Local women seek to empower workers

ROCHESTER — The Occupy movement of a few years ago led to the local creation of a group of women dedicated to empowering workers.

Sisters of POWER (People Organizing for Worker Empowerment and Respect) received a $5,000 "Self Development of People" grant from the Presbyterian Church last year to focus on three areas: empowering women, employment justice and cooperative entrepreneurship, explained Paola Betchart, a workers’ rights advocate for the Worker Justice Center of New York in Rochester. The center also sponsors the group, she said.

The group "is carving out a space for women because women are still relegated to the sidelines of decision-making," she added.

She heard of a similar group led by a workers’ rights attorney from Empire Justice Center and decided she wanted to organize one for women here, Betchart explained.

"I wanted to become more involved in something grassroots that encourages real leadership for women and minorities," Betchart said of Sisters of POWER. "By creating a respectful space, everyone is treated equally and all have a voice."

Sisters of POWER holds monthly gatherings and provides information and workshops on a variety of topics, such as leadership training, work cooperatives and self-employment opportunities, Betchart said.

About 15 to 20 women attend the group meetings, which are held at Historic Parsells Church in Rochester and St. Stephen Church in Chili.

The meetings often include speakers, such as representatives of employee owned and operated local businesses like Once Again Nut Butter in Nunda and Small World Bakery in Rochester. Betchart said that the Sisters of POWER are also working on potential partnerships with such existing groups as Mujeres Divinas, whose membership is mainly women who are farmworkers.

The two groups recently collaborated on presenting a body empowerment workshop focused on Mujeres Divinas’ Bandana Project (http://bit.ly/1QdsQZO)to increase awareness of resources and strategies to prevent and report sexual abuse and harassment of women who work in agriculture.

The Marion-based Mujeres Divinas began in 2000 to help provide activities for women outside their normal routine of work and home, said Mia Bocanegra, who has been a member for the last couple of years. But the group’s monthly meetings also aim to provide information about community resources and talks on such topics as starting one’s own business, she added.

An Irondequoit resident and former restaurant owner, Bocanegra is helping bridge the urban and rural divide, since Sisters of POWER comprises mainly women in the Rochester area, she added. She even hosted a gathering for the two groups at her home.

"It’s good and important to find some small space where one can meet others and learn," she said.

Through the collaboration with Mujeres Divinas, Sisters of POWER was able to expand its outreach to farmworkers, who also struggle with unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, Betchart said. With many workers in agriculture being undocumented, they commonly fear retaliation and resist filing claims against employers, she said.

"They are more vulnerable," she noted.

Supporting workers, like migrant workers, is especially important when it comes to the legal arena, said Elizabeth Nicolas, an attorney with the Empire Justice Center and Sisters of POWER member.

As a workers’ rights attorney, she has seen cases where employees are successful in getting a settlement against an employer for wage or labor violations but then are prohibited from discussing the case.

"The worker is silenced," Nicolas said.

Such silence can even have dangerous implications, such as in the home health aid industry, where workers may be overworked to the detriment of patients, she explained.

State officials have begun holding hearings to get more information on the need to address exploitation of workers, Nicolas said. One of her clients spoke in a recent state hearing held in Batavia that was closed to media. The Sisters of POWER group provided leadership training to help the workers speak during those sessions, Betchart added.

"There are growing industries in Rochester where workers are hurt and exploited," Nicolas said. "This is not just a worker issue. It is a human right issue that reverberates … throughout a community."

By connecting workers in various groups in the Rochester community, Sisters of POWER is also harnessing the potential of people who likely think of themselves as powerless, said Isabelle Bartter, a Sisters of POWER member who helps provide child care during gatherings. But they are wrong, she said.

"The power we have is not in our money or in what we own, but our power is in talking to one another and educating (ourselves)," Bartter said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Sisters of Power, call 585-325-3050 ext. 23, or visit facebook.com/groups/754272357961404.

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