Many people are familiar with the YMCA. For those who aren’t already aware, can you talk about the rich history of YW Boston and a give us a description of some of the work that you do?
YW Boston is unlike any other YWCA in the country. Although we share the mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all, our organization has historically positioned itself at the cutting edge of inclusion and equity building. Founded by religious women of some social status, YW Boston aimed to challenge the trajectory of a changing social landscape. The women who founded this organization did so because they firmly believed that young women and girls would need support, social foundation, pathways, resources and skills to be empowered and prepared for new opportunities.
In addition to aiming toward gender equity, the organization has had a long history of fighting for racial justice. In the early 1920’s, YW Boston focused its resources on promoting racial integration within the city. In 1968, YWCA’s adopted the one imperative “to eliminate racism wherever it exists at whatever cost necessary.” The rich history of this work has kept the organization in steady alignment with progressive civil rights movements leading up to present day.
The main misconception about YW Boston is that our organization only serves women. The work we do to advance social inclusion and equity involves people of all genders, across race, class distinctions and economic sectors. Convening as much support as possible from all people interested in eliminating racism and empowering women has given YW Boston a unique edge and robust identity as a powerful platform for helping to create change in our city.
Our programs have focused on women and girls health and wellness as a pathway for empowerment and equity, but the work has never stopped there. We have invested in exploring a diverse portfolio of programs above and beyond serving a specific gender and have, over the years, learned a great deal about what our city needs in order to move the social justice needle. Our leadership programs for youth and adults (InIt and LeadBoston) as well as our Dialogues on Race and Ethnicities program, serving intergenerational people of all races and genders, have profoundly informed our understanding of Boston’s diversity and inclusion needs. We are currently harnessing this wealth of knowledge to help shape the next iteration of supportive programs evolving from the rich history of 152 years of helping to build a better Boston for all.
Why is an understanding of intersectionality of gender and race crucial to tackling some of society’s most pressing issues?
Social justice work, when done effectively, critically examines the intersections where people who have been historically disenfranchised, be it because of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or race, still struggle to gain significant systemic footing for empowering themselves and each other’s forward momentum. It is important to understand that the issues our communities face, the problems of inequity and disempowerment, stem in large part because they cannot be easily named, and thus simply identified as singular issues. Patricia Hill Collins describes intersectionality as the investigation of “complex entanglements between interpersonal experiences of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and ability, and how they relate to larger systems of power, oppression, and social privilege.”
In order to point out the levels of discrimination happening for women and people of color, a lens is needed that can examine the complexity of each of the layers that compounds the problems of discrimination. Intersectionality as a theoretical framework, lends itself to surfacing language that not only examines the problems of racism, sexism and other types of discrimination, but in the process of providing language that examines, also enables the individuals subjected to these multifaceted discriminations, to take ownership of their experiences by vocalizing them and shining a unique light on the webs of oppressive entanglement that broken systems have woven, tightly around them. Understanding intersectionality is a way of grabbing hold of an intellectual chisel with which one might begin to chip through layers of discriminatory entanglement.
At YW Boston, we’re constantly thinking about how to use intersectionality as a framework for understanding the social problems we work to address. Our programs are tools and pathways for navigating through and finding ways out of the entanglement. We are critically aware of what the numbers tell us about the conditions in which people of color find themselves. Take wage inequity for example. Overall, women in Greater Boston earn 76 cents for each dollar earned by men. Yet, if you look at it by race, white women earn 75 cents, Asian women earn 71 cents, Black women 52 cents, and Latinas 49 cents respectively compared to white men.
Another example of how the entangled layers at the intersection of race and gender play a key role in enabling disparity can be seen in the healthcare system. Black women, for example, have fewer incidents of breast cancer compared to white women 118.3 to 132.5 per million but higher mortality rates 33.8 to 25 per million (CDC Website). In both cases, it suggests that Black women face additional challenges so different strategies are necessary to ensure that equitable outcomes are achieved for everyone.
Add to the discriminatory systemic loci, the prevailing stereotypes that haunt Black women, i.e. the ways in which Black women are stereotyped as angry or not seen at all (2010 article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Amanda Sesko and Monica Biernat), and you begin to understand why it is difficult to make pathways out of the problems of discrimination and the proliferation of systemic injustice.
The concept of intersectionality provides a starting point from which we can do effective social justice work and convene others across diverse sectors to help us think critically about how best to begin disentangling these complex webs of oppression.
Some people think of the wage gap as an issue that just effects individual women. What are some of the ways you see wage disparities affecting whole families and communities?
