"I wish there were no longer a need for organizations such as ours," says Dara Richardson-Heron, M.D., CEO of the YWCA USA. "I truly wish that we could have put ourselves out of business many years ago." And, after 150 years, who could blame her? The YWCA model, which was created over a century-and-a-half ago to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all, is again taking to Capitol Hill to advocate on behalf of women and girls. "Who would have thought that so many of the rights the YWCA already fought for, and won would again be threatened today?" Dr. Richardson-Heron asserts. "Our advocacy and direct services are needed now more than ever."
And while the most visible women's rights being jeopardized include voting rights and the right to have control over our own bodies, there are more, many more. "Increasing concerns surrounding social and racial justice, economic equality, violence against women, immigration reform and work-life balance are all imperiling women's security and survival," Dr. Richardson-Heron adds. "And when there is discrimination against half the population, everyone is negatively impacted."
Still, by heeding one of her favorite Winston Churchill quotes, "Mountaintops inspire leaders, but valleys mature them," Dr. Richardson-Heron, who is now in her 19th month as CEO, believes that the YWCA's re-engagement is exactly what our country needs. "Our advantage is that we not only provide strong advocacy, but this advocacy is informed by our provision of direct services. By serving over two million people each year at more than 1,200 locations in 46 states across the U.S., the YWCA is one of the largest organizations in the nation to do both. We are often the first to witness women's needs, and we use that information to advocate for women and girls in Congress," she says.
And this is one of the most compelling reasons why the YWCA recently celebrated some of this nation's most courageous female leaders at its annual YWCA USA Women of Distinction awards last month. As inspiring role models for women and girls, honorees Sister Simone Campbell, Activist Gaby Pacheco and Military Leader Jaspen Boothe have each demonstrated an "unwavering commitment to making a difference in the lives of women and their families," Dr. Richardson-Heron says. Whether it was the voice of Sister Campbell proclaiming that "I am my sisters' and brothers' keepers," or Ms. Pacheco's affirmation that "Immigration is the glory of our past," or Ms. Boothe's challenge to our to country to "take care of our sisters-in-arms and our men-in-arms equally," the standing ovations each received was clearly representative of what the YWCA represents, the voice for every woman.
But the YWCA's voice also has an iconic history, brand and name, a name that House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called 'solid gold' on the Conference's opening day. Focusing on the problem of domestic violence, specifically, the YWCA's "solid gold" reputation has been earned by helping to pass the landmark Violence Against Women Act. "For women to succeed," Leader Pelosi said, "We have to remove the fear of domestic violence from their lives." And no one knows this better than Representative Gwen Moore, a victim of domestic violence who also addressed the YWCA during its conference. "Your voices are powerful in Congress," she said. "I have been abused, and women like you helped me pick up the pieces. It is time to make a mighty noise and a mighty roar!"
And the YWCA's mighty roar is again being heard through activities to address many vast and vital issues. For example, the YWCA is currently working with key stakeholders to design, develop and implement innovative programs to break down barriers to racial, social and economic equality and challenge communities to move toward equity for women in all aspects of life. The YWCA is also working to protect vital health care programs including Medicare, Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act. Additionally, the YWCA strongly supports Comprehensive Immigration Reform and voting rights legislation to ensure that all eligible U.S. citizens are allowed to vote.
But even with the YWCA's extensive and formidable reach, Dr. Richardson-Heron asserts, "We could do so much more if more women, men and families across the nation join us in our efforts."
"We need everyone to serve as an ambassador to our collective movement to achieve racial and social justice," she adds. "There is no question that the actions we take today will positively impact the lives of women, girls and families for generations to come, just like the successful YWCA model first did more than 150 years ago."
Lori Sokol, Ph.D., is an Educational Psychologist and publisher of Work Life Matters magazine.