If the letters “YWCA” bring to mind leotard-clad aerobics enthusiasts or the smell of chlorine, you’ve got it all wrong. Well, at least partly wrong.
In the last few years, both nationally and in North Carolina, the 150-year-old organization widely associated with fitness centers and swimming pools has returned to its roots to embrace more overtly a mission firmly focused on social change.
Its recent rebranding under the tagline “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women” reflects renewed commitment to promoting specific changes at the community level, goals that have driven the YWCA for generations.
Founded in London in 1855, the Young Women’s Christian Association now boasts more than 25 million members in 122 countries. The organization came to the United States in 1858, opening women’s residences in New York City and Boston.
For the next century, YWCAs were at the forefront of the suffrage movement, provided occupational training and otherwise actively promoted women’s welfare.
The organization’s efforts to combat racism date at least to 1915, when it sponsored the South’s first interracial conference.
In 1946, eight years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, the YWCA adopted an interracial charter.
And in 1967, it saw the election of its first African-American president.
Today there are about 300 YWCAs nationwide, including seven in North Carolina. The N.C. affiliates, in Asheville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, Raleigh and Wilmington, have been part of an organizational transformation that began in the late 1990s.
Much of the change was structural, including a shift from top-down to bottom-up management.
“It was a very antiquated model,” says Jane McIntyre, who leads YWCA Central Carolinas, in Charlotte. “The national office supposedly controlled the local associations, but the local organizations were really the strength.”
A new regional structure allows affiliates to set their own agendas based on local needs, McIntyre says, and eliminates a lot of bothersome paperwork.
It includes a peer-review process that has increased individual associations’ accountability to the YWCA mission and created more opportunities for mutual support, including sharing of best practices.
But the major changes have been reaffirmation of the YWCA’s mission, including adoption of so-called Hallmark Programs focused on women’s economic empowerment and racial justice, as well as strengthened advocacy.
Alongside the fitness and child-care centers that remain central to many affiliates, every YWCA in the country is required to implement Hallmark programs that respond to local needs and create measurable change.
For many, this means strengthening longstanding initiatives.
For example, YWCA Central Carolinas has long been a major provider of transitional housing for women, serving more than 100 women facing a variety of challenges every year.
“It could be you and me,” McIntyre says. “It’s women you know. We try to provide whatever that woman needs to be successful, including by reaching out to support services in the community.”
Results are impressive, with 87 percent of women who stay in the program at least four months moving into permanent homes afterward, and 91 percent still in stable housing after a year on their own.
But the mandate to focus more on mission has led to profound changes at some associations.
For example, in 2006, YWCA of the Greater Triangle, in Raleigh, sold the 50,000-square-foot building housing the fitness and aquatic center that had long been its mainstay program.
Leigh Duque, who was then executive director, says the sale generated much-needed funds to support mission-driven efforts such wellness programs addressing health disparities, entrepreneurship training for women, and study circles promoting community dialogue and problem-solving on race relations.
“At the end of the day, we decided that our resources were entirely too valuable” to be operating a gym, Duque says, especially since there were many other fitness centers in the community. “We were able to focus those resources in a way that better met community needs.”
Florence Corpening, executive director of the YWCA Winston-Salem, says another challenge was meeting the national organization’s mandate to engage more women under the age of 30, including in leadership positions.
“What I thought was going to be a cumbersome task has really been a blessing in disguise,” Corpening says.
The addition of young women to the board has taught her “that there are young and upcoming women who will be here when I’m gone.”
That, she says, is what empowerment is all about.
Overall, the YWCAs’ recent rebranding and reorganization has been difficult but well worth it, says Corpening.
“It was challenging at first,” she says. “Change is not easy. But for a lot of YWCAs, it was a welcome change.”