posted 2011-09-21 13:10:09

Welfare Rights Initiative - A grassroots student activist and community leadership training organization

Lizette Borreli

The Welfare Rights Initiative (WRI) started as a two-semester community leadership course and grew into an organization which educates students on how best to utilize the welfare resources that are too often obscured by social and legal obstacles. The WRI was founded at Hunter in 1995 on the philosophy that information relating to federal and state welfare policy should be easy to obtain and easy to understand.

The courses were designed to teach the history of social welfare policy and grassroots organization as well as to teach specific skill sets in public speaking, active listening and meeting planning.  Dillonna C. Lewis and Maureen Lane, co-executive directors of the WRI, currently teach the first course in the two-semester program, which is also cross-listed with women and gender studies and sociology courses.

“I wanted to be a part of the dynamic learning community at WRI that honors every individual’s right to improve their life chances, and to gain the skills and credentials that a college degree affords” Lewis said.

The second semester of the program consists of an internship where students can put to use the skills and knowledge that they attained from the lecture portion of the course.  In the internship, students provide legal advice and information regarding existing and upcoming legislation to students who walk in the WRI office.

One of the WRI's major accomplishments was the authoring and passage of the Work Study and Internship Law.  This law allowed work-study programs and internships to be counted towards the state requirement that welfare recipients work at least 35 hours a week.  College courses however, do not count towards the thirty-five-hour requirement.

The WRI had written the legislation in 2000.  When the law was passed it was set to expire after a two-year period, where upon it would be up again for renewal.  In June 2010, the WRI finally succeeded in getting the law passed permanently after successfully renewing it each time it expired.

Jennifer Lee, 20, majoring in Political Science, Philosophy and Economics, campus organizer for the WRI, gave a speech in Albany after the Work Study and Internship Law was passed in 2010 explaining her personal experiences with welfare and the importance of the law. She said that the WRI legislation allowed her to attend a four-year college, which she said she would not have been able to do otherwise.

“I am no longer ashamed of my mother's sacrifices,” she said, in reference to the twelve-hour workdays her mother used to put in at a sweatshop.  “Instead, I have a newfound understanding and respect for her struggle.  In fighting for educational justice with WRI, I am also fighting for economical justice in broader society.”

Hirah Mir, 21, majoring in Psychology, youth leadership organizer for the WRI, said that she was told by the New York City Human Resources Administration that her college course load would not qualify her for welfare.  The WRI gave her a 22-hour per week internship, which allowed her to receive welfare while attending Hunter.

Under the WRI, Mir has helped give college-readiness courses to students at the American Sign Language and English Secondary School 47 as well as Pacific High School.  She also gave leadership courses to Seventh graders at Adolph C Ochs Public School 111, a school where the majority of students came from low-income families.

“First and foremost, it is more than just about Welfare.” said Sofia Davila, 22, a student mentor for the WRI.  “I know from experience that this is what most students think WRI and the one-year program is and it is a misconception that sometimes turns them away from experiencing this seminar class,” said the political science major.  Davila also said she believed that joining WRI gave her a sense of community that was sometimes difficult to find at a commuter school like Hunter.

Davila has participated in two WRI events, “The Day of Action” and “The Speak Out.”  These events consisted of raising WRI awareness around campus and delivering educational material to the Hunter community. Davila said she returned as an intern to the WRI this semester because she wanted to use her knowledge and experience more to help others.

According to Lewis, the WRI plans to secure funding to become involved with other CUNY Campuses as well as to renew a legislative campaign to allow students’ college courses to be inclusive in the thirty-five-hour welfare requirement.  For the time being though, their priority is to keep students at Hunter up-to-date on welfare policy so that they can continue to receive welfare benefits.

The WRI has a “Know Your Rights” hotline for students to call about the WRI's resources as well as to hone their self-advocacy skills.  It can be reached at (212) 650-3592.  Students can learn more about WRI at