Women of Hope Poster Series

In 1994, Teaching for Change (called NECA at the time) received an invitation from Bread and Roses director Moe Foner to write a teaching guide for the groundbreaking poster series, “Women of Hope: African Americans Who Made a Difference.” Originally produced for members of the 1199 National Health and Human Services Employees Union, the posters became so popular that they were displayed in schools, subways, and other public places. They were also compiled in a book by author and New York City teacher Joyce Hansen. One of the posters (see below) featured Ms. Ella Baker of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The other women were Maya Angelou, Alexa Canady, Septima Clark, Ruby Dee, Sarah and Anne Elizabeth Delany, Marian Wright Edelman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mae C. Jemison, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Foner initiated the project after seeing that these Black women were rarely included in the K-12 curriculum.

Educators Lynda Tredway and Diane Yarbro-Swift edited the guide for Teaching for Change, writing profiles for each of the women in the series and lessons for middle and high school. These were published in a 48-page booklet for distribution along with the posters.

The editors describe the purpose of the series in the introduction,

In the face of injustice, many of us think to ourselves, “I lack the oratory power of Martin Luther King Jr., or Maya Angelou; I lack the firepower of an army and I lack great wealth. I’m just one person, so what can I do?” Traditionally history lessons have taught us that to do great things we need exceptional skills, the power of a military, or lots of money.

A goal of the “Women of Hope” poster series is to help overcome this sense of powerlessness by connecting our lives with the lives of women who have challenged injustice. We can fight cynicism and despair by seeing our work as part of what poet Audre Lorde describes as the “continuum of women’s work.”

The obstacles faced by the thirteen women in the poster series are as important to study as their achievements. What strategies did they use to combat discrimination? What coalitions did they build to strengthen their forces? What vision kept them going in the face of defeat? And, looking at ourselves, where can we draw hope and courage? The lessons are designed not only to help us learn about the extraordinary lives of the African American women in the posters, but also to nurture the collective strength that exists in the classroom and in our communities. Woven through the women’s lives, the following themes emerge.

Every woman in the series credits her strength to specific people in her family and community. The people of Ghana use the word sankofa to express their belief that before you can go forward, you must know where you have been. The “Women of Hope” are sankofo women — they draw on the past to carry out their work. Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s fiction is based on extensive historical research. Alice Walker believes that if we “find our mothers’ gardens,” our own plants will bloom more beautifully. A number of the lessons help students explore the history of their own family and communities.

Based on requests to fill more gaps in the curriculum, the Bread & Roses Cultural Project produced additional posters series on Latinas (1995), Native American/Hawaiian women (1997), and Asian American women (1998). To accompany the Latina series, Bread and Roses produced a 30-minute documentary film and invited Teaching for Change to write a bilingual teaching guide. We contracted with educators Noni Reis and Irene McGinty to edit the guide and write profiles for the women in the series: Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, Miriam Colon, Antonia Hernandez, Dolores Huerta, Tania Leon, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Adriana Ocampo, Antonia Pantoja, Helen Rodriguez-Trias, Ana Sol Gutierrez, and Nydia Velasquez.

Mesa-Bains describes a lesson we hope students took from the series, that contrary to the mainstream image, success is not an individual accomplishment. She says,

For those of us who have been successful, one of the most dangerous things in the North American culture that we can buy into is that the success is ours, that we are so unique, and so individual. That’s a very faulty notion. What sets us apart as cultural workers, as Chicanos especially, is that we know that we are there because someone else helped us get there. We are there to hold our place for the next one there. That’s a really different idea.

There are now many more resources available to teachers to introduce these women and more in the curriculum. The Bread and Roses “Women of Hope” project helped pave the way and we are honored to have been involved with that. Now, in the face of right wing attacks on education, we must draw on the organizing stories from these women to make they remain visible in schools.