Purpose Prize

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Sharon Kay Hanshaw

Coastal Women for Change
Purpose Prize Fellow 2015

Devastated by the government’s ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina, a former cosmetologist galvanized the women in her community to take political action.

Hurricane Katrina washed away my East Biloxi, Mississippi, neighborhood – a mixed-race, low- to middle-income community of small businesses. And almost immediately, the state moved casinos from off-shore barges onto our land.

In the fall of 2005, I attended an Oxfam America meeting with 50 women from the area to discuss our needs after the storm: affordable housing, schools, medical care, childcare, transportation. When I saw we were being left out of plans for rebuilding, I became fired up and began organizing meetings with women from the community to determine our needs and try to find ways to meet them. I wasn’t used to doing this kind of work. I was a cosmetologist. But I had no choice. We had to have a voice.

When I tried to set up a meeting with the mayor, his staff asked, “Who are y’all?” So I came up with the name, Coastal Women for Change.

  • Trained local women as advocates; CWC members now serve on the mayor’s planning commission and on all local municipalities’ recovery committees.
  • Since 2005, CWC has organized over 500 town-hall meetings and dozens of community-education programs for all generations.
  • Created a community center and garden in East Biloxi’s former “food desert,” feeding 100 families.

We trained women to speak out. I made sure that at least one CWC member attended every city redevelopment meeting. We now have members on the mayor’s planning commission, and we put women on all the recovery committees of local municipalities: finance, education, mixed-use, rebuild – €”every committee they had! We went to Washington, D.C., and to Jackson, MS, to keep pushing for inclusion.

Since 2005, we have organized over 500 town-hall meetings – €”on voter registration, civic engagement, disaster preparedness, financial fitness, domestic violence and affordable housing.

After surveying the community, we realized child care was a priority. Most local day-care centers couldn’t reopen after Katrina, so we trained people to work as child-care providers and found insurance for them. Partnering with a local college, we were able to provide playground equipment and books. We opened 10 in-home child-care facilities, which care for more than 50 children.

The Second Ward of East Biloxi, where we are centered, is a poor area of a poor town in a poor state. We’re in a food desert with no or limited access to grocery stores with fresh fruits and vegetables. We developed a community garden on some land near our office, which not only helps feed nearly 100 poor families each season, but serves as a community center where people learn how to grow and cook fresh fruit and vegetables.

We tutor and mentor teenage girls in the local juvenile detention center and offer free computer training for senior citizens. We have given away backpacks and school supplies to more than 1,000 poor children in our community.

When CWC asked me to serve as Executive Director, I was grateful but overwhelmed. I didn’t know we needed 501(c) status; I didn’t know we needed an accountant and a board of directors. I did know we needed to build a healthy, active community. So I began the journey out of my comfort zone. Together, we have learned that we have the power to shape our communities.