chapter  2
24 Pages

Contradictions of New Careers

In the provision establishing neighborhood-based community action pro­ grams (CAPs), designed, directed, and staffed by low-income residents, the Economic Opportunity Act inadvertently broke down the false separation between paid employment and unpaid nurturing activities traditionally per­ formed by women in poor communities. Many of the workers hired for the community-based programs were already active as unpaid community workers in their neighborhoods. In fact, many were hired because of such experience. Since the previously unrecognized and unpaid community caretaking was historically the province of women,1 women filled the majority of the newly created positions as casework, health, education, and childcare aides as well as the more general position of community worker (Lamb 1975). Prior to the War on Poverty, women’s community-based work was rarely viewed as a “career”—political or otherwise. In much the same way that women’s childcare work was devalued since women were defined as “natural mothers,” women’s community work was, and in many cases continues to be, treated as an unremarkable natural task for women to perform. When researchers and other observers naturalize women’s “social housekeeping” role in their neighborhoods and communities, they under­ estimate the important skills, experience, and networks women develop as a consequence of their community-based work. Yet as I will demonstrate, there is nothing natural about the composite of responsibilities assumed, political analyses developed, and difficult challenges faced by women who serve as community workers in low-income urban neighborhoods.