When Jessye Kass took over as director of the Cambridge Women’s Center in June 2018, she saw it as a “fixer-upper type of organization.”
For the past year, the center has grown and made changes to increase its reach. Kass, 28, has been at the center of that evolution.
The Cambridge Women’s Center, located in Cambridgeport, has provided services through volunteer work since 1971, creating a community space for women. The center offers many groups, workshops and projects, including LGBTQ+ Support and Discussion Groups, Trauma Survivors’ Groups and the Survivor Quilt Project. Many of the people who come to the Center are homeless, jobless or marginalized in some way. The center acts as a home for them.
Kass spoke to the Scope about what drives her work at the center and what she aims to accomplish. The following transcript was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you initially start working at the Cambridge Women’s Center?
A: Previously, I worked for AIDS Action Committee and Fenway Health, working in affordable housing, managing a team of case managers. I made a four-page strategic plan for the company and brought it to my interview without being asked. I got the job, and we’ve made a lot of changes in that time to really restructure and build sustainability for the Center.
Q: What motivates you?
A: I believe very strongly that my purpose and value in life is to love others, love myself and help as many people as possible. I always try to check in with myself. Am I doing those three things? That sort of keeps me sane, especially when there’s tough weeks. We [have] two paid staff, and I supervise over 100 volunteers. I work a lot of hours a week to be able to function our center 55 hours a week. I just try to remember and connect back to that value.
Q: What’s your main goal?
A: My main goal is to double the operational budget of the center to be able to provide sustainability for the future. We depend on not only hundreds of volunteers, but also two unpaid staff who work a combined 60 hours a week. I really want to build sustainability for the organization, because I really believe in the value of community spaces. The Center is open not just for women who have experienced trauma or homelessness, but for all women, which is very unique.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face, and how do you overcome them?
A: Asking for money for salaries for staff is not a very sexy selling point. We need money to be able to continue to provide 55 hours of free confidential programming to hundreds of women every week. A lot of foundations and grants want a lot of impact data that we don’t have yet because we haven’t been able to build the infrastructure.
Q: What do you wish people knew about your work?
A: There’s always going to be the people that the system failed for, and we have a lot of women that don’t qualify for other social services that rely on us to stay open. We’re a vital community resource, and we’re both providing service for volunteers as well as many members of our Cambridge and Boston community.
In service work, you’re going to gain more than you’re going to be able to give. Paying attention to that and understanding that you have a place of power and privilege when volunteering, I find to be an incredibly important piece of disrupting the savior complex.
Q: How do you see change happening around you?
A: I’ve seen more energy in the space; we’ve increased the trainings. I’ve seen volunteers feel more prepared for their shifts; we’ve seen better volunteer retention and less turnover, more diversity. I’m seeing a change in both how people are hearing about us and responding and how people who are using the services and being a part of the community are experiencing it and feeling much more supported.
Q: What change are you hopeful for in the future?
A: More empathy — I know it sounds like a cliché. The idea that we’re all so different and individual is really big in social media. I think that’s great and wonderful, but we’re also human and could have a lot more empathy and compassion for one another — that would go a long way.