Over 300 YWCA leaders from across the country gathered together last week to connect and learn together during our biennial National Conference in Washington, D.C. During several days of panel discussions, speeches, and workshop sessions, leaders focused on identifying new opportunities and forging new connections to help us unleash and leverage our power as a national movement. United in our mission to eliminate racism and empower women, we know that when we individually and collectively “Dare To Be Powerful,” we enhance our ability to provide life-changing leadership and service to women, children, and families in our communities.
This year’s conference theme of “Dare To Be Powerful”—derived from Audre Lorde’s commanding words—not only paid homage to YWCA’s rich history, but also issued a call to action for the challenges we continue to face. Throughