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Women Helping Women Helping Wynwood PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Hood   
June 2010

From a small group of five came a big idea for many

On a clear and steamy Tuesday evening in the middle of May, a swarm of Miami’s most active art operatives assembled in a vast compound known as Whale & Star. The 18,000-square-foot warehouse is the headquarters of artist Enrique Martinez Celaya, who’d thrown open his massive doors on behalf of a cause that, over the past half year, has become near and dear to the neighborhood known as Wynwood. (For more about Martinez Celaya, see page 44.)

That cause is the Women of Wynwood, and it could very well serve as a blueprint for other sections of town.

Formed in November of last year after five neighborhood activists persuaded 100 like-minded women to chip in $250 each in order to better serve the burgeoning arts neighborhood, the Women of Wynwood (WOW) is, at its core, an employment program for homeless women. At large, though, it’s an effective way to beautify a bustling section of town and save a few lives at the same time.

The initial five consisted of Thea Goldman, Yvette Garcia, Nina Johnson, Dina Mitrani, and Rhonda Mitrani -- each deeply involved in Wynwood, Goldman as owner/operator of Joey’s Italian restaurant, the other four as gallery heads. Each also happens to be highly persuasive. So when Goldman approached the others with the concept, it didn’t take long for them to put it into play.

Goldman says she was inspired by the SoHo Partnership, the New York City initiative that has been putting homeless men and women to work since 1992. Like SoHo, Wynwood is a former industrial neighborhood that’s become a center of art and culture. Unlike SoHo, however, Wynwood has perhaps more than its fair share of homeless. Part of the reason is the numerous state- and city-run agencies located within the neighborhood’s boundaries. Another might be its proximity to Overtown. Mostly, though, it’s simply that homelessness is a fact of life in Miami.

So what to do? Well, if you’re like Thea Goldman and Constance Margulies, you do whatever it takes.

After raising the initial $25,000, Goldman got with Margulies, who runs Overtown’s Lotus House shelter for women and children, and together they created the “job pilot program” that is WOW. Goldman says their goals were clear: “Secure our streets, clean our streets, and market our streets.” And they’d use Lotus House residents to do so.

At the beginning, WOW fielded a staff of ten part-time employees who acted as “ambassadors” for the neighborhood while keeping the streets “cleaner than Lincoln Road.” Eventually, though, they decided to switch to two full-time staffers. “The thing is, a part-time job doesn’t get anyone out of homelessness; a full-time job does,” says Goldman. “And these two have become fully emancipated as a result of this program.”

The two Goldman is referring to are Shawntina Jones and Glendina Roseborough, who have both been with WOW since its inception. Jones had been employed by the Port of Miami before complicating circumstances brought her to Lotus House. Roseborough had a long-time job at the Russell Plating Factory. Now, backed by WOW, the two are not only gainfully employed, they’ve moved out of Lotus House and into homes of their very own.

If Goldman, Margulies, and the rest of the women have their way, Jones and Roseborough will be but the first in a long line similar success stories. “Ideally there’d be three teams of two [full-time staffers],” adds Goldman, “and enhance that with some additional part-time help, depending on what’s going on in the neighborhood.”

As anyone who frequents the monthly gallery nights knows, a lot is going on in the neighborhood. In fact the art scene indirectly gave rise to WOW, which is itself a sort of offshoot of the 150-member Wynwood Arts District Association (WADA), which Goldman co-chairs with developer David Lombardi, who has long held a considerable stake in the area. WADA’s primary goal -- promoting and protecting the neighborhood through, among other things, clean, safe, and marketable streets -- are now WOW’s goals too.

Then there are individual efforts, such as the one undertaken by Butter Gallery owner Francisco De La Torre (better known as Paco), whose plan to donate a portion of the bar proceeds taken in at each month’s art walk has expanded to include Arte 23, Dot Gallery, and Plant the Future.

Of course it takes more than a few hundred thirsty arts patrons to finance a program like WOW, which was the impetus behind the get-together at Whale & Star. Seems that Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has also taken a liking to WOW and WADA, and to prove it he came through with a check for a whopping $100,000.

According to Sarnoff’s office, the money is part of the $255 million Homeland Defense/Neighborhood Improvement Bond Program, passed by city voters in 2001. Today an oversight board monitors the program, but the city commission has some discretion in awarding grants to worthy projects and organizations that can range from public safety to parks and recreation. Sarnoff has given similar grants to neighborhood associations in Coconut Grove and the MiMo District. And, as he indicated at the event, he believes this is money well spent.

“Women of Wynwood is a wonderful organization,” Sarnoff said in a follow-up e-mail message the BT. “Even though WOW is fairly new, they have gained the respect and admiration of thousands of Wynwood stakeholders and visitors. I am honored to support WOW.”

At Whale & Star the art swarm greeted Sarnoff’s support with the requisite applause. Goldman, Margulies, and the rest of the WOW women seemed purposefully pleased. But the brightest smiles in the room came from Jones and Roseborough. After all, that check ensures they’ve each got a good job with good folks in a good neighborhood, and that they’ll have those jobs for some time.

Perhaps more important, Wynwood will have on hand two women who’ve helped transform the neighborhood in ways they surely couldn’t have imagined before becoming charter members of WOW. As Thea Goldman put it: “They’re grateful. But we’re more grateful.”

 

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