Interviews

On the Downtown Women's Center and their work to uplift women

3/8/2021

*Pictured above: DWC founder Jill Halverson and friend Rosa

What does it look like to uplift and make a transformative change for people in your community? Since its founding in 1978, the Downtown Women's Center has envisioned a Los Angeles with every woman housed and on a path to personal stability. They have supported that mission through a housing-first service model that includes housing, wellness, advocacy, and employment programs. MADE by DWC is a social enterprise created to provide opportunities for women through job training and employment. This month marks the 10th anniversary of MADE's launch, so in celebration of International Women's Day, we wanted to shine a spotlight on their work and their #IamWomenkind campaign.

The digital campaign is designed to help tell the stories and uplift the women within the DWC community initiating change. As a proud local partner of the Downtown Women's Center, we were excited to speak with two of its community leaders. Zarina Guerrero is MADE by DWC's Retail and Brand Manager and Lavena Lewis is a handcrafted leather goods designer and MADE transitional employment program graduate. We speak to them about the importance of wrap-around services to help women experiencing homelessness, the #IamWomenkind campaign, and ways for those, both locally and around the country, to get involved.


The Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) was built out of a friendship of 2 women, founder Jill Halverson and Rosa, who was experiencing homelessness at the time of their meeting. As a women-founded organization, how do you think this inspires the women you serve, your employees, and the organization as a whole? 

Zarina: We are a woman-centered organization from the ground up. When women come to DWC looking for support services, they can feel that we are a warm, welcoming environment that will respect and honor their humanity, and I believe that it has much to do with how the organization was founded. Our value of being woman-centered is something that every employee and volunteer holds near and dear to their value system, and it is reflected in the work we do for our community.

Tell us more about the Downtown Women's Center and your journey with the organization.

Lavena: DWC is a place where women can go to get support with everything from health to housing. They help us get back on our feet and support us with wrap-around resources. As a program graduate and entrepreneur, it's important to have people in your corner that want the very best for you.

Your guiding ethos as an organization is: Every woman housed. How can we work to uplift that mission and advocate for and empower the millions of women experiencing homelessness?

Zarina: DWC advocates for a housing-first approach—meaning that we see housing as a human right, something that every person should be guaranteed, not something that is conditional based on a person's behavior or situation. For individuals looking to advocate for women experiencing homelessness, one of the most important things they can do is advocate for affordable housing and support our housing-first approach. 

One of our favorite things about the organization is the MADE by DWC's shop. Can you share more about this initiative, the process of the items created, and how these impact the organization’s mission?

Zarina: MADE by DWC is the social enterprise arm of the Downtown Women’s Center. Through our three businesses—the Cafe, Resale Boutique, and our Home & Gift Collection—we can provide women overcoming homelessness with job-training and employment opportunities. We believe those are essential to helping women re-enter the workforce and towards a pathway of personal stability.

Our Home & Gift Collection consists of amazing soaps, candles, bath salts, and other self-care products hand-made by the women in our job-training program at our DTLA production studio. Women in this training program learn transferable skills, such as production and manufacturing, shipping and fulfillment, and customer service. They also learn about teamwork, managing work schedules, and communication skills. We believe that by providing women with these opportunities, they will be more successful when re-entering the workforce and can support themselves during their transition out of homelessness.

Coinciding with Women's History Month, March also marks MADE’s 10th anniversary. Tell us more about how the DWC community is celebrating and how we can highlight the campaign from our end.

Zarina: This month, in celebration of our 10th anniversary and Women’s History Month, MADE by DWC launched our #IAmWomankind event. All month long, we will be highlighting and uplifting the voices of the women who work on our team. We will also be hosting a series of virtual events to allow our greater community to learn more about the work we do, and how they can support our mission of ending women’s homelessness. To support our campaign, you can purchase one of our Womankind products and share your own #IAmWomankind story on social media. Or you can attend one of our virtual events. 

It is so important that the celebration and uplift of women happen every single day, and not just a day or month out of the year. For those of us in Los Angeles, how can we get involved with DWC? And for those of us who are out of state, how can we contribute? 

Zarina: Volunteer virtually with DWC, shop MADE by DWC, follow us on social and attend our community events throughout the year.

Any advice for those looking to make nonprofits and activism full-time careers?

Zarina: The best advice I have is to find out what you’re passionate about and how you can use your skillset to benefit others.

Who are the three women that inspire you most? 

Lavena: The women I turn to for inspiration are my daughter Dominique Simpson, Amy Turk (CEO of the DWC), and Brenda Chambliss.

What does International Women's Day mean to you? 

Lavena: Quite simply, it's a day dedicated to just us women. It's a day we celebrate being who we are.

Where can we follow Downtown Women's Center and the MADE shop? 

Zarina: You can follow us at @DWCweb and @MADEbyDWC. 

What is next for DWC and the MADE shop, and are there any new pieces you are excited about? 

Zarina: MADE by DWC started as a coffee shop on San Pedro St. in 2011. Unfortunately, since the start of the pandemic, we closed our doors out of an abundance of caution for our staff and residents. However, in celebration of our 10th anniversary, we are excited to honor our roots as a coffee shop with a new line of coffee and drinkware for you to enjoy from the comfort of your own home! Stay tuned for this exciting new launch. 

Lavena, where can we find more information about your product line? 

You can find more of my work online at my site venavena.com or on laoriginal.com and socialenterprisegiftguide.com. You can also purchase items in-store at Pause Tea & Coffee cafe and Matrushka Construction shop in LA, and coming soon to the Homage gift shop in Pasadena.

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