Pittsburgh's Bhutanese community celebrates Teej, an annual festival for women and girls. Photo courtesy of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh.

In the isolated and impoverished nation of Bhutan in Asia’s Himalayan mountains, many women don’t have access to education. 

For those who have landed in Pittsburgh to forge a better life, their lack of literacy puts them at a severe disadvantage in job opportunities, obtaining health care and even getting a driver’s license because they can’t read road signs and study testing materials, says Khara Timsina, executive director of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh

With a $20,000 grant from the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh, the association is providing local Bhutanese women with programs that can help them thrive in a new homeland, including driving lessons, computer literacy, parental support, and wellness sessions such as meditation and yoga. 

“This grant is meant for women’s empowerment,” says Timsina, who estimates the local Bhutanese population at just above 7,000. About half are women, he says. 

Based in Brentwood, the nonprofit association assists local Bhutanese individuals and families — many of whom came from refugee camps in Nepal. 

The Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh holds a brainstorming session to share the needs in the community. Photo courtesy of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh.

MacKenzie Scott grants

The grant was funded through a $20 million windfall the YWCA received in late 2020 from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist, author and ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

Scott, ranked as the fifth richest woman in the U.S., has given away more than $14 billion to approximately 1,600 nonprofits since her divorce from Bezos, which provided her with a 4% stake in Amazon. 

When Scott began giving away her fortune, the gifts were unsolicited. Scott’s team studied organizations nationwide and selected them based on strong leadership and resources they provided during the Covid pandemic including food, job training, and financial and legal help.

In March, Scott released her first open call to nonprofits to apply for funds. A total of $250 million will be awarded to 250 organizations with each receiving $1 million.

Other groups in the Pittsburgh region that have received grants from Scott include Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh; Center of Life in Hazelwood; and Pressley Ridge in McCandless Township.

The YWCA is working to distribute $10 million of its total gift from Scott to nonprofits and initiatives that target racial and gender equity. 

It expects to announce specific plans for the remaining $10 million in 2024, says Angela Reynolds, CEO of the YWCA.

For that allocation, “Our mission stays the same,” she says: a focus on helping minorities and women achieve equity. 

A mediation session. Photo courtesy of the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh.

Mission in Action

Among the programs the YWCA launched in its first spending phase is Mission in Action, a grant partnership with the Black-led philanthropy POISE Foundation.

Earlier this year, Mission in Action distributed $700,000 to 17 nonprofits, including the Bhutanese Community Association of Pittsburgh, whose work addresses race and gender challenges. 

The YWCA plans to seek proposals for a second round of grants in the fall, says Reynolds.

“We’re anticipating another $700,000 going out to local nonprofits to amplify our work,” she says. 

Grantees in the first round received various amounts depending on their size and their plans for the money.

“We didn’t have a prescribed amount,” says Reynolds. “All the applicants were able to specify what they needed.”

Women look through professional business attire at a Dress for Success mobile event at the Pittsburgh Job Corps Center in Highland Park. Photo courtesy of Dress for Success Pittsburgh.

Dress for Success

Dress for Success received $25,000 to support its mobile services that bring professional attire and job-seeking support to women in Allegheny, Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties. 

For years, the Lawrenceville-based nonprofit has operated boutiques in physical spaces where low-income women or those returning to the workforce can find suitable business clothes.

Several years ago, Dress for Success got a referral on a Friday to help a woman in Greene County who didn’t have a vehicle and needed medical scrubs for a job starting Monday. 

The agency was able to deliver the clothes in time “and we started to realize the high need for mobile services,” says Tanya Vokes, CEO of Dress for Success Pittsburgh. 

She calls them “mobile closets on wheels” that are “more efficient and cost-effective” than operating only brick-and-mortar sites.  

Now the agency has three vans, two boutiques — in Lawrenceville and Washington — plus a warehouse in Sharpsburg, and serves about 4,000 women a year, says Vokes.

The grant from the YWCA will help Dress for Success provide mobile events in the North Side at community centers, faith-based institutions and colleges. 

Some have been held already at Bidwell Training Center and Crossroads, where a total 55 women participated. 

“This is really impactful,” says Vokes. “We’re seeing more women than we did without the vans.”

Si Yu of Kassia Ensemble performs at the Uncommon Concerts & Conversations series at Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa. Photo courtesy of Erin Ninehouser.

The Genesis Collective

In Beaver County, a $90,000 Mission in Action grant to The Genesis Collective is funding cultural projects like the Uncommon Concerts & Conversations series at Uncommon Ground Cafe in Aliquippa. 

“Our mission is to support artists in their work and connect the public with art and creativity in Beaver County,” said Pamela Rossi-Keen, executive director of The Genesis Collective. 

Besides the concert series, which is free to the public, Genesis projects include theater education for youth, and an art invitational for Black creatives called Being Black in Beaver County. 

It commissioned local artist Marlon Gist to create paintings for an upcoming exhibit about the Underground Railroad in New Brighton. 

 “We want to amplify the voices of diverse people in our community,” says Rossi-Keen. “[The YWCA] grant fits with that beautifully.”

Voce Solis, a chamber choir, performs at the Uncommon Concerts & Conversations series at Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa. Photo courtesy of Erin Ninehouser.

More Mission in Action grants

Other nonprofits that received Mission in Action grants in the first round were: AD 99 Solutions, Afrika Yetu, Casa San Jose, Charles Street Area Corp., Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh, Let’s Get Free, Melanin Mommies, RE Visions, re:Bloom, Royally Fit, Ruth’s Way, SisTers PGH, TransYouniting and Youth Enrichment Services.

Besides those grants, the first $10 million of the Scott gift is being used for initiatives including: mini-grants and other support to minority- and women-owned businesses that were negatively impacted by the pandemic; a fellowship program for women to develop professional skills and gain exposure to the YWCA’s race and gender work; the Level Up Campaign that aims to close the gender wage gap; Unite to Heal, a partnership with other YWCAs in Pennsylvania that promotes racial healing; and expansion of the YWCA’s Liz Prine Memorial Fund that offers one-time grants to women seeking financial stability. 

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.