Five questions for Christine McDonnell and Victoria Tentler-Krylov

Many Bostonians know about Rosie’s Place, the first-of-its-kind shelter in the U.S. for women, which continues to operate today as a “sanctuary of hope, a place where every woman [is] welcomed. Listened to. Understood. Loved.” Its founder was the fiercely persistent, radically empathetic, and highly quotable Kip Tiernan, whom readers meet in the picture-book biography Sanctuary: Kip Tiernan and Rosie’s Place, the Nation’s First Shelter for Women (Candlewick, ages 7–10) by Christine McDonnell, illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov. See also our Women’s History Month tag and Women’s History Month 2022 coverage.

1. Christine, did the idea for this book originate with your interest in Rosie’s Place or with Kip Tiernan herself?

Christine McDonnell: I never met Kip. I wish I had. I served food at Rosie’s Place as part of a community group and was struck by the tablecloths, the flowers, the care that was evident in every detail. Kip’s photograph is on the wall near the entrance. She has an amazing loving smile.

Nine years ago I began teaching in the education program at Rosie’s Place, and I taught there until the pandemic. My students were immigrant women from many countries who were learning English. What fabulous students! Some semesters the class had women from Somalia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, all in one class. Other semesters I had classes filled with Chinese women. We laughed together. We shared photos of grandchildren. I taught the hokey pokey. They taught me dances and laughed at how stiff I was. We had a great time.

I got to know Kip first through Rosie’s Place. I decided to write about her after seeing a stack of picture-book biographies of social activists. Kip’s papers are at Harvard Radcliffe Institute. In the fall of 2016 I read through the files: speeches, interviews, fundraising letters, correspondence, brochures, newspaper articles. Kip’s voice is so powerful, so deeply caring, so insistent on the dignity of the women who came to Rosie’s Place. She was a gifted speaker and writer. I could see how relentless she was. I had her voice in my head on the morning after Election Day, 2016.

2. Victoria, how much did you already know about Kip going into the project?

Victoria Tentler-Krylov: I have lived in Boston since 2000, so I knew a lot about Rosie’s Place. I’ve passed by the building on Harrison Avenue many times and followed the renovations over the years. But even though I knew of Kip as the founder, I never really knew her story until I read Christine’s manuscript and started doing the research. It became clear to me very quickly how incredible Kip was as a person, and how devoted she was to helping others. Her genius for empathy and connection with others, and her steadfast dedication to Rosie’s Place, really struck me. Ultimately, after finishing the project I felt like, in a sense, I got to know Kip. She must have radiated kindness and really touched everyone she met. It would have been an honor to have met her in person when she was alive.

3. Victoria, the warmth of Kip’s interactions, and her passion for justice, come through so clearly in the art. What types of sources did you use?

VTK: I used many different types of sources depending on the phase of Kip’s life and the historical context, but my primary source was Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library. I spent a lot of time there, going through their archive dedicated to Kip Tiernan and collecting photos, notes, and news clippings. Of course the early parts of Kip’s life are not as well documented as the later ones, but I was lucky to find photos from her college yearbook and some earlier portraits of her.

I also did a lot of research online and in local libraries to find images and context around the historical figures that impacted Kip’s life, especially Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan in New York; and (for the first part of the book) the Great Depression-era settings, interiors, and personalities. As the book unfolds you see more and more of the diverse people Kip encountered, and I based my interpretations of them, and the nature of Kip’s connections with them, on the photos I found at the Schlesinger Library.

I wanted to subtly shift the overall color scheme of the book from more somber and muted grays to bright and warm colors as Kip got closer to realizing her dream. My main goal for every spread was to balance Kip’s incredible kindness and passion for others with her drive and determination, and to surround her with as many diverse faces as I could, because I knew that’s the company she loved.

4. Christine, what stood out or surprised you in your research? (For example: How on earth did people think women didn’t need shelters; and that “homelessness [wasn’t] a women’s problem”?!)

CM: Kip had a background in advertising and public relations and she knew the power of a well-turned phrase. I was delighted and amazed day after day reading her papers. Her comments were arrows piercing the layers of bureaucracy and hypocrisy that she battled.

I was surprised to learn that Rosie’s Place never accepted any government funds: city, state, or federal, because Kip refused to keep records. She felt it was demeaning to the guests. It has always been supported by private contributions and grants. In one account, after Rosie’s had become more established and was serving many people, the staff said they needed more office equipment. Kip’s response was: “How about a piano?”

As I read through the files, I was awed by the depth of Kip’s dedication, the intensity of her love, and the anguish she felt about the suffering of women burdened by poverty and homelessness. She never stopped fighting.

5. The back matter further explains and explores the root causes of homelessness. As Bostonians (past and/or present), what positive changes have you seen, and what work still needs to be done?

CM: The crisis of homelessness has only deepened. The lack of affordable housing, the low wages paid for service jobs, and the shortage of work paying a livable wage all contribute to the crisis. People lose housing so easily. And there is no safety net. What will it be like when all the evictions caused by the pandemic take place? Where will people live?

Back in the 1980s a friend asked Kip to speak to his urban studies seminar at a local college. Kip refused at first. She said, “We don’t want to have homelessness in the curriculum, we want it eradicated.” Well, forty years later, it’s an ever-deepening problem. Kip said shelters are not the answer — we are warehousing the poor; permanent housing is the answer. “You’d be crazy, too, if you didn’t know where you were sleeping tonight.” The public is more aware of the crisis of homelessness because it’s impossible to ignore it. Tents and encampments are visible in cities across the country. There’s a better understanding that this is a complex problem needing a multilayered solution. People slide into homelessness for many reasons. There are movements for building more affordable housing, for job training, for help for those struggling with addiction and mental illness. Housing comes first. Other services will be effective only when people have permanent housing. As Kip said: “Who decides who gets the condo and who gets the cardboard box?” That’s still the question.

VTK: Unfortunately, the pandemic has shown us that those who are experiencing homelessness have suffered the most. When the COVID-19 factor was added to the already challenging conditions of the affordable housing crunch, the opioid epidemic, and the challenges of the harsh Boston climate, the situation became untenable. But I think that we can be optimistic that Mayor Wu’s work will provide a way out of the crisis. I am excited that the approach to fighting homelessness is shifting toward support, low-threshold housing, and a comprehensive public health strategy. I am especially happy to learn that in order to qualify for housing support, candidates no longer need to demonstrate compliance or be subject to punitive strategies. Dignity, respect, kindness, and dedication to helping people rebuild their lives — these are all Kip’s values that shape the mission she defined for Rosie’s Place. I think Kip would have been fully on board with this new direction.

From the February 2022 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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