While the wage gap negatively affects individual women by limiting the full potential they might have otherwise tapped into had they the resources to explore additional success pathways, it also has a truly devastating impact on women who choose to build, nurture and nourish families. According to the book The Broken Ladder by Kieth Payne, one of the factors that most affects people living at or below the poverty line is the inability to accumulate wealth over time and ensure that the children of families living in poverty can find their way out of poor economic circumstances. Payne puts it this way, "Once a family has accumulated some wealth, it can be used for buying a home or establishing other assets for the next generation. But in Black and Latino families, where the average wealth is close to zero, each generation starts essentially from scratch.” That’s the thing... Women struggling to make ends meet, can and often do raise children who, despite circumstances, manage to accomplish academic success, graduate from high school and perhaps earn a college degree, yet still cannot climb out of the cycle of poverty because they have no kind of safety net or endowment afforded by the wage of their parents. Many are unable to sustain over time, the successes they work hard to carve out for themselves and their families. The support systems are simply not in place to ensure sustainable upward mobility.
As the National Partnership for women and families shared, Massachusetts women who are employed full time lose a combined total of more than $22 billion every year due to the wage gap. A sum that could mean a great deal of advancement and potential upward mobility for families headed by women. Creating wage equity for women and their families could potentially mean more money for food, thus reducing the number of families who go hungry or feel the devastating stress and pain of food scarcity. Equity in wages could help women raising families save for their children’s college education thus ensuring that a college education is both possible and full of promise for a better, healthier and more enriched future. Wage equity could mean more women being able to save for a down payment for a family home and thus creating the possibility of better mental health resulting from the immense challenges of homelessness and housing insecurity.
For people of color, and especially women of color, it is not just a matter of money. There is a whole set of mental health and physical health issues that stem from prolonged exposure to stress and also from the self-esteem issues that rise out of feeling unseen, unheard and devalued by society at large. Bridging the wage gap could have a huge positive impact across generations. This is why YW Boston advocates for pay equity and shines a light on the impact that food scarcity (often resulting from underemployment and unemployment) has on the lives of women, their families and ultimately entire communities crushed by the weight of economic disparity.
When trying to change culture in the workplace, it’s crucial to have your company leadership be champions for equity. YW runs a program called LeadBoston. How does this program help senior executives and leaders become allies for progress at their respective companies?
By bringing people together across race, gender, class and sector, LeadBoston provides a powerful platform for creating systemic change over time. Mid-level and senior executives, who already understand and care about many of the social justice issues of our time, come into the program motivated to think critically about how to take action. They learn skills and connect with people who share powerful personal experiences across diverse vantage points. The experience has an eye-opening effect.
LeadBoston participants make a commitment to doing the difficult work of reflecting on their position in the landscape of social inequity. The work they do together throughout an intensive year of leadership experiences prepares them to help move the needle across organizations that find it challenging to build good equity and inclusion practices. Throughout the course of their collective learning experiences, LeadBoston participants become ambassadors of organizational and social change. They start by discussing the most pressing problems, identifying possible solutions and finally end up building and implementing dynamic community action projects that create momentum towards building a more equitable Boston.
Whether it’s a police officer who is tired of seeing the people in his community struggle with issues resulting from poverty and poor living conditions, an educator who feels compelled to address the education gap head on or a top executive at a finance firm who believes that more can be done to level the playing field and create success pathways, what all of these individuals share in common, is a true passion for being part of the solution instead of blindly perpetuating the problems. The impact they have on their families, their organizations and communities creates a ripple effect that we believe has the potential to make a real difference.
What are some ways that people can be more intentional allies in the fight against racism and sexism in the workplace?
Recently, I had tea with a very good friend who is white. We’ve known each other for about fifteen years. Several years ago, she started to explore white privilege and white supremacy. I asked her why she started to do this work and she said, “Well, I hope to be less of an a-hole in the world.” There are many ways that people can be more intentional allies in the fight against racism and sexism in the workplace.
Generally, the first step tends to be accepting that racism and misogyny exist and are a problem. The next step requires cultivating the will and the motivation to learn more about how these issues show up in one’s workplace, neighborhood, and the world at large.
Another key action step is reflecting and working to understand one’s own role in perpetuating systems that hold back people of color and women. Everyone plays a role in supporting the current system and thus, each individual can be part of helping dismantle work environments that are abusive and oppressive.
As an African American woman who attended business school, I have had to reflect on how what I learned about leadership impacts my ability to lead and my potential for evolving the concept of leadership all together. There are practices that I adopted as a student in business school that some would argue, serve to perpetuate a white supremacy culture. By virtue of doing the daily work of examining my own approach to leadership, the why, what and how of the practices I have adopted, gives me the opportunity to decide when it is critical to reset my own mindset and overcome the limitations of what I was taught. I’ve come to understand the importance of being mindful about the things we internalize as truth. The lessons we absorb from systems that generally benefit from inequity don’t always serve the greater purpose of creating balance and opportunity with and for others. It is critical that we challenge ourselves and each other to examine our practices and recalibrate mindsets that don’t serve a greater good.
This constant self-reflection isn’t easy, especially in a fast paced environment with thousands of moving parts all going at once. However, I think that in order to create sustainable success as a leader, it is critically important for me to make the time for self-reflection, to see how my choices impact the work, the environment and those I rely upon as collaborators and supporters. YW Boston challenges me to do the necessary work for creating a truly inclusive work environment where all people can thrive.