to women in countries across the world and holding workshops, conventions and exchange programs. In 1985, after attending three UN Conferences on Women in three different countries, Peterson and her colleagues were struck by how few grassroots women were in attendance. Instead, the seminars were populated primarily by activists, or wives of politicians. And thus, GROOTS—Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood—was established as an autonomous coalition of grassroots women’s groups who come together to share strategies, methods, resources and knowledge. The Huairou Commission was formed ten years later—a slightly more issue-driven program boasting global Governance, AIDS, Disaster, Land and Housing and Peace Building campaigns.
And so, while the provincial looking brick-red house on Manhattan Avenue at Ainsley Street may seem like nothing at all—do not underestimate it; not only does it serve as a vault full of stories, photographs and personal histories of the woman warriors of Williamsburg/Greenpoint, it holds in its hallways the legacy—and the future—of a group of unstoppable activists.
“Most people will say that women are the key that holds neighborhoods together,” Peterson said, leaning into the edge of the wooden meeting table at which she now sits. “It’s true: We do all the work.”
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