Written by Hannah Saulters | Photographed by Joe Ellis
When women thrive, Mississippi thrives.
It’s a sentiment that makes for a good T-shirt, but it looks even better on the ground, in community college classrooms, at fundraisers, panel discussions and public events. The Women’s Foundation of Mississippi is all of these things in action with a mission to create greater economic security for women.
While it sounds simple enough, since its initial days as part of the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, and later its spinoff into independence in 2008, the non-profit has taken a circumspect view, recognizing that attaining this goal entails more than creating job opportunities.
According to Executive Director Tracy DeVries, the organization believes “the more opportunities women have to gain skills and education– to be able to receive a good salary, to have benefits like maternity care, healthcare, access to 401k benefits and paid time off– the more women have access to those sorts of things, the better off they are, their kids are and the community as a whole around them is.”
This mindset informs the Foundation’s three focus areas for the upcoming year: Fact Not Fiction, a website providing medically sound, evidence-based reproductive health education; Better Futures, a program for multi-generational engagement; and Access to Opportunity, a partnership with local community colleges that began after research revealed women were spending seven years in two year degree programs due to barriers such as financial aid, working multiple jobs or a lack of adequate childcare.
In addition to its own programming, the Women’s Foundation is the only grant-making entity in the state solely focused on women and girls. Grants are awarded to local organizations with complementary missions, creating dynamic relationships DeVries sees as invaluable to the foundation’s effective operation.
“We have the unique position of seeing where the gaps are,” she notes of their position as a hub within Mississippi’s non-profit landscape. By maintaining dialogues with educational institutions and health advocacy programs, “we can better target our own grant-making; we can be better advocates for the needs of women.”
They have also made it a priority to facilitate communication not only between the organization and its grantees, but also among the grantees themselves. It is an effort to understand the strides they’re making and where there is room for improvement, DeVries points out. “They learn from each other about what’s working, even replicating programs in different areas,” she says.
The results are far-reaching. In 2016, the organization distributed $785,000 in grants, an impressive feat for a staff that boasts five full-time staff members and the occasional intern.
Lucky for Fondren, the Foundation recently found a home in Fondren Corner. What began as a joke about getting to eat La Brioche Patisserie every day quickly became a reality as an office space became available. The organization could not have found a better fit, DeVries says warmly. “Everyone has been so welcoming. It’s just the right place.”
For those looking to get involved, volunteer resources can be found at womensfoundation.org.