Advocating for Women: Coastal Women for Change.

Courtney Martin writes that this International Women's Day, we should look at gender inequality in our own communities. Each day this week on TAPPED we will run a profile of an organization doing exactly that.

When Hurricane Katrina hit Sharon Hanshaw's hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, it destroyed her house and her beauty shop, a business she'd been building for 21 years. The few belongings she could salvage were in rough shape. After hours of cleaning off family photos, all that was left was a collection of silhouettes. "We just said we'll keep 'em, because at least we knew we did exist."

With Coastal Women for Change, a Biloxi-based organization she helped build in the aftermath of the storm, Hanshaw has done something similar for women struggling to rebuild their lives. Her goal was simple: "I'll make sure our community is valid, our voices will be heard."

The group started informally, a collection of about 25 women ages 18 to 82 getting together in East Biloxi to talk about life after Katrina and what was going on in their neighborhood. But the focus soon began to shift, as developers and casino owners took the lead in planning Biloxi's recovery, squeezing out the voices -- and the needs -- of the city's poor residents.

Since 2006, with Hanshaw serving as its executive director, Coastal Women for Change has helped women and poor people play a role in rebuilding their community and shaping its long-term future. The group's first event, a public forum with the mayor, City Council, and other elected officials, drew 200 people and gave them a chance to ask the mayor about his plans for addressing their needs.

After that, CWC got involved in the city's planning commission and worked with the NAACP to craft a plan for addressing the area's housing crisis, collecting 950 signatures on a fair-housing petition that was presented to elected officials. Coastal Women for Change identified other needs, too. With door-to-door surveys, they realized the depth of the city's child-care shortage; they asked the police to increase patrols around seniors who feared crime in their trailers, and they created emergency-preparedness kits for elderly residents in case another storm hit.

CWC helped 10 low-income families get $500 grants for home-improvement repairs. The group pushed for public housing, in parts of the city where people want to live. Its current focus includes mentoring and support groups for young leaders, more help for the elderly, and improved early education and child care. And it continues to make sure that community residents have information about what's going on, and ways to influence important decisions.

Hanshaw has started to think globally, too. She is part of Oxfam's Sisters on the Planet project, a network of American women concerned about climate change and its effect on women and the poor, and was in Washington this week to demand that Congress take action.

But her focus is at home. "Although the whole Gulf Coast was devastated, the poor were hit hardest as they had no resources to fall back on, and women most of all, especially single mothers with no housing or childcare who were forced to leave their children with strangers so that they could look for work," Hanshaw wrote this week on The Huffington Post.

Her own transformation has been remarkable. "Cosmetologist to activist," Hanshaw says. Her city's transformation is far from complete.

--Holly Yeager


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