Q&A with Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair of Circles USA

Q&A with Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair of Circles USA

To refresh Circles USA’s vision for the future, we’ve been collecting stories from our members and partners. Here we share reflections from an interview with Joan Kuriansky, who became CUSA’s board chair in October 2020.

Tell us about one moment that shaped your commitment to ending poverty.

In my third year of college, I had the opportunity to volunteer in the social services department of a state mental institution.  I was struck by how little resources were available to either patients or social workers to increase the ability of patients to heal and fully return to their homes and communities. It was at this point that I decided to use the law to affect the circumstances of people’s lives rather than only deal with the consequences of such policies.

What motivates you to continue seeking change?

As my career progressed, the relationship between gender discrimination and poverty became clearer to me. I moved from D.C. to Philadelphia to run a large-scale shelter and legal center to serve battered women and children. We established the first domestic violence courts in the country as well as the first program to advocate on behalf of battered women in prison. No matter what their economic class beforehand, women were often destitute by the time they sought refuge for themselves and their children. Some women could not even leave the house without permission or have access to a credit card. The abusers exerted power and control in so many ways and usually with serious economic consequences.

After Philadelphia, I returned to DC where I served as executive director of The Older Women’s League. Because of economic inequities throughout their lifetime, older women were more likely to be poor and in poor health than men. As women aged, their options were limited in large part because they had not been compensated for the family caregiving they had done throughout their lives and women, who did work for pay, were often segregated in low-wage, dead-end work.

My last full-time position was as executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW). In the early 60’s, WOW was established in response to women being increasingly unwelcome in the workplace after World War II. Women of all class and education levels came to WOW for assistance in finding work. Over time WOW made a commitment to focus on low-income women with less access to education. WOW established the concept of non-traditional jobs in federal legislation, offered training for women to get apprenticeships as pathway to well-paid work, and, later, with partners across the country, launched a variety of programs to build a family’s economic security.

Given your impressive career, what reflections do you have about these issues today?

Today, happily women are represented in all kinds of jobs, whether in STEM, law or Wall Street. And I sometimes feel hopeful. But the statistics tell a different and old story. Women’s work is not valued as much as that of men. Jobs, primarily dominated by women, are the least well paid. It will take many years to close the gender equality pay gap. Those affected most are women from backgrounds with less access to education, inadequate housing and lack of affordable and adequate health care. A disproportionate number of these women are women of color. Today we hear the economic consequence of the “shecession” of the pandemic.

We must use our experience with COVID-19 to build strong and thriving communities in terms of public health and the economy with a commitment to address the social and historic inequities faced by so many. We can use the upcoming period to reset the norms of what is possible, fair and celebrate the voices of so many that have spoken out this year whether through the Poor People’s Campaign, Black Lives Matter, our own Circles Chapter leaders or so many others.

How did you get involved in CUSA?

I first learned about Circles when Scott reached out to WOW to explore a partnership. I served on the board of Circles during my tenure at WOW, and then Scott asked me to stay on the board. I continue to be so impressed by the work of the organization. The Circles multi-level approach is a recipe for success.

What do you find meaningful in CUSA’s work?

Our job is not to manage poverty but alleviate it; that is important. The Circles model is holistic. It’s about empowerment: the families are making their own decisions and plans, with community members providing resources. We are building partnerships, not paternalistic or unequal relationships.

I love how all participants and volunteers become advocates for change through the Big View. There’s been such creativity discovered at the local level to address access to healthcare, transportation, broadband, and other issues. Gloria Steinem writes “ordinary women do extraordinary things,” and that plays out in Circles every day.

How would you like to see CUSA grow?

I am excited by the possibility of Circles’ programs and outreach expanding to different populations and responding to the systemic and historic inequities laid bare during this period.  Are we using a gender or age lens? Are we considering the access to technology and transportation that rural or low-income families have or do not have? How do we build on the incredible strength and contributions made by so many people of color with so many different histories?

I envision communities that develop coordinated responses to lift families out of poverty that are centered on the experiences and wisdom or our leaders, with commitment from all sectors whether it be the government, private or non-sectors to develop the requisite policies and resources to implement the plan.  Ultimately, I believe that the work of Circles, community, by community, state by state, region by region will ultimately inform a national vision and blueprint to meet the economic and social imperative to end poverty in the United States.

~ Joan Kuriansky, Board Chair, and Former Executive Director of Wider Opportunities for Women (Washington, DC)