GLORIA (TONI) GRIFFITH is a woman on welfare, a real-life reminder that those persistent notions of "unique economic progress" for black women -- the "two-fer's" (as in two-for-one) of affirmative action -- are nothing more than a myth, with the exception of a select few.
Black women have not gained more jobs than black men, they have not made more money than other women. As a group, increasing numbers of black women still are economically disadvantaged and living with their children in poverty.
Toni Griffith is not down and out by choice. She certainly doesn't look it, as she sits on the hard brown seat, the pain on her face seemingly palpable. The look of one struggling to change her life but vulnerable to reverses is etched on her smooth brown cheeks. Her carefully manicured nails and fashionable boots are a signal of renewed self-reliance.
She is trying to make it on her own, and finding it hard. Climbing out takes drive, persistence and nerve if you're poor and a woman, and it's triple jeopardy if you're a racial minority.
She's fighting against a welfare mentality that engulfs some of her peers in this city. She knows that mentality is a necessary escape hatch for many. But it all to often sucks up initiative and spirit. Toni Griffith would rather do without it.
She was sitting with several others recently at the University of the District of Columbia in a class on the history of black women. When the group talked for the need for an occasional flower -- for love and "stroking" -- Toni's face became a montage of uncertainty, loneliness and depression that made Sojourner Truth's plaintive words, ". . . and ain't I a woman?" seem to bounce from the dull beige walls.
Later, when we talked privately, Toni Griffith, a 30-year-old UDC student, said she became pregnant and married at 17, was divorced three years later and is the mother of two daughters. Determined to "be somebody" despite her mistake, she went on to complete Anacostia High School and enroll at the old Washington Technical Institute (now part of UDC) where she earned a two-year certificate.
"When I graduated I moved onto a level that society says that a black girl who used to be on welfare should be happy to be. But I couldn't get the kind of job I thought I should have been able to get," she says. She went to work on a city playground.
Reminiscences of the deadend teens of the 1950s. Growing up, we were aware that a bachelor's degree was the requirement, then a master's was the minimum. Now it is so different that even a doctorate is not enough to keep some out of unemployment lines. Whoever told this woman to expect that a two-year certificate would put her into serious competition in the job market?
She was equally unprepared for sexual harassment as a factor in job advancement, she says. Determined not to yield, yet fearfully "passive," she internalized her fury when she felt unfairly passed over for promotions. Meanwhile, she had fallen in love with an older man who broke off with her when he learned that she was pregnant. By now, she was working with a senior citizens program. She went into a serious depression. "I became unglued," she recalled." I was paranoid. I cried all the time."
"I came back to where I'd come from -- welfare," she said sadly." But I never let people know how I was feeling because of my pride. Before it was struggle, struggle . . . trying to maintain a level I thought life was supposed to be." Briefly hospitalized for emotional problems, she had gone from having a job, to no job, to welfare -- struggling in circles. And her children bore much of the brunt of her personal pain.
"My children have been through so much," she says. "My oldest  is sensitive yet strong. A lot of time when I was down it was her who made me move . . . And you know the hardest part? Trying to show her that she can make it and not be what everybody else is, but an individual . . . It's hard raising children. I won't say if there was a husband there or a boyfriend it would be totally different, but it would give another dimension. She wouldn't see me as so negative. . . . We have a good relationship on the surface, but underneath she's angry.
Toni Griffith refuses pass the welfare mentality to her children. She says she is trying to give direction to her daughter so she won't follow her example and become a parent too young, teaching her to develop herself before she considers marriage. Returning to school to work on a bachelor's is a first step on Toni's road back. But she knows she'll probably graduate to a shrunken job market as this city continues to become polarized between the rich and the poor.
"If I say I expect miracles . . . I would be reaching for a star. This time around I'm not going to put too much emphasis on what I do. Whatever there is for me, I'll be ready for it."