Vanessa McDowell Named First African
American CEO of the YWCA
Vanessa McDowell cut her teeth in managing
organizations as the executive assistant to the
pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
ministries, making sure that they were functioning and operating. I developed a second service with the pastor’s time. And I made sure that the
almost 2,000 members we had at the time were managed and taken care of. I was like the number two to the pastor to make sure that
everything gets done.”
McDowell moved on to manage the Wei LAB for Dr. Jerlando Jackson for a year at UW-Madison. But missing the direct service touch that she
experienced at Mt. Zion, McDowell left after a year to take a position with the YWCA, a move that eventually led to her current position.
“I started as director of support services,” McDowell said. “I was co-directing our housing department. In less than a year, I was promoted to
be the chief programs officer, so my umbrella expanded a little further so that I was over all of our direct service programs. And then in a little
less than a year, I was promoted to be the interim CEO.”
Being the interim CEO was almost like try-out employment. She could get a feel for the CEO position before she competed for the job.
“It really helped me to sit in the seat and see what it all entailed and also it was a little challenging just because you don’t want to make too
many changes or do much because you are the interim,” McDowell said. “You’re not sure what is going to happen after the interim. I’m actually
thankful that I am able to step into this permanent role now because there were some things that I had set out to do that I can now fully do in the
permanent role. I’m excited about that. It’s been beneficial for me to be able to make the decision on whether or not I wanted to take on the
permanent role or not. I actually think people received me pretty well in that role as the interim. I had a lot of staff support during the interim,
which has been really helpful. It’s been very busy. There were more meetings than I had on my calendar. I had to adjust to the demands of the
Springtime is a big fundraising time for the YWCA. In February, there is the Circle of Women held at the Alliant Energy Center followed by the
Moxie Conference in May when the Women of Distinction leadership awards are handed out.
“I felt it was a great success because we pretty much had a new team that was heading these two major fundraisers,” McDowell said. “And
we were able to pull together and make it happen in a way that really helped our programs. I’m very proud of the team for being able to do that
in such a short period of time with this transition.”
And now that she has been named the permanent CEO, McDowell will be overseeing another transition at the YWCA.
“Our Empowerment Center is on Lathrop Drive,” McDowell said. “And actually we are moving. On September 1st, our Empowerment Center
will be on S. Park Street where Wisconsin Management currently is next to El Pastor. We will be much more accessible near the transfer point.
We’ll also be near our partners like the Urban League.”
Whether intended or not, it appears that McDowell’s career has been leading up to this appointment. She has a staff of about 70 employees
working in the areas of housing, employment & training, race & gender equity programming and advocacy.
McDowell is proud of the staff that she works with. It’s not a job to them, it’s a mission.
“Eliminating racism and empowering women is something that we live every day,” McDowell emphasized. “One thing that I love about our
staff is that it’s not like we leave and take the banner off and then go home and then come back and pick the banner up once again. We live it
all day, every day. I don’t take it off when I go home. I’m always thinking about that. Even as an African American woman, I’m always living
that every day. For me, it’s something that is real life and I think it’s real life to everyone who works here. It’s not something that we just say. It’
s something that we actually are fighting against every day. And it is exhausting because it is something that is alive and well.”
While the YWCA of Madison has had the mission to eliminate racism, it is still working on diversity issues internally to ensure that they reflect
the women whom they serve.
“The board has changed a lot,” McDowell said. “We have a diverse board. That’s one thing that I am intentional about, making sure that our
board remains diverse and it continues to get more diverse. We still have work to do in that area. But it’s definitely more diverse than it used
to be. We also want to do that internally for staff as well, make sure that our staffing reflects the diversity of the participants whom we serve.
We’ve been working on staff diversity for a while. It’s different to now have an African American woman or woman of color leading this effort.”
One of the most important priorities for McDowell right now is to continue the agency transition from a traditional social service model of
helping people to one that empowers people.
“My overarching vision for YWCA of Madison is that no matter what your touches with us are, they are empowering,” McDowell said. “Whether
you are looking at a website, whether you are staying in our housing facility, or you are in our job training program or you went to our Racial
Justice Summit, whatever touch you have with us, that it was really empowering. We want folks to feel empowered when they are here, when
they are receiving any of our services because for me, I believe that we can’t fix anyone or this is not about me knowing the answers to your
problems. This is about me coming along side of you and seeing how I can serve you. And usually if you sit with someone long enough, they
can figure out for themselves what they need. Sometimes, you just need to sit with them and spend that time and help them believe in
themselves that they can do it because they can. It’s going to take some time. But it is my goal.”
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
For the first time in its 109-year history, the YWCA of Madison did something historic on
July 17th. Vanessa McDowell became its first African American CEO after serving as
its interim CEO since January. McDowell is a good fit for the organization as it meets
new financial and political challenges on a local to national level.
McDowell, a Madison native, is well connected to the social service and political
systems in Madison. After spending a year with Summit Credit Union after earning a
sociology degree from UW-Madison, McDowell took the position of special assistant to
the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church for nine years, which proved to be a great training
ground for an up and coming executive.
“The church was great preparation,” McDowell said. “I have always credited the church
with a lot of my leadership development. Over those years, I was able to operate as
sort of a chief operations officer, running the day-to-day stuff, building stuff and 80 plus