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Opportunity, determination mixture stirs good working history

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002

Opportunity is one thing. Determination is another. Mix well and you get a working history like that of Elizabeth Jean Brumfield.

This is a woman who started college nearly 25 years ago but quit after a mediocre term or two. "I was not good in school," she says more severely than necessary, since she had work as a seamstress and also helped a sister raise children at the time.

Yet when the roses of 2002 bloom, Brumfield will be completing her final credit toward a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh. And in the fall, she starts three years' work towards a doctorate, apparently without doubt that the academic honor will indeed be brought home. "I'll be 49 when I have that Ph.D.," she says.

Along the way, Brumfield, a single mother, has often held two jobs at a time, sometimes three — and never gave up sewing, a skill she acquired at age 8 from her own mother, Gloria, a veteran seamstress.

Nowadays Brumfield's needle and thread are employed in an unusual public service.

She designs and produces what she calls "interview clothing" for women of poverty who are desirous of looking their best when seeking employment. Heavy-set women, as a matter of fact.

Her creations go to a nonprofit organization called The Corporate Collection Dress for Success Pittsburgh, located at the old Epiphany School, Centre Avenue, in the city's Uptown section. Founded less than four years ago, the Collection outfitted more than 1,000 job-seeking women last year.

But the need is especially acute for dress sizes 20 and larger, and it's these "plus sizes" that Brumfield turns out, though of slenderer silhouette herself.

She uses fabrics she stocks in a work room of her house in Homewood.

"Heavy women frequently lack all confidence about how they look at interviews," she said. An economist might go so far as to identify excess poundage as a disincentive to full employment. But from the feedback Brumfield gets, her threads have succeeded most fittingly.

"We've gotten photos of women in her outfits now in paying jobs," said Meliza Jackson, executive director of the Corporate Center, for whom Brumfield is the only designer of originals. Most of the shop's inventory consists of donated career wear and accessories, "gently worn," as Jackson puts it.

Brumfield's day job is as library assistant at the Carnegie in Oakland, where she has worked 28 years, starting as a page. (The master's degree should qualify her for the full title: librarian.) She also put in 21 years at the Carnegie's connected museum and, in needy intervals, part-timed at Pitt, too.

But connecting people to information is her vocational mission, and not only in the United States.

With her daughter Tasha, a Pitt senior fluent in Spanish, Brumfield has visited Africa and Latin America, especially areas off the tourist track, to check out how library services can be pitted against chronic poverty. "Lying on the beach doesn't mean anything to me as a traveler," she says.

The favelas of Brazil grimly impressed her. "A kind of ghetto, I guess you could call it, but these weren't just poor little houses, they were houses on top of houses." Amidst the hovels, mother and daughter distributed school supplies they had brought with them from Pittsburgh.

Brumfield is convinced the world's rich and poor are split by a true "digital divide" in information terms. And it has to be bridged, she believes, by communication in the "cultural slang" of the have-nots.

At the Carnegie, she staffs the library's Foundation Center, an unfamiliar name to average book borrowers. "We help nonprofit organizations find money for their programs," she said. This means fulfilling legal requirements, so Brumfield is able to tap into a background in legal studies, one of her majors before college graduation in 1997.

When she was a new mother, she recalled, she made a life decision not to go on public assistance. But she declines to scorn those who do. In fact, she suspects that welfare-to-work program "successes" in various locales are generating misleading statistics.

Choosing the life of gainful employment, she had to put her daughter in day care; but around age 8, Tasha began going after school to the Homewood Library where Brumfield then worked. Later, the child became a library volunteer and now an intern.

Brumfield says she gets the full 24 hours out of the day by doing very little TV watching (though legal dramas are an exception) and not much sleeping. "I've been known to get up at three or four a.m. with an idea for an outfit, whip out some fabric, and get to work."

A lifelong lover of books, she has this advice to today's young people:

"Reading is very important. Get exposed to as many cultural activities as possible. Don't confine yourself to your own neighborhood. Get as much education as you can, especially free education, and not just at schools and libraries but places like the YWCA, boys' and girls' clubs, jazz workshops and sports training."

They'll find the struggle to be worth it, Brumfield believes. Hers was.

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