Changemaker: Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins 1902Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a cabinet post, served as secretary of labor for the 12 years of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. A champion of economic justice and security for all Americans, she profoundly influenced the political agenda of her day.

While attending Mount Holyoke College, Perkins visited local factories and took an interest in the problems of the working poor. In 1910, after earning a master’s from Columbia University, she became head of the National Consumers League. During her two-year tenure, she successfully lobbied the state legislature for a bill limiting the workweek to 54 hours for women and children.

In 1911, Perkins witnessed female factory workers jumping to their deaths in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. She described it as “seared on my mind as well as my heart—a never-to-be-forgotten reminder of why I had to spend my life fighting conditions that could permit such a tragedy.”

Perkins subsequently worked for New York governors Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Roosevelt appointed her to the chief post in the state labor department, she helped put New York in the forefront of progressive reform. When Roosevelt became president and tapped her as labor secretary in 1933, she played a key role writing New Deal legislation, including minimum wage laws. Her most important contribution came as chairwoman of the President’s Committee on Economic Security. This role involved Perkins in all aspects of the reports and hearings that ultimately resulted in the Social Security Act of 1935.


Vijaya Pastala ’89, Founder and CEO, Under the Mango Tree

Vijaya Pastala 89

Photo: Priyam Dhar

Vijaya Pastala ’89 (pictured, left) worked for global institutions including the World Bank and European Commission before starting Under the Mango Tree, a nonprofit that trains farmers and beekeepers in India. She has also helped 3000 people in six states to gain market access to their products.

Maimuna Ahmad ’09, Founder and CEO, Teach for Bangladesh

Maimuna Ahmad 09Maimuna Ahmad’s ’09 post-MHC experience with Teach for America led her to found Teach for Bangladesh.

From the Dhaka Tribune:

“I grew up between Bangladesh and United States. As a child in Dhaka, I was very cognisant of the disparity between my own privileged education and opportunities compared to other children. When I was a senior at Mount Holyoke College I met a recruiter from Teach for America (TFA) who spoke to me about the same issue of educational disparity in the United States. TFA is an organisation that recruits top graduates and takes them to teach in low-income schools across the United States. After much soul-searching, I applied to and was accepted to TFA, becoming a secondary-school math teacher in Washington D.C. My experience in the classroom changed me profoundly. When I finished teaching, I returned to Bangladesh, and began the journey that led me to founding what is now Teach for Bangladesh.”

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Elinor Miller Greenberg, Ed.D ’53

Elinor Miller Greenberg 53

Elinor (Ellie) Miller Greenberg describes her work as “creating access to opportunity,” especially for women and minorities. Over the past 60 years in Colorado, Ellie has developed innovative programs in speech pathology, higher education, and her community.

As a speech pathologist, she focused on severely brain-injured children and adults in schools and clinics in Denver, Colorado. As the Colorado founding director and national coordinator of the University Without Walls, she developed individualized baccalaureate programs for adults. As the founding director of Pathways to the Future, she assisted the US WEST 14-state workforce of 40,000 non-management employees return to college and initiate new careers. As the regional coordinator of the 16-partner Mountain and Plains Partnership in Colorado and Wyoming, she led the development of the first regional Masters program for rural nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives and physician assistants. She has raised more than $20 million to support these programs.

In the community, she co-founded the Littleton Council for Human Relations, which brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Littleton, Colorado, in 1964, and worked on fair housing legislation. She co-led the development of the Colorado Women’s Leadership Coalition and the Colorado Women’s Economic Development Council in the 1980s. She co-founded the national model public education program, Our Courts Colorado, in 2007. She founded the Colorado Feminist Luncheon in 2008; and has served as President of the Women’s Forum of Colorado and a board member of the International Women’s Forum. She was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame in 2010 and serves on its Legacy Committee.

“Power Woman” Charu Sharma ’14

Charu Sharma 14

Photo: Paul Specht

An Indian explorer, athlete and performer, Charu was named a “Power Woman” alongside Oprah Winfrey, Melinda Gates, Sonia Gandhi, Devita Saraf and Krishna Patil by Youth Incorporated magazine in their March 2012 issue. After expeditions to all 7 continents, 5 National Awards, and a whole chapter on her in 9th grade English and 10th grade Hindi textbooks in Maharashtra, she is one of India’s most promising young achievers.

From Youth Incorporated Magazine: “I love what I do and I do what I love. This is what keeps me going. I have developed an attitude to see the silver lining on every cloud. Believe in yourself and follow your heart. If you don’t know what your heart wants, just have faith and remember that the dots will connect in the end!”

Charu Sharma ’14 Speaks Up About Taking Risks

Mary Elizabeth Cantu ’01, Founder, Spare Parts

Mary Elizabeth Cantu '01 Mary Elizabeth Cantu ’01 founded Spare Parts, an organization that supplies art materials to schools in Texas—a much needed program when the state legislature chopped $5 billion out of school budgets in 2011.

From an interview with Texas Public Radio:

“By sustaining arts in our schools and supporting our youth in the arts, we are building artists, we are creating patrons and thespians and concert-goers,” Cantu said.

Spare Parts gives materials that could be used to create art for pre-school ages through high school. Cantu said sometimes getting those supplies is as simple as getting a call from someone saying, “I just had a wedding and I have all this extra stuff, or we’re going out of business, or we just had a big convention and we have 200 binders for Spare Parts to pick up. Can you take these items now?”

Spare Parts aligns those with the need with the people who have the stuff.

“What Spare Parts is about is teaching people how to re-use the stuff that’s around them, look at the stuff around them differently” said Cantu. “The truth is there isn’t a lot of landfill space, things don’t disappear when we throw them in the trash can.”

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Sadiqa Basiri Saleem FP’09

Sadiqa Basiri Saleem 09As a refugee in Pakistan, Sadiqa Basiri Saleem FP’09 was close to earning a medical degree when the Taliban closed her Afghan-run university.

Since then she has earned a degree from Mount Holyoke, helped found the Oruj Learning Center, which educates more than 2,700 girls, established the first Afghan community college for women, and started the Family Welfare Center for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

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