Vanessa McDowell Named First African
American CEO of the YWCA
Another First
Vanessa McDowell cut her teeth in managing
organizations as the executive assistant to the
pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
Part 2 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.

With the current political climate, the YWCA and its constituency faces challenges on
many fronts. Some issues threaten the ability of the consumers of YWCA services to
survive. Others threaten the YWCA’s ability to financially survive.

“We don’t really know, day-to-day, what is happening with certain funding streams that
we have here that support a lot of the programs,” McDowell said. “We also have to
make sure that our participants feel safe. There are some reservations or concerns
about Sanctuary Cities and things of that nature, making sure that the undocumented
folks whom we serve feel protected and safe. The systems in general have always
been a challenge for us or a barrier for the people whom we serve. They have to jump through all of these hoops in order to get served. They
have to work hard to get what they get. And some of this stuff is so complex that it is even hard for us to manage and figure out how to get stuff
through.”


In addition to providing services, the YWCA also has to serve as a platform through which women and others can speak and advocate for the
services and the policies that they need in order to become self-sufficient and succeed.

“As much as possible, I want to make sure that I bring our constituents to the table,” McDowell said. “I don’t speak for them. They speak for
themselves.  As you know, our mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. And so, they go hand-in-hand. There is a lot of
intersectionality with the barriers that we face. And so being a woman right now, it’s difficult because you are looking at them taking away the
health care. We don’t know what’s happening with the health care situation and reproductive health and all of that. There are a lot of concerns
there as well. Again we have to make sure that our advocacy platform supports our constituency, the people we serve. We’re going to the
Capitol and letting them know that we don’t agree. We want to make sure that our voice is heard. We want to make sure that our Senators are
fighting for the same things that our participants need in this community, that they are truly representing this community.”

The mission of the YWCA has been Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women. But in the Madison area, that mission has been pursued,
primarily, by a Euro-American leadership on behalf of communities of color in the Madison area. McDowell wants to make sure that all hands
are on deck.

“The leadership team for years has been predominantly white,” McDowell said. “People who were making decisions on behalf of the
participants or the people whom we serve were predominantly white. I think we have the opportunity right now to shift what that looks like and
what it feels like to the people whom we serve. We’re moving away from a helping model to an empowering model for folks. Right now, we’re
in the process of doing some evaluating of our current programs, whom we serve and what we offer and making sure that we are serving this
community in the best manner that we can. And so, I foresee that we’ll make some programmatic changes in the future. But right now, we’re
just trying to assess things, making sure that what we do offer and how we are serving are the best things for our community and the folks
whom we serve.”

Having been born and raised in Madison, McDowell has seen several generations of reports come out about the Madison area’s racial
disparities. There is plenty of information there. Now is the time to act on that information.

“My biggest challenge is that with such a bold mission to eliminate racism and empower women, it’s a heavy banner to carry, just in general,”
McDowell said. “But in Madison, it’s an even heavier banner to carry, I think, because of the disparities that we have here in the city. The
biggest challenge to me is to figure out how we can tangibly get rid of those disparities. And I think we have done enough of the talking and
meetings and convening about the Race to Equity report. We’ve done all of that. I’m action-oriented. So I’m looking for the next step. What are
we going to do that is going to tangibly get results and make a dent in some of these disparities that we are seeing, to lessen them? We have a
Y-Web program that is a tangible thing that we do to make sure that women and people of color are entering into these IT jobs, which are
lucrative. Folks who come to us who may be under-employed or unemployed or homeless... don’t have family-sustaining jobs. But then they go
through the program and get hired on, we have students who got hired even before the program ended and they graduated and could be
making $50,000 to $65,000. That’s real impact. I’m looking for those kinds of things that we can continue to do, but also new things that we can
do to really make a difference and have a real impact in this community.”

In order to move the needle on reducing the disparities in the Madison area, McDowell knows that the YWCA can’t do it on their own.

“One thing that I am also intentional about is collaborating as much as we can,” McDowell said. “I think in these times, we have to be very
creative in how we are working and making sure that we are doing things that enhance our community and enhance the folks in our
community. As you know, we are the Tale of Two Cities. We need to make sure that we are helping or serving those who may not have. For me,
that’s one of my major goals and things that I try to work on, to figure out ways that I can collaborate with others in the city who are doing
similar work because we can’t do it by ourselves.”

Many of the issues that McDowell and the YWCA will be working on have almost proven to be intractable. But with younger leadership coming
on board with fresh perspectives, that disparities needle just might start to move in a positive direction for the benefit of all in the Madison
area.