Lilia Jimenez and Suzanne Anarde
Lilia Jimenez and Suzanne Anarde, RCAC CEO.

By Suzanne Anarde, RCAC chief executive officer

In honor of Women’s History Month, I want to highlight the significance of Mutual Self-Help (MSH) housing in the lives of women over the past 58 years. Housing Assistance Council stats show that since 2008, 41 percent of self-help homes have been built and bought by women-led households, many of whom are single mothers. Using a rough average of 1,000 MSH homes built each year, that equates to about 410 women who achieve homeownership for themselves and their families each year.

What is interesting, and somewhat unsettling, is that while searching for this statistic, the RCAC team found that data on women in rural communities is an important component missing from nearly every rural data indicator. Rural data is aggregated; rural women are not often identified as a data category. Data on single head of households served is readily available for most programs; some data includes the number of children, elderly and other qualifying categories, but often not rural women as a separate category.

Recently, RCAC led a seven-partner initiative to apply for a national grant on gender equality. As we put together our application, we were surprised and dismayed at the lack of rural data that included women specific data points. One of the primary goals we hoped to achieve through this opportunity was to lead the way in collecting data on rural women, ensuring that every program, activity and outcome generated in a rural community identified data specific to rural women community members. I encourage each of your organizations to look at your data capture and ensure women/gender is a category in each of your outcome metrics.

I am always amazed and humbled by the dedication, sacrifice and persistence exhibited by women builders and building partners. As a single mom myself, I understand that owning your own home, a safe place for your children, brings a sense of security that is incomparable. While writing this, I am in the process of packing up my home in Colorado where I raised my seven children and have lived for the past 25 years. Reflecting on the memories and life experiences has truly been a journey that impacts my heart and emotions. It was the first home I bought by myself, which was a terrifying experience! Truly, this house built me and my children and will forever be a part of our DNA. Therein lies the source of drive for women MSH builders.

I was blessed in 2012 to tour the first MSH site in the nation in Goshen, California, hosted by Self Help Enterprises. On this tour, I met Lilia Jimenez and she shared her MSH story. Lilia and her husband joined with two other families to build the first organized MSH homes in the nation. They began construction in January 1963, as part of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) effort to create a way for farmworkers to become homeowners. She epitomized the MSH spirit! By the time the homes were half built, Lilia had helped to organize the second MSH group of eight families also in Goshen. Once Lilia and her family moved into their new home, she went on to help organize yet another group of six families in the Cutler community. This group of six was featured in the classic documentary “Six Homes, Six Houses.”  Six Homes, Six Houses – YouTube PSA—if you haven’t seen it previously, or even if you have, prepare for an emotional reaction!

The pioneering spirit of these first families led to the creation of the MSH housing program; first under the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and then at U.S. Department of Agriculture. Our peer organization, Self-Help Enterprises, was founded during the construction of the six homes in Cutler and was awarded the first OEO grant for MSH housing in the nation.

Lilia passed in May 2016, at the age of 88. She was the mother of 16 children. Lilia’s son also built a self-help house and is still living in that home. We always say that we are not just building houses and homes, we are building community. Lilia’s granddaughter, Maria continues Lilia’s legacy by working at SHE doing outreach for MSH and multifamily housing. All three generations have had strong connection to SHE.

Lilia Jimenez was truly a MSH icon and a history making woman, breaking ground literally and figuratively in so many ways. Her enthusiasm, pride and dignity as she shared her story touched my heart and soul forever. When the days are long and the frustrations are high, I encourage you to remember Lilia’s family story. MSH is truly building not only homes, but communities, individuals and families. Thanks to each of you for all that you do each day to support MSH families in their quest for homeownership and so much more!

*Feature photo used with permission from Rural LISC