Women’s Working Lives in Humbold Park

Women’s Working Lives in Humbold Park

I. Project Overviewtop

Women’s Working Lives in Humboldt Park documents the working lives of women in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, including their experiences as participants in the labor market, the informal economy and unpaid household labor. It examines the untold experiences of women’s labor, focusing on the lives of African-American, Caucasian, and Latina women working towards their General Education Degree (GED) and those with higher levels of education. Framed in a feminist perspective, which rejects gender inequality and the patriarchal ideologies that undermine it, the project presents an analysis of women’s work experiences in Humboldt Park.

Employing an intersectional approach – through the lens of gender, race and class – the project sought to expose unjust and unequal power structures in society. This approach allowed for a comprehensive examination of the underlying material and emotional conditions that structure women’s working lives including their fundamental, and fundamentally different, relationships to a shared neighborhood where they live and work.

Observations of women’s lived experiences showed how women’s divergent work experiences are reinforced and reproduced by differential access to education, social networks, and other forms of cultural capital, as well as through racism and class relations.

Key goals of project:

  • Collect working life narratives of women living in Humboldt Park
  • Make visible the different voices of women living in Humboldt Park
  • Present an intersectional and gender analysis of women’s lived experiences

II. Context, Methodology & Primary Findingstop

All interviewees had an intimate relationship with the Humboldt Park neighborhood. They work in a variety of industries, including homecare, food service, human resources, and retail, and work in as janitors, bank clerks, orthodontist assistants, accountants and salespeople. In addition to their day jobs, a number of interviewees work in the informal sector including daycare, housecleaning, and food vending. The older generation of Humboldt Park’s women laborers worked in neighborhood factories, however, many of these jobs dried up in the 1990s when international trade agreements – NAFTA, principally – encouraged international outsourcing.

The majority of interviewees were in the process of working toward their GED and were unmarried mothers, grandmothers and married women without children. Some were employed, but looking for a job. All participants work in order to sustain their households and were most likely to care for their loved ones.


The research for Women’s Working Lives was conducted through in-depth interviews with fifteen study participants. Interview questions were designed to highlight a variety of topics, including impediments to accessing the labor market and negotiating household responsibilities, information about living arrangements, and education. We asked questions pertaining to participant’s educational and employment histories, such as how participants found work, what challenges they faced, and their aspirations for the future. We also explored women’s views about household obligations, support systems and potential impediments to success. To learn more about the participant’s lived experiences, we asked about the reasons for living in, or relocating to, Humboldt Park.

Primary Findings

The Cultural Meanings of Work and Education

  • The interviewees expressed their ideas about work in a number of different ways. Many women attending the GED program understood work as a way of making money and sustaining one’s household and loved ones. For them, unlike the middle class women we interviewed, jobs were not career choices or expressions of one’s social status identity.
  • The general sentiment among women working to obtain their GED was that they wanted to improve their lives and change their employment trajectory.
  • Women’s ideas about the most important aspects of their employment invariably focused on the notion of flexibility, a cultural value linked to self-reliance and independence; closely associated with flexibility was a yearning for independence and authority over one’s labor.
  • We noted sharp disparities among the interviewees in actually achieving the desired flexibility. The middle class women in our study enjoyed more autonomy and flexibility in their jobs, and generally had fewer household responsibilities.
  • We observed marked differences between the goal of obtaining jobs versus careers as expressions of one’s social standing and class aspirations. This notwithstanding, work – including housework- remained a core feature of all the participant’s identities.

Responses to Neighborhood Changes

  • Gentrification, redevelopment efforts, and labor outsourcing have forced women who relied on local factory jobs to look elsewhere for work. This has caused longer commutes, rising childcare costs, and a generally more rushed lifestyle.
  • While the recently arrived women viewed Humboldt Park in a generally positive light – as a cultural resource and a place to “invest in” – the women in the GED program had more mixed feelings. Women who had worked or lived in the neighborhood for a long time (before redevelopment), almost uniformly viewed it as a dangerous place, plagued with gang violence and an unsafe place to walk in by yourself.

