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Fearless Kiki

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Imagine the fear Kiki Peppard must have felt over a dozen years ago when her husband walked out of their Long Island home, leaving her with two small children, a mailbox full of bills and debt a mile high. Or the sick pain and dread she felt shortly after that when her mother - the backbone of the family and sole source of childcare for Kiki - died unexpectedly.

Then picture yourself as Kiki, with no other choice than to sell the family home and find somewhere, anywhere, to move that was affordable and provided a chance to start over.

Aren't most of us just a couple, dark twists of fate away from finding ourselves in a similar situation? And wouldn't we all hope a fresh start would do the trick?

For Kiki, moving to the Poconos of Pennsylvania made her situation even worse.

Kiki went through 19 job interviews in her new town, and she was asked, every time, if she was married or if she had children. As soon as the employers learned Kiki was a single mother, she was shown the door, despite the fact she was a supremely qualified applicant and viewed by past employers as a reliable, model employee.

Finally, Kiki asked a prospective employer why he was asking such questions, and he answered that single moms cost him more by way of healthcare for the kids, so he pays single mothers less. Kiki said to him, "That is not legal!" to which he replied, "Oh, yes it is, and I should know, I'm a lawyer."

One of the most horrifying parts to this story is that the lawyer was right, it is legal in Pennsylvania to deny a job applicant a job based on their marriage or family status, as it is also legal in 27 other states - with no federal protection through Title VII either.

This discrimination, as you can guess, tends to hurt mothers, especially single mothers, (and in turn, their children) the most. Though it is hard to believe, and most people are shocked to learn it is in place, it is a sad and ugly fact.

After the 19th rejection, Kiki and her kids were forced on welfare, and Kiki found herself with no recourse, just like countless other mothers in the state who face this discrimination every, single day.

As this is a story of fearlessness - which Kiki represents in its most true and awesome form - sure enough, Kiki figured out how to fight back.

I wrote about Kiki in an op-ed titled, Maternal Profiling, for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after seeing the incredible documentary film, "The Motherhood Manifesto," by Joan Blades and Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner (www.momsrising.org) which features Kiki's story.

"I am as mad today as I was 12 years ago," Kiki told me.

But Kiki didn't spend time fuming, she took action.

After calling the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission to complain, and was told that her experience in Pennsylvania was common, and legal, she called the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which confirmed that marriage and family status are not protected federally either.

When Kiki asked a representative of the Pennsylvania commission, "What can I do then?" he told her, "Get a law passed."

For six years Kiki struggled to get a lawmaker to sponsor legislation. She has spent six more years fighting to get it made into law.

The legislation, HB 352 and SB 440, would amend the 50-year-old Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and make it illegal to ask "marital" or "familial" questions of job applicants. The bills remain stalled in committees.

Kiki has never given up. She might have found herself afraid at times, but through it all, she remains fearless. She never doubts, despite huge odds, that this legislation will be made into law, because she knows, firsthand, how important it is. In two job interviews Kiki was not asked about marriage or kids, and in both interviews she was offered a job. She works, to this day, for one of those employers.

"It's going to happen," she said to me the first time we spoke on the phone.

Another reason Kiki is fighting as hard today for this legislation as she was 12 years ago is she knows if Pennsylvania passes this anti-discrimination legislation, the state could create a chain reaction, and other states, and the federal regulations, will have to follow.

But, it is a tough and nasty fight, and there remains a tremendous amount of work to do.

Businesses and lawmakers have vocally opposed the campaign, even as recently as last week. A group of small business owners called into a radio talk show about this subject to say that they were vehemently against the legislation, and that they would never hire another single mother again. The business people claimed single mothers were unreliable and bad for the bottom line, all the while completely oblivious to how horribly bigoted their words were. Do we need a better example of the bias mothers are fighting?

At MomsRising.org, a group of Pennsylvania women, including Kiki, and MomsRising's leaders and members, are working with great organizations like: 9 to 5, Parents' Action for Children, Now PA, Mothers and More, and others, as well as dozens and dozens of bloggers to get the word out.

So far we have collected over 5,300 names on an online petition (http://www.momsrising.org/petition/stop_discrimination_against_moms), which Kiki delivered to Harrisburg last week (with the intent of soon delivering thousand more!); hundreds of phone calls have been made and emails have been sent to the chairmen of the committees in which the bills are being stalled; we have passed out thousands of flyers; gone on radio programs; reached out to media outlets across the state; had meetings with lawmakers; engaged in blog discussions; and enlisted numerous groups and organization to join our fight. We are gaining some ground, but there is so much more to be done.

Many lawmakers in Harrisburg seem hell-bent on letting this legislation die in committee, for the third time, and word is that there may be some behind the scenes special interest from the dark side (aren't there always?) trying to keep a lid on Kiki's bills.

We blog on MomsRising.org about our campaign almost every day, and share all the ups, downs and internet goodness that come our way. If you want to get involved, have some ideas, want to send a letter, sign a petition or make a call, visit www.momsrising.org/pa.

When asked about HB 352 and SB 440, a typical response from some lawmakers in Harrisburg is, "I never hear from anyone about this, people don't seem to care."

It is possible to change the law, for Pennsylvania, for the 27 other states that legally discriminate in this way, for mothers, for children, and for Kiki - but, clearly, we need to make noise that is so loud and fearless, the individuals who are stalling the bills won't be able to play deaf any more.

Kiki has led the way, now we need to take the hill, with megaphones.

If you haven't already visited our new Becoming Fearless section, click here for more blog posts, news stories, and special features on relationships, work, parenting, health, sex . . . life.

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