The YWCA Boston carries on a 145-year tradition
President and CEO of YWCA Boston Sylvia Ferrell-Jones cheers on YWCA’s 2010 Stand Against Racism participants. (Photos courtesy of YWCA Boston)
Today’s session includes an exercise called the “Opportunity Walk.” The group starts out lined up side-by-side in the center of the room. They step forward or backward in response to questions about opportunities and advantages in their early lives. Workshop facilitators Carolina Gonzalez and Kim Clark read out the questions.
“Have you ever inherited money or property? Take a step forward.”
“Did at least one of your parents not complete high school? Take a step back.”
By the end of the exercise, it’s dramatically clear who is ahead, with the lion’s share of opportunity, and who’s left behind. In this group, all three white participants, male and female, end up in front. Black and Hispanic women are dispersed throughout, the ones who arrived from other countries as adults a bit further forward. The black men are the farthest back; one is almost pressed against the wall.
Those in front turn around to face the others and the dialogue continues across the gap that has emerged.
“It gave us a nice physical image of what racism is,” says participant Lokita Jackson afterward. “I’ve been looking for something like this,” she says of the program, called YWCA Boston’s Community Dialogues on Boston’s Ethnic and Racial Diversity. She’s found the discussion so far “very healthy” and believes its impact will extend beyond this room, especially with the action plans each participant will create at the end.
Jackson, who is African American, heard about the Dialogues from a friend who wrote part of the program’s curriculum. “I did not know the YWCA had the eliminating racism mission,” she adds.
She is not alone. The YWCA’s work is unknown to many, says Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, president and CEO of YWCA Boston. The Boston branch, in operation since 1866, was the first official YWCA and is now one of nearly 300 branches of the national organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.
Ferrell-Jones, who has led YWCA Boston since 2007, sat down with Exhale recently in her South End office to talk about her agency’s history, mission and current activities.
Local students participate in YWCA’s 2010 Stand Against Racism.
Ferrell-Jones is proud of YWCA Boston’s anti-racism programs such as Community Dialogues. She voices particular enthusiasm for the annual citywide Stand Against Racism held on the last weekend of April, where groups literally stand in public places holding signs to bring attention to racism. More than 40 organizations and 2,500 people participated in the Boston area last April 28. She flashes a broad smile as she tries to tick off on her fingers a tally of events that day, and recalls how she “zipped all over the city” to participate at different locations.
These are current programs, but the YWCA’s focus on racial justice began very early on, Ferrell-Jones says. The national organization took a stand against lynching early in the twentieth century, and extended its services to Japanese American women in World War II internment camps. African American civil rights activist Dorothy Height rose to the YWCA’s national board in 1946, well before the civil rights era, Ferrell-Jones notes. And the first restaurant in the South to serve blacks and whites together was in a YWCA.
The organization also continues to work for women, its original reason for being.
Early on, YWCA Boston provided safe housing for young women coming to the city for work, and childcare for working mothers. The YWCA offered Boston women a gymnasium in 1884, “at a time when it was thought unhealthy for ladies to perspire,” Ferrell-Jones says. Job training evolved from sewing machine and secretarial skills to non-traditional training such as construction trades in the 1970s.
Local students participate in YWCA’s 2010 Stand Against Racism.
In partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, YWCA Boston provides breast health services from a mobile mammography van at health centers and shelters around Boston, targeting minority and immigrant populations. While the good news is increasing numbers of women of color are being screened today, Ferrell-Jones notes, mortality rates are still higher in these groups. The organization’s “Woman-to-Woman Breast Health Phone-A-Thons” bring volunteers together to place calls to local women to ask about their health care and remind them about routine health screenings. And “Spirit-Wise Sisters” is its support group for African American survivors of breast cancer.
“YWCA Boston works to reduce race-based health disparities with education and outreach programs for women negatively affected by disparate health outcomes,” Ferrell-Jones explains.
A Boston Police officer gets to know some young community members at a YWCA “peace zone” party.
The women’s health and wellness programs reach 3,000 women per year. The girls health programs, conducted in community agencies and after-school programs around the city, serve more than 400 girls.
In the area of economic empowerment, YWCA Boston offers free financial literacy workshops to young women living or working in Greater Boston, covering credit card debt, savings and retirement planning.
One of YWCA Boston’s big annual events, the Academy of Women Achievers Luncheon, is coming up on June 15, 2011. The luncheon will feature Anita Hill as keynote speaker and will honor a host of local women leaders. The event doubles as the organization’s most important fundraiser of the year.
Ferrell-Jones, whose background includes a law degree, 20 years in real estate investment management and five years as director of agency development for Big Brothers Big Sisters before joining the YWCA, has been lauded for bringing greater financial stability to YWCA Boston. But as with most nonprofits, and particularly with the dismal economy of the past several years, fundraising is a relentless need.
Participants rally in front of Arlington Town Hall as part of YWCA’s 2010 Stand Against Racism.
And “growing” is the key word here. The road might be easier if the organization could stay still, concedes Ferrell-Jones. “But I’m not interested in easier — I’m interested in justice,” she says. “I’m interested in helping as many people as possible. And to do that we have to grow. I don’t believe in stasis.”
She continues: “Our full mission statement says YWCA Boston is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. So that’s what we’re aiming for.” She pauses. “Who couldn’t support that?”