The Power in Philanthropy: K. Sujata Leading Chicago Foundation for Women
December 09 2016

Mahjabeen Syed, Chicago Woman Magazine

Photo courtesy of Chicago Woman Magazine

Photo courtesy of Chicago Woman Magazine

 

In light of current events, there is no better time to assess the current state of women and women’s issues in Chicago than right now. When one thinks of women and organizations that have been crucial in the fight for equal pay and gender equality, and major advocates for the overall rights of women and girls in the city, K. Sujata unequivocally comes to mind.

Since 2011, Sujata has made many strides as the president and CEO of grant-making organization Chicago Foundation for Women (CFW). One of the CFW’s most important efforts is the 100% Project. The initiative launched in September 2015 and, through dialogue between both genders, aims to increase women’s economic security and put an end to gender bias in metropolitan Chicago by 2030. This massive undertaking is an ambitious one, and if you would have told Sujata years ago that this would be her future endeavor, she may not have believed you. With her formal training in Materials Science and Engineering, she started her career in nonprofits and advocacy as a volunteer at Apna Ghar, an organization that helps battered immigrant women and children to end gender violence. Seated in her office near a wall adorned by colorful paintings and a beautiful quilt purchased by CFW’s founder Lucia Woods Lindley in 1985, Sujata talks humbly about her time at Apna Ghar and how what she saw herself doing for perhaps a year turned into nearly five, remaining “a truly transformative experience.”

Sujata and CFW continue to pay it forward through outreach and research, and two of the things that remain at the forefront of issues they want to tackle are the current state of child care and healthcare. With the state budget crisis and the Child Care Assistance Program in Illinois almost being cut last year, the organization is trying to get a handle on the specific impact the budget has on women and girls—who make up over half the population—and compare it to where it was five years ago.

“It used to be that more than 50,000 children were left without child care [1], and my sense of this is that if you want us to be productive members of society, we have to have good, safe and reliable child care for our children so that we can go to work, whether you are a man or a woman.”

The average income in 2015 for a single mother in Cook County was roughly $26,019 [2], with the average cost of childcare in Illinois being anywhere from $11-$13,000 a year [3]. The majority of income that remains goes to rent, which leaves little for food, clothing, or much else. “It’s not just rent burden,” Sujata explains. “They’re rent-distressed.”

The present state of women and education is less bleak. Women, even those coming from low-income households, understand that the pathway out of poverty is education, so more are going to college and getting degrees. Yet problems in the workforce remain as women are still predominantly working in low-wage jobs, and the opportunities for promotion, if you happen to be hired, are slim and even more so for women of color. “We are seeing more and more women getting into managerial positions but then they’re not getting the promotions that they need. So economic security is impacting women at all ends of the spectrum, right from the top to women who are just entering the workforce” Sujata says.

Whether it is about women’s economic parity or gender bias—two of the biggest issues facing Chicago women right now—the conversation is inclusive and having male advocates is just as important as having the support of women. CFW calls them “male champions of change,” and they are fortunate to have many. Troy Henikoff, managing director of Techstars, Tom Alexander, COO for 1871, Kurt Summers, treasurer of the City of Chicago, and Greg Cameron, executive director of The Joffrey Ballet, are just a few people Sujata commends as advocates for gender parity. As champions of change, each of them influences peers and shares policies that might be useful for others to learn from as they share metrics and progress toward the goals they set for themselves.

As 2016 comes to a close, the ultimate American glass ceiling remains unshattered with Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election. For it to take so long as it has for one of the richest and most progressive countries in the world to elect a female president is shocking, Sujata says openly, as someone who grew up in India where there was a female Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) in 1966. With the arduous 2016 election finally behind us, one can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have our first female president. Laughing at her optimism, Sujata shares her hopes that with Theresa May and Angela Merkel in powerful leadership roles, it gives us an opportunity to really begin thinking about world peace. What she fears is that people will think that the job is finished, when in fact, there is still so much to be done. “We haven’t ended violence against women, we haven’t ended health disparities, we don’t have reproductive health and justice for all women, we don’t have pay equity, we don’t have income equity… All of those things are not going to shift overnight, but the opportunities for the next generation to see role models that are like them, will grow. I want to see a world where every girl child has the chance and opportunity that I had even though you don’t come from a wealthy family, and that you are not restricted to your class and status.”

To learn more about the 100% Project, visit, cfw.org/100-percent

Footnotes. 1. Progress Illinois- Illinois Child Care Assistance Program Serves 55,000 Fewer Children After Rauner Budget Cuts, Union Claims. 2. U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table B19126. 3. Economic Policy Institute- Child care is out of reach for working families earning the minimum wage.

Read the original article here.