Power comes from within, but a splash of color never hurt

By Heather Lyons
Contributing Columnist

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a project on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Downtown Women’s Center is a Day Center and residence with 47 units of permanent supportive housing. They will be opening 71 new units in a few months.

Typically, I don’t like to write about specific programs or organizations. One, I’m a policy and systems person, and at some of my lowest points I’ve been a data person. Two, there are so many groups out there that do good work that it isn’t fair to highlight just one. But this is different. This site visit hit very close to home, and it gave me hope.

There were two of us on the visit. We walked in the unlocked front door and were immediately welcomed by a woman behind the kitchen counter who offered bottled water and a huge smile. Many women had just finished a meal and were sitting around talking and laughing in the dining area.  Other women were camped in front of the TV, and still more women were reading in the back garden oasis. There was a tremendous diversity of women; young women, older women, all races, straight, gay, skinny, not so skinny.

I noticed that a few of the women wore lipstick. Not just any lipstick, but deep reds and bright oranges. Bold lipstick.  Lipstick that says, “I will not cringe; I don’t care what you’ve done to me, life.”

Women enjoy coffee and community at L.A.'s Downtown Women's Center

There’s an account by a British lieutenant who was among the troops to liberate a Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen. It’s as horrific as you could imagine and then gets much worse, but there is a part of the story that describes how a shipment of lipstick arrived. This, at first, frustrated the troops because it had no value of helping the people who were still, barely, alive. Then he sees the women use the lipstick, and he writes this, “It was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance…. At last someone had done something to make them individuals. Again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”*

Lipstick can also be a symbol of giving power back to women who have had their power taken away from them. For many that power is in their smarts, but addictions and/or untreated mental illness have greatly impacted their ability to negotiate the world. For some, that power is in their children. A lot of these women have lost theirs. For others, that power is supported by healthy loving relationships — rape and prostitution have taken that away. For far, far too many, it’s all of these and more. For some women, maybe the nicest thing they can manage to do for themselves is to put on some lipstick. And maybe the boldest thing they can do is put on “volcanic red.”

I’ve known many women in my life as colleagues and friends that had “something” happen that contributed to varying degrees of trauma: domestic violence, divorce, rape, abortion, miscarriage, addiction, mental illness, cancer, jail and more. It is much more common than people realize. Then there are lesser disturbances, though much more insidious ones that detract from our overall well-being — the constant degradation of women in the media, the health care disparities that prevent accurate diagnoses and proper treatment, the wage gap, and so on. It’s a wonder we survive some days. And some days, some of us don’t.

Overlay all of that with extreme poverty, homelessness, and increase the trauma factor to the nth degree, and you’ve got the primary clientele of Downtown Women’s Center. How do the women and men who work there even hope to make a difference?

One, they have hope, an important base for any group that proposes to support transformation in lives. Two, they are respectful and supportive, of each other and particularly of the women who come to the day center and are in the housing program. Their primary purpose is to give women a safe place to be in an unsafe part of town. They do this without a lot of rigid rules and requirements of the women. Instead, they promote a culture of mutual respect, and their volunteers are tireless and just as interested in hearing the women as they are in helping them.

As a visitor and observer, I have to be clear about something. Staff at the Center who took us around did not spend a lot of time telling us about their philosophy and how they promoted support and dignity for all women. It wasn’t necessary. You could see it, and you could feel it. I’ve visited several programs where staff said they did one thing, but witnessed something else.  These folks were honest and open, and they believe in the women who come through their doors.

The women in the residence next door are excited to move to the new housing structure a couple of blocks away. They have every right to, because it is beautiful and they deserve it. It will also house a newer and larger day space so Downtown Women’s Center can support more women — both as a respite, but also as a step toward long-term transformation. For some women, that step begins with a tube of their own lipstick.

*An extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was amongst the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Source: Imperial War Museum.

2 responses to “Power comes from within, but a splash of color never hurt

  1. Or maybe there is no romantic symbolism in the lipstick. Maybe they had no income and picked whatever tube out of the donation box. Generally, the season’s latest colors from the mall don’t get kicked down.

    This column makes me uncomfortable. Kinda grossed out actually. I guess I get the intention- we find beauty where we can and manifest it to something more?- but I wonder if something more powerful could have been gleaned from the experience.


  2. Oh RC Cola no need to be a fuddy dud. We all have different experiences, and perspectives, and I believe this one is no different that many on the streets. It’s a small moment of hope in a sea of uncertainty…

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