Service Grants Give Grads a Chance to Dig Deep


Sujatha Baliga '93 began helping battered women when she received a phone call last year from her mother's friend.

"I answered the phone and she said, 'My husband is beating me," says Baliga, who will start a hotline and outreach in September for South Asian women experiencing domestic violence in San Francisco.

Katya E. Fels '93 will also start her post-college years helping women, as she plans to create a student-staffed homeless shelter and counseling program in the Boston area.

Baliga and Fels are only two members of the Class of 1993 who will eke by on public service grants instead of darting for Wall Street or remaining in academia. Baliga received a $10,000 Pforzheimer grant for service, while Fels was awarded a $15,000 Stride Rite grants for service.

After Baliga took the call from her mother's friend, she assisted the woman in getting a restraining order and passports so she and her son could escape both the country and the man who had beaten them for 12 years. In the process, she learned the value of information.

"I started calling friends, telling them I had a friend who had a problem, networking. I could call a women's group, call a lawyer friend, call my sister. Somehow someone who took some law course somewhere would always know," Baliga says.

Through that first process, Baliga realized why immigrant women often lack avenues out of abuse that American-born women have.

"The biggest cause of women not being able to help themselves is lack of knowledge of the system, lack of knowledge of the system, lack of knowledge of the country," Baliga says. "My mother's friend is a great woman, a brilliant woman--all she needed was information, and I could give it to her."

During the next few days, Baliga's house became a hotline, planting the seed of the idea for her hotline and outreach program. But Baliga's commitment to service and to South Asian women has long been a theme in her personal and academic career.

Baliga, who will graduate with a special concentration in South Asian women and development, was trained in advocacy by the Harvard Law School's Battered Women's Advocacy Project and served as a volunteer with Mother Teresa in India.

With her academic and practical experiences, Baliga is well-versed in the intersection of women's issues and South Asian concerns. But she says anyone can participate in battered women's advocacy, as long as they have good listening skills.

"You can tell the woman, 'When you go to the court room, you have the right to have your batterer stay X feet away from you,' and on and on," Baliga says. "I don't think it takes any special qualifications other than being able to listen to the stories."

A certain amount of detachment from the women is also necessary, Baliga says.

"I've heard enough that I'm not hardened to [stories of violence]," Baliga says. "I just know that it exists so I can separate myself from the suffering enough so something can be done, without ever forgetting what the suffering means."

One special qualification Baliga does have is her knowledge of the women's native languages. Lacking fluency with English can prevent a South Asian woman who lives in America from getting the services she needs, Baliga says.

Anxious to "fit in," some immigrants are also unwilling to call attention to problems in their communities.

"As immigrants, we are less likely to speak out against our batterers because we're trying to protect our ethnic group. We don't want to be divisive," says Baliga, the daughter of Indian immigrants.

Baliga says she will compile a database of legal, counseling, and community services similar to the Women's Information Service Hotline (WISH) run out of Rad- cliffe's Lyman Common Room. She will translate the information into Hindi and disseminate it through universities and South Asian organizations, temples and mosques.

Looking to universities as a pool of resources, Baliga hopes to draw student volunteers and create sustainability. Once the database exists, it can be incorporated by university South Asian and women's groups, South Asian cultural institutions and all other women's organizations in the San Francisco area.

"This year is a step in refining my ideas about what women need," Baliga says, although she has not decided what she will do after her year or two in California. She hopes her work will help her decide how to "channel [her] energies into serving women for the rest of [her] life."

Helping the Homeless

Fels will devote herself to assisting the needs of homeless women, a group which many say is an underaddressed community as well.

Combining her Stride Rite grant with other public and private contributions, Fels will create a student staffed shelter for 10 to 15 homeless women that will provide a long-term place to stay, meals and personal and career counseling.

"How do you put together a resume?" Fels asks. "How do you make that first phone call? How do you find out what jobs are out there besides looking in the Boston Globe?"

While these questions can be daunting even to college seniors with -job-hunting skills, the homeless are starting without that advantage, Fels says.

But homeless men and women must also face extraordinary personal hurdles.

Ninety percent of all women who are homeless were sexually abused as children or were raped, Fels says. She also says an unusually high percentage of homeless men were sexually or physically abused as children.

"These are things that render you effectively disabled," Fels says. "Whether or not you are mentally ill, you may be troubled by these kinds of things, and they grow, and they're incredibly pernicious. If a woman needs to deal with issues like that, she's not going to be very employable."

Many women's shelters share space with men's shelters, like the University Lutheran Church Shelter where women must shower in the men's bathroom. Fels, co-director of the University Lutheran Church Shelter, has known women who could not function so close to men, preventing them from taking advantage of the shelter's program.

The core idea of Fels' shelter is to provide an all-female "safe place" for homeless women.

"What I want is to give them a place where they can feel safe falling asleep," Fels says.

Counseling will form an integral part of Fels' plan, with a trained therapist visiting the shelter three or four nights a week.

"You can't tell some one they have to get counseling," Fels says, emphasizing the homeless person's right to choose or refuse counseling. "On the other hand, what you can do is provide them an atmosphere that is safe enough for them to deal with this stuff if they want to."

While psychological issues often contribute to homelessness, it is the randomness of homelessness that has impressed Fels most in her eight years of community service.

Fels talks with intensity about the ordinary people she has met whose medical bills forced them to lose their homes, and the young people who had no real home to begin with.

"There's a whole segment of the population out there who aren't homeless, but they sure as hell don't have a home," Fels says. "They're people who run around from friend to friend, from relative to relative and crash on people's couches. And then those supports may give out."

The full force of what happens when those supports do give out struck Fels when she met a young woman at University Lutheran whom Fels feels is much like herself.

"There's this woman, this 18 year old woman..." Fels says. "She's so much like me...She looks like me when I was 18...I think about her a lot."

Fels, like Baliga, envisions drawing support and volunteers from universities. Her shelter will be affiliated with Phillips Brooks House for tax purposes, and will be staffed primarily by volunteers from Harvard, Wellesley, MIT and Tufts.

Fels hopes to model the leadership of her shelter after Unilu. Fels says she wants other students to take over her shelter after she completes her year, just as the directorship of UniLu passes from one generation of students to the next.


If both Baliga and Fels could have one wish--short of the instant solution of violence and homelessness--both say they would ask for more money for their projects.

While the Stride Rite grant provides living expenses so graduates can work full time on public service, it does not endow the project. Fels expects her $15,000 to cover her personal expenses, but she will spend the summer lobbying the federal and local government, and private donors, for more funding.

Baliga finds herself in a tighter situation, as the $10,000 Pforzheimer grant must fund both Baliga's living expenses and the hotline. Baliga says she expects the money to last about nine months, and is counting on state funds and private contributions to sustain her project.

But if either woman were offered a lucrative job with an assured future, there's no doubt they'd refuse. After all, it is an option they could have pursued. To Baliga, the choice was clear. "Hey, there's something wrong," she says--and she wants to fix it.

Fels also says she couldn't escape her instincts. "I guess it's just sort of aCrimsonKoichi J. KurleuKATYA E. FELS '93