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Past as empowerment

Camille Lewis has been an employment counselor at YWCA St. Paul for three years, but her interest in genealogy goes back to a deep dive into her own family history after the death of her grandmother. She now uses this expertise in YW Works (YWW) as an aspect of the culturally specific employment services the program delivers to African American participants of the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). Through the YWW program, which is provided by YWCA St. Paul through a contract with Ramsey County Workforce Solutions, Lewis provides case coordination and support, and uses genealogy to offer her clients a historical perspective on their lives.

“With the generation of clients I see right now, so many of them have parents who were incarcerated and they had to strike out on their own,” Lewis says. “This generation has a disconnect with their history and with the history of surviving oppression—the good, bad, ugly and colorful. Each client deserves a piece of their history.”

Learning about previous generations has helped her clients understand the circumstances that led to their current life situation, shown how much they have in common with others and in many cases brought light to legacies to be proud of. This is especially vital for clients whose ancestors’ contributions have largely been left out of history books. If they believe everything they read in the history books, Lewis says, they miss out on the fact that their ancestors helped build—in many cases literally, and under horrific conditions—the country we all live in now.

“I meet with so many people who have walls up, and when they learn who they come from, it gives them pride and it starts to bring the walls down,” Lewis says. “They hold their head up higher after that.”

This feeling of pride, clarity about life circumstances and sense of where they fit in history has an empowering, motivating effect on clients who are working to overcome barriers to employment and self-sufficiency. This type of empowering programming is why YWW has been part of breaking the cycle of poverty in Ramsey County and beyond since 2010. To learn more about the program, visit