Working Against Want

Fighting Poverty through Loans, Learning, and the Law

{ written by michael rymer MFA ’05 + illustration by carl wiens }

Living in poverty constricts people’s sense of hope, but poverty has psychological consequences for those who are well off, too. Statistics about the pervasiveness of the problem—three billion people in the world live on less than two dollars a day, 36.5 million Americans live in poverty—discourages many who have the skills and resources to help alleviate the condition. They, too, lose hope.

But some people—including many Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i—are undaunted by poverty’s pervasiveness or its dimensions. Sarah Merchlewitz ’07 and Anne Janiak M.A. ’86 help people living in poverty launch their own businesses, while Joshua David Riegel ’02, M.A. ’04 fights against workplace abuses suffered by impoverished workers. All three have discovered creative ways to apply their own expertise to the challenge of reducing poverty, one person at a time.


Mousepads and Motorcycles

Sarah Merchlewitz began thinking about how she could help ease global poverty during her first-year studies class, “Introduction to Development Studies: The Political Ecology of Development,” taught by Joshua Muldavin, holder of the Henry R. Luce Junior Professorship in East Asian Cultural/ Human Geography.

“Joshua told us not to feel guilty for our privilege, but he also told us we have a responsibility to help,” she says.

Muldavin’s course provided Merchlewitz with a framework for understanding the economic crisis in Argentina, which she later observed firsthand during a semester in Buenos Aires. The class also sparked a lasting interest in economics.

But Merchlewitz never imagined that her introduction to global development theories would ultimately lead her to become an international banker—which is what she became, albeit on a small scale, last June. Days after her Sarah Lawrence graduation last spring, Merchlewitz loaned $25 to Chorn Rann, a Cambodian vegetable seller.

Through the Web site, Merchlewitz had learned that Rann needed $600 for a motorcycle to transport her vegetables to the market and for fertilizer for the small farm maintained by her husband. Merchlewitz donated $25. Fifteen other users also made small contributions, and the loan was fully funded the same day it was posted.

The practice of making modest, no-collateral loans to small business owners, called microcredit, was pioneered by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Mohammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank makes loans to impoverished entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. Kiva is an Internet-era extension of microcredit that has allowed more than 200,000 people to become small-time financiers.

When Merchlewitz told her parents about her banking adventure, she found that they’d never heard of Kiva, which prompted her to promote the site in The Winona Daily News, her hometown paper in Minnesota.

In the column, Merchlewitz pointed out a central difference between contributing to Kiva and contributing to a large aid agency: As soon as Rann repays her loan, Merchlewitz will get her money back. She plans to re-invest the money to help fund another request.

“I now have to carefully manage my own finances in the face of student debt and apartment rent,” she wrote. “However, I also have the potential to improve the state of the world, and that, I think, is the greater responsibility.”

Setting Up Shop

Though in Cambodia it is possible to start a business with a small plot of land and a motorcycle, legal and financial complexities make it far more difficult to do so in the United States.

As the executive director of the Women’s Enterprise Development Center (WEDC) in White Plains, Anne Janiak helps women navigate the challenges of setting up shop in Westchester County, one of the nation’s wealthiest and most commercially competitive counties. More than 700 women, many of them recent immigrants, have completed WEDC’s Entrepreneurial Training Program, a course that guides participants through the process of creating a comprehensive business plan. Many open businesses in fields in which they have worked for many years, such as food services, gardening, and cleaning. The goal: to earn more money, gain control of their time, and stop answering to a tyrannical boss.

“Some women who come to the course have been working at a Merrymaid, and they’re frustrated with the work they do,” Janiak says. “They want to open their own cleaning service. They know how to clean a house. They know what products are good, and they know how to do the job in an efficient way. Why not?”

Many applicants have already attempted to launch businesses on their own. Some are baffled by small business tax laws. Some have been victimized by unfair lease agreements. Others have been rejected when they’ve applied for bank loans. The training program covers all of these topics, while a version taught in Spanish adds a discussion of the cultural norms of doing business in the United States.

Some participants who recently immigrated to the United States ran successful businesses in their home countries. For years, Ymma Robles operated Brunella, a women’s apparel business, in her native Peru; Brunella even had its own factory. But political upheavals made Peru a poor business environment. With WEDC’s assistance, Robles re-launched Brunella in Tarrytown.

Another participant, Yolanda Infante, leveraged the knowledge she gained from her many personal experiences navigating the United States immigration system to start an immigration services business in White Plains. Infante now has three employees.

“Some people probably don’t want the hassle of all that it takes—filing paperwork and tax returns and dealing with employees,” Janiak says.

“Others have that entrepreneurial spirit. They say, ‘I want to be in charge.’”

A Cashier’s Rights

The working poor are vulnerable to workplace abuses: Unscrupulous employers can take advantage of the fact that workers simply can’t afford to lose their jobs. Immigrant women are particularly vulnerable to such exploitation, says Joshua David Riegel, a paralegal with the Women’s Rights Project (WRP) of the American Civil Liberties Union. Fear of calling attention to their immigration status and lack of knowledge of the legal system are obstacles to speaking out.

WRP litigates cases on behalf of low-wage, immigrant women workers. Last year, the organization won a settlement of $750,000 for three immigrant women who were abused while working as cashiers and general assistants at a Manhattan store. The owner physically assaulted them and propositioned them for sex, while paying them between $30 and $40 per day.

Riegel, who was responsible for preparing the women for testimony and assembling evidence for trial, considers the day of the jury’s decision to be a high point of his legal career.

“The law, sometimes, can seem to be just about paper and legalese,” he says. “But here was a moment when it provided recourse for these women and some measure of compensation for what they went through.”

As Riegel wrote in WRP’s 2007 project report, he hopes that the case will “give courage to other immigrant women who are in similar oppressive and illegal work situations” so they will “come forward and assert their right to work free from harassment and assault.”

Like Merchlewitz and Janiak, Riegel is confident that directly assisting people who are attempting to rise out of poverty will help create broader change.

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