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National Congress of Neighborhood Women records

Identifier: SSC-MS-00322

Scope and Contents

The National Congress of Neighborhood Women Records consist of 58 linear feet, dating from 1974-1999, and document the early history of the organization, the growth of its local and national programs, and the development of a national and international network of poor and working-class grassroots women over a 20 year period.

Types of material include correspondence, memoranda, records of the administrative boards and committees, annual reports, material from national conferences and planning meetings, funding proposals, program descriptions and reports, writings on the history and programs of NCNW, publications, articles, research papers, files on affiliated organizations, printed material, photographs, and audiovisual materials.

Since this is a continuing collection of an existing organization, it is necessarily incomplete, with many gaps in the records, particularly those documenting programs still active. The bulk of the material in this processed portion dates from 1975 to 1990. Focusing on the years before the split between the national and local administrations, these records document the formation of core programs in education, employment, and leadership support, as well as the development of a national community development agenda. Also well represented are local housing and tenant programs of the 1980s, the Resource Center, and networking and involvement in the early years of the international women and development movement. In SERIES I. ADMINISTRATION, there is only a small amount of documentation of NCNW's local affiliate, the Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg/Greenpoint. However, their involvement in local programs from 1986 to the early 1990s is represented within SERIES II. PROGRAMS.

It offers a rich source of material on the formation of a successful national organization based on feminist principles and with a grassroots, working-class base. It also offers a fascinating view of its inner workings, with all of the personal and political dynamics that come with incorporating a feminist consciousness into an organization, and where issues of class, race and ethnicity are acknowledged and openly discussed. Through personal stories, shared in workshops, support groups, conferences, meetings, and writings, we are offered a unique perspective on the women's movement.

In addition, there is a treasure trove of subject files on women's issues, grassroots organizing, and community development. Included are numerous published and unpublished writings by NCNW members and others on topics such as class, working-class feminism, ethnicity, female poverty, and women and community development. There are also files on women's and community activist organizations, many in the New York City area, as well as NCNW affiliates nationwide, and international organizations.

Note on Arrangement of the Collection:

The inter-relatedness and continuing evolution of the NCNW programs creates a challenge in attempting to organize the records in our typical hierarchical arrangement. The programs of NCNW are best viewed as a web, not distinct projects. The community and economic development vision/agenda of NCNW, for example, influenced projects in many program areas, including leadership and employment training, housing projects, and of course, international programs in community development. Identifying where one project ends and another begins can be problematic, changes in funding often affected the name of the project, as well as its staffing and scope. Wherever possible, the original organization of records has been retained. For example, in SERIES I. ADMINISTRATION, the Central Chronological File and the Development files have been kept intact. But for the most part, records were received in various states of order, in which case the archivist imposed an organization that seemed to be consistent with the original provenance of the records.


  • 1974-1999


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Portions of this collection are currently closed to research: accessions received since collection was processed in 2000 are closed until processed. Financial, legal, personnel files and program participants'personal files are closed for 25 years from date of creation. Researchers must sign Access Agreement form agreeing to not identify any living persons without their permission. See Provenance&access note in finding aid for more information. Original AV and born-digital materials may not be used; research use copies must be made.

Conditions Governing Access

Until we move into New Neilson in early 2021, collections are stored in multiple locations and may take up to 48 hours to retrieve. Researchers are strongly encouraged to contact Special Collections ( at least a week in advance of any planned visits so that boxes may be retrieved for them in a timely manner.

Conditions Governing Use

The Sophia Smith Collection owns copyright to the records of NCNW. Copyright to materials created by others may be owned by those individuals or their heirs or assigns. It is the responsibility of the researcher to identify and satisfy the holders of all copyrights. Permission must be obtained from the Sophia Smith Collection to publish reproductions or quotations beyond "fair use."

Biographical / Historical

The National Congress of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) is a support network for grassroots women's organizations and community leaders dedicated to empowering, and providing a voice for, poor and working-class women working to improve their communities and their own status in low-income urban and rural areas on local, national, and international levels. The history of NCNW begins with the remarkable vision and energy of Jan Peterson, co-founder and long-time director of NCNW, as well as the spirit and commitment of the neighborhood women in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area of Brooklyn, New York.

Jan Peterson had recently arrived in New York City in 1969 when she joined the Conselyea Street Block Association with neighborhood women of Williamsburg-Greenpoint, a predominantly working-class and mixed ethnic (Italian, Polish, Irish, Hispanic, and African American) area of Brooklyn. Inspired by the community activists of the civil rights movement she had worked with as a volunteer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) in Harlem, as well as the burgeoning anti-poverty and feminist movements, she had a vision of creating an inter-racial, multi-ethnic community organization within a poor and working-class neighborhood, similar to the one in which she'd grown up in Wisconsin.

In 1973, at a meeting sponsored by the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, Jan Peterson got together with other grassroots leaders and professional women to plan a national conference of working-class women in Washington D.C. for 1974. It was at their second conference in 1975, that "the first national federation of blue collar, neighborhood women" (National Committee letter, 1977) was founded, with an office established in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. The Brooklyn office would administer both national and local programs in Williamsburg-Greenpoint, serving as a "laboratory" and model for other community organizations. Their primary goal was to empower poor and working-class women to become community leaders -- to give them a voice, and to raise their consciousness of their own power so they would be better able to define and solve problems facing their communities. They aimed to accomplish this through education, as well as job skills and leadership training, always with an emphasis on preserving family and community cohesiveness. In addition, NCNW had a vision of developing a national network of grassroots women to share resources, experiences, and knowledge.

