Suma Nair was certain that her life
would be dedicated to helping women: As an undergraduate studying international
relations at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, she gravitated to women's
Ms. Nair, an associate with the Boston law firm Goulston & Storrs
and the newest board member of On The Rise, the Cambridge organization that
helps homeless women and women in crisis rebuild their lives, was sure she would
spend her life working to extend women’s rights the world over.
"What good is having the right to vote when you cannot exercise that right;
when you cannot leave your house to vote without an escort?" Ms. Nair says,
shaking her head. She was determined to be a champion for women and to forward
their economic, social and cultural rights.
This mission lasted
until she went to Harvard Law School and "met tax," as Ms. Nair puts it,
laughing about her love affair with tax law, an interest that has shaped her law
"There is so much social engineering written into tax law," Ms. Nair says,
explaining that tax laws are a driving social force; written to encourage
certain behaviors through tax incentives and penalties.
A 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School, Ms. Nair was recruited to join
Goulston & Storrs where she works in the private client and trust group,
active in business succession and wealth planning. It was through her firm’s
dedication to the idea of community responsibility and service that she learned
of On The Rise.
"My firm did a day of service with On The Rise," Ms. Nair says. While she
participated in the service day, she was assigned to a different group, working
with a similar organization. "But everyone was talking of On The Rise, and how
wonderful they are," Ms. Nair says.
She was intrigued. Corporate culture at Goulston & Storrs encourages all
employees, from support staff to partners, to exercise their civic duties and
responsibilities and give back to the community through days of service, pro
bono work and support of community and outreach programs. In addition, Anne
Meyer, a colleague at the law firm and a long-time board member at On The Rise,
waxed eloquent about the women's day program.
"It's not a shelter, rather its a place women can access during the day where
they can start to retake control of their lives," Ms. Nair says, explaining that
she appreciates the holistic approach the program takes to helping its
community. "They don't just treat the homelessness; rather they focus on
addressing the factors that caused these women to become homeless."
These factors range from physical and mental illness, addiction, spousal
abuse, death and divorce, among others. Statistically, about half live in
shelters, while others sleep in the street (22 percent), on other people's sofas
(six percent) or find refuge in hospitals, other institutional settings and at
work. They are predominantly adults; 58-percent are between the ages of 40 and
60 and 35 percent are between the ages of 25 and 39; 51 percent are Caucasian
and 30 percent are African American.
Ms. Nair described On The Rise clients as "invisible women;" meaning they do
not fit the categories serviced by social service organizations: they are not
young mothers or mothers of young children, they are not recently widowed, and
many have been homeless for years.
"There are programs that help homeless women find apartments, but none of
them guarantee that once they are in an apartment, they will be successful at
keeping it," Ms. Nair said. "The only way to ensure success is to treat the
factors that lead to homelessness."
And On The Rise takes that approach. Bonding between staff, volunteers and
clients is key to the program's success. Every client is valued; their progress
followed, even after they have found homes. Confidentiality is maintained. On
The Rise eschews federal funding rather than abide by reporting rules that would
breach the privacy of its clients.
Ms. Nair says she was most impressed by On The Rise's acceptance of women who
are still struggling with addiction. Many shelters and social service
organizations require that clients be drug and alcohol free before extending
"On The Rise ensures that women know that they matter even after they have
been stripped, little by little, of all the intangibles that make us human: our
families, our communities, our careers," Ms. Nair says.
Concretely, the center offers a daytime safe haven where women can shower,
eat, do laundry, find clean and appropriate clothing and make telephone calls.
They can sit, watch television and even participate in Voices Together, a
writer's program that helps them explore their issues through the written word.
Workshops that explore topics ranging from health to legal issues are offered
As a new board member, Ms. Nair would like expand the organizations contacts
and network and is determined to ensure it continues to offer legal clinics to
its clients on a regular basis. "These women have been under-serviced by the
law," she observed. She would like to see these clinics encompass issues ranging
from child custody to criminal complaints, housing and immigration issues.
Ms. Nair, a Wisconsin native and one of three siblings, is married to Colin
Dean, an attorney working in the financial services field. They live in East
Cambridge and love to travel and explore the world. Her parents, since retired
to Florida, and her husband are supportive of her decision to commit her free
time and expertise to the group. She explains that she had reached a place in
her life and career where she felt comfortable focusing her attention outside
her immediate work world.
"I started looking for a place where I could give back to the community; my
community, where I live in Cambridge," Ms. Nair says, explaining that helping
locally was as important as helping women. "The firm was very supportive of my
decision to accept a seat on the board at On The Rise. It's not something you
can do without the support of your workplace."
Ms. Nair and her husband dedicated a second Saturday to service: spring
cleaning the remembrance garden at On The Rise. The garden remembers the victims
of homelessness; stones are named and dedicated to clients who die.
"If you are homeless, who remembers you when you die?" Ms. Nair asked. "On
The Rise keeps track of you; we remember you."
Please contact: Marisa Serrano
Community Relations Manager