Balancing Work, Obligations and Aspirations

  • Some of the obstacles cited in meeting employment goals included abusive and jealous partners, lack of support systems (including childcare), general lack of job opportunities, long commutes and fears about walking around in the neighborhood.
  • A desire for independence – wanting to be one’s own boss or wanting to have greater authority over one’s labor – was a recurring theme in interviews.


Differences among participants were encoded in part by their educational histories, which in turn shaped their ideas about the meanings and most important aspects of work, their aspirations for the future, and how they balance work with household obligations. And the Humboldt Park neighborhood itself ultimately reinforced these differences in terms of differential access to a variety of resources including education, social networking, safe working and living environments and other support systems.

III. Leadership Team and Community Partnerstop

DePaul University
  • Dr. Nila Ginger Hofman, Associate Professor of Anthropology

Professor Hofman is a cultural anthropologist with a doctorate from Purdue University and a B.A. in anthropology from Long Island University. She has been teaching and conducting research at DePaul since 2001. Her research interests include hidden urban populations and her field sites include Zagreb, Croatia, and Chicago. She has also written about feminist research ethics and methodologies, and course-based action research. In Chicago her field research has been with injection drug using women and undocumented immigrants. Her research in Zagreb is with Croatian Jews and Romani women.

  • Blanca Virto, Anthropology student

Blanca is a graduate student in the School for Public Service at DePaul University studying towards an M.S. in Public Administration with a concentration in International Management. She is a graduate of DePaul University with a B.A. in Anthropology with a minor in Spanish.  Currently she is working full-time at the Study Abroad Program as the Program Assistant, helping students in the processing of going abroad. Blanca studied abroad in Merida, Mexico in the winter and spring of 2008. Her research included writing ethnography in order to document the experiences of Maya peoples who migrated into Merida as well as using working on community development by working with families in a low-income area to establish a food-cooperative.

  • Lauren Repzka, Graduate Research Assistant
  • Angelica Saavedra, Undergraduate Research Assistant
Association House of Chicago
  • Miguel Palacio, Associate Director

Association House is an agency that has served economically disadvantaged populations living in Humboldt Park and elsewhere for over 100 years. Located in Humboldt Park, Association House offers programs in English and Spanish, including English as a Second Language (ESL). In addition to the GED program it offers citizenship preparation classes and an alternative high school.



IV. Funding & Sponsorstop

The William and Irene Beck Foundation

The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a long time sponsor of the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and provides generous financial support for community based research and special projects, graduate assistantships, the faculty fellowship program, and other underwriting. The Foundation was a generous supporter of the Women’s Working Lives project.


The William and Irene Beck Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation that provides grants, contributions, and in-kind services to other not-for-profit organizations with 501(C)3 status. It is a family foundation committed to helping programs that work against discrimination, particularly related to racism and sexism. Its primary foci are directed toward those with financial needs by providing program support and educational opportunities for low-income youth, children, as well as opportunities for job-related training for adults.

The foundation is intended to act as a catalyst for change, and supports innovative ideas, plans, and projects; it takes a pro-active part in the prevention of further problems. Its board and family members participate in as well as contribute to programs involving education, youth, and the disadvantaged. The foundation seeks to ally itself with activities and organizations which reach out to those who most need help.

DePaul Faculty Research Development Student Research Assistant Support
DePaul University Faculty Research & Development Summer Research Grant


Acknowledgments by Ginger Hoffman:

This research was supported by contributions from fellowships and individuals. I thank the Beck Research Initiative for Women, Gender and Community and the Irene and Bill Beck Faculty Fellowship Program, the DePaul University Faculty Research and Development Summer Research Grant, and the DePaul Faculty Research Development Student Research Assistant Support.  This research would not have been possible without the hard work and dedication of my research assistants, Lauren Rzepka, Angelica Saavedra and Blanca Virto.  Finally, I thank Miguel Palacio, the Associate Director of the Association House of Chicago, who provided generous support and made access to study participants possible.

V. Publications and Researchtop