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Does Race Matter - Continental Contrasts Two

07 March 2011

When in New York I work at Bottomless Closet, the organisation that inspired Marion Webster and me to found Fitted for Work in Melbourne in 2005. For those of you who don't know, both organisations improve the lives of disadvantaged women by offering clothing and presentation advice, interview skills and other services, to help women get jobs and, thus, become financially independent.

I'm an old hand at Bottomless Closet having worked there from almost its inception 12 years ago. There's a warm welcome waiting for me when I call to say I'm back. Yes they do love me, but they love me even more in the summer when 90% of the volunteers have escaped to the Hamptons, Maine, the Jersey Shore, the Catskills, the Berkshires - anywhere out of the unbearably hot and humid city. Of course the clients are all still in town.

And that's the crux of the contrast between Fitted for Work and Bottomless Closet - the clients. Let's start with a word you don't see in service delivery in Australia: Race. This features nowhere on the Fitted for Work client data form but sits right at the top with Bottomless Closet. The client must tick whether she is African- American, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic or Other. Caucasian? Any white person you know ever described themselves like that?

In New York as elsewhere in the USA, these categories are indicators of disadvantage. (For the moment, let's leave aside the debate about the validity of the concept of race.) Sometimes the term minorities is used instead, but in New York City, as in many places in the USA, Hispanics are the majority.

At Bottomless Closet 69% of our clients are African-American, 29% Hispanic, 7% Caucasian, and 1% Asian.

I do not have to tell you that, even without keeping race data, Fitted for Work's clients do not fit this demographic. Plus it's not useful to us. Skin colour is not a useful measure of disadvantage. What counts is fluency in English, number of years in Australia, length of unemployment, education and specific factors in background, skills and experience that create barriers to employment.

To address just such barriers Fitted for Work is partnering with Scope, in a pilot project funded by the Victorian Women's Trust, to improve the job prospects for a women with physical disabilities. And we are also partnering with the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture and the University of Melbourne to identify interventions to assist young women from refugee or immigrant backgrounds to better access employment opportunities.

New York is not Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane or Frankston. We need to be locavore focussed, in adapting the ideas and service models we import, to ensure that they meet our local needs.