Written by Shadia Mbabazi, Concentric Program Director
I remember when I first came to the USA, going to the bus in the cold snow, I questioned all the opportunities people talked about and how hard these were to access. I used to cry and hated every moment of it. I remember men who gave me rides having inappropriate conversations with me, and being stuck to one job because I depended on the person who gave me a ride. Everytime I am reminded of this, I think about the other New American women who have to go through the same situation. I did not have kids at the time and it was still hard for me. Imagine how hard it is for a mom with 5 kids to navigate life in a new place without being able to drive.
With this I want to say that driver's training is a requirement for a lot of the New American women we walk with at Treetops Collective. Women are vulnerable and are unable to move forward because of not being able to drive. Being able to drive helps to build a bridge to reach the opportunities the USA offers.
Women who have to depend on others for transportation may be limited to one job that does not pay well and even value them, unable to get to interviews elsewhere or dependent on a friend or neighbor to get a ride to work. A lot of time is lost not being able to invest in themselves and their families. Inability to drive makes going to English classes, accessing better employment opportunities, keeping appointments for their children, attending parent teacher conferences and so many other things much more difficult. It is heartbreaking because women are expected to navigate this life on their own, but cannot advocate for themselves in the best way possible because their life is dictated by those who give them rides.
Driver's training opportunities for New American women will enable women to be independent and feel like they have a voice and power over their lives. It will also protect women from staying in difficult situations or relationships for fear of not getting by; this will empower and give women the confidence they need to navigate life on their own. There are instances where women have been disrespected by men who gave them a ride and found it difficult to say anything because of that help they were getting. Women have lost their voices, with their children and sometimes husbands because they cannot drive themselves; even the community looks down on them if they always have to ask for a ride. Driver's training will give them confidence in themselves and help women to be seen as responsible people in their community. They will have more control over their own schedules and will be seen as respected members of their families who are able to contribute fully.
A lot of times I hear people say refugee women do not invest in themselves. This is not because they do not want to, but their circumstances make it difficult for them. Just imagine, if you have four kids, you have to drop them off at appointments and have to fit in different schedules, go to work afterward and attend English classes, all while using the bus. It is very overwhelming. The bus system here in Grand Rapids is not easily accessible by people in different zip codes, which can be frustrating if you can not even speak the language or know how to read. Teach a woman how to drive and see how quickly she can learn the language because she will be able to attend classes and will have time to attend other events or programs that help them make cross-cultural connections.
The culture here is individualistic; people are busy with their lives therefore one has to learn to do things on their own – nobody will do it for you. Learning how to drive will help women be able to connect with others in their new community rather than being stuck at home alone. In return, women will build stronger and deeper meaningful relationships and develop a support system. For instance if you have to go to work and need childcare, you can easily drop your kid off to a friend if you drive. Now imagine if you had to ask the same person to babysit for you and also to come pick you up. You know that is putting a burden on another person. Women who can drive can easily move to and fro, developing a sense of community and empowerment.
If we are going to talk of ways to empower New American women and encourage them to have a voice in their own lives, driver's training is a necessity, it is key! This is a fact, a lot of known New American women who are successful, are women who can drive, are respected as responsible people and are also able to advocate for themselves and their families in the best ways possible. This will also lead to improved and better employment opportunities. Women who drive can plan their days as they wish without depending on other people or having people dictating to her when and how she should do things.
This is freedom and it is freedom that I wish for all New American women so that they can all feel like they belong and flourish here in West Michigan.
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Details of the Driver's Training Fund:
Written by Abigail Punt, Development Director
Treetops Collective has historically used our relational model to be a connector between New American women and resources and opportunities throughout West Michigan. Being a connector is effective when the barrier to access is a matter of awareness about available resources or knowledge regarding systems navigation. But we also encounter situations where the only barrier is financial, and that is the case with driver's training. Even as we seek to meet strategic, long-term needs in New American communities, we cannot turn away from the practical needs of today that, when met, contribute to long-term flourishing and belonging. To that end, we have decided to launch a Driver's Training Fund to help members of the Concentric program access driver's training.
Through the Driver's Training Fund, we are partnering with Africania Center, a New American-owned business in Grand Rapids that provides intensive and timely driver's training that is particularly designed to meet the specific needs of New Americans. Driver's training through Africania Center includes pick-up and drop-off, translation, and a guarantee of daily driving practice until the student has secured their driver's license. On average, they are working with students one hour per day for three weeks. This type of service would typically cost at least $1300, excluding the cost of hiring a translator. Through this partnership with Treetops Collective and Africania Center, members of the Concentric program will be able to access training for $1200.
The speed at which we will be able to offer scholarships to members of our program will depend on the funds available. This is a need we are asking our community to step up to meet - we did not budget for these funds in 2021 but based on the feedback of the Concentric leaders realized we could not afford to wait to start trying to meet this very practical need. Our goal is to extend this opportunity to four women from each language group represented in Concentric, serving 32 women total by April 2022.
We have chosen a "scholarship" model in recognition of the varying financial capacity among program members. Whatever gap remains between what a program member is able to pay and what the training costs is what we will fill, whether that is $500, $800, or $1200.
The need is great. We carry with us the knowledge that for every woman who accesses driver's training through this fund there will be many others still waiting for assistance. Your support of the Driver's Training Fund can truly help a New American woman start down a new path toward the life she wants to give herself and her family.