NCNW's flagship program was their community-based higher education program, begun in 1975. Developed in collaboration with local community colleges and with input from the students, courses were designed especially for mature women, most already active in their communities, who had a desire to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to become effective community leaders. Closely tied to NCNW's first employment program, Project Open Doors, courses were supplemented by apprenticeship experience in women's and community organizations throughout New York City. In the 1980s, NCNW expanded its education program to include pre-College adult education courses in literacy, math, English as a second language, and preparation for the high school equivalency degree (G.E.D.). In 1986, NCNW opened the "You Can" Community School, an alternative education, pre-employment and leadership training program for youth.

Another one of NCNW's core programs is the Leadership Training and Support Program, of which an integral part is the Leadership Support Process (LSP) developed by Lisel Burns. Begun as part of the College Program, leadership training and support groups were soon offered as workshops in regional and national conferences, and incorporated into affiliated organizations across the country. The support groups include consciousness-raising to allow neighborhood women to develop an awareness of how oppression based on class, ethnicity, race or gender might impede their sense of empowerment as leaders. For more information on NCNW's programs, see "Series Descriptions" below.

In the early and mid-1980s, NCNW underwent restructuring of its organization in order to expand its national program and lend more support to grassroots women leaders around the country. In 1986, the Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg/Greenpoint (NWWG), an independent but affiliated organization was created to administer the local programs including the education programs, employment training, leadership support, and public housing tenant training and organizing. The national office continued to network with, and offer training and technical support to, other grassroots women's organizations ("affiliates") across the country, in urban as well as rural areas, including Appalachia, the Pacific Northwest, and the Dakota Nation. Members exchange information and experiences including tenant organizing, the formation of rural land trusts, reforming public schools, and creating leadership support groups.

In 1985, NCNW members attended the UN Third World Conference on Women in Kenya, where they noticed a lack of involvement by poor and working-class women. With other grassroots women from developed and developing countries, they created a network called GROOTS International (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood). NCNW is the North American representative. GROOTS was successful at bringing grassroots women's representation to the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. NCNW also has gained consultative status with the United Nations and has opened an office there, enabling them to more easily disseminate information and resources to policy makers and grassroots community leaders and to ensure that low-income women have a voice in community development policies around the world.


144 boxes (58 linear feet)


Feminist grassroots network. The primary goal of this organization was to empower poor and working-class women to become community leaders. The collection offers valuable source material for the study of working-class feminist organizing; urban studies; and women in community development. Also documented are the inner workings of grassroots organizing, with all of the personal and political dynamics that come with incorporating a feminist consciousness into an organization, where issues of class, race and ethnicity are acknowledged and openly discussed. Material includes correspondence, publications, funding proposals, photographs and audiovisual material.


This collection is organized into five series:
  1. I. Administration
  2. II. Programs
  3. III. Organizations
  4. IV. Photographs
  5. V. Audiovisual Material

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The National Congress of Neighborhood Women began donating its records to the Sophia Smith Collection in 1986.

Recent additions to this collection are unprocessed and are not reflected in the finding aid.

Additions to the Collection

Periodic additions to collection are expected and are not reflected in this record.

Additional Formats

Some original video recordings have been digitized and are available to view online: Playlist available online:

Related Material

Selections from the National Congress of Neighborhood Women Records can be viewed online in the Web exhibit: Agents of Social Change: New Resources on 20th-century Women's Activism .

See also Tamar Carroll's New York City Women Community Activists Oral History Project (Sally Martinez Fisher and Ethel Velez); and the Voices of Feminism Oral History Project (Payne; Miller; Peterson).

For more on the general history of NCNW and Neighborhood Women of Williamsburg-Greenpoint (NWWG), see the Neighborhood Women website, the Neighborhood Women Youtube page and the Women and Social Movements Web site.


A number of articles have been published on the history of NCNW and its programs and many are included in this collection. Below are a few of the more comprehensive articles:
Belenky, Mary F., "The National Congress of Neighborhood Women," in A Tradition That Has No Name (NY: BasicBooks, 1997)
Haywoode, Terry L., "Neighborhood Women Keeping it Together," City Limits, April 1985
Haywoode, Terry L. and Laura Polla Scanlon, "World of Our Mothers: College for Neighborhood Women," Women's Studies Quarterly 1993: 3&4, pp. 133-141.

Processing Information

Processed by Margaret Jessup, 2000.
National Congress of Neighborhood Women records
Finding Aid
Margaret Jessup
Description rules
Language of description
Finding aid written in English.
Encoding funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Revision Statements

  • 07/26/2017: This resource was modified by the ArchivesSpace Preprocessor developed by the Harvard Library (
  • 2005-09-23: mnsss78 converted from EAD 1.0 to 2002 by v1to02-5c.xsl (sy2003-10-15).
  • 2017-07-26T17:48:23-04:00: This record was migrated from InMagic DB Textworks to ArchivesSpace.

Repository Details

Part of the Sophia Smith Collection of Women's History Repository

Young Library
4 Tyler Drive
Northampton MA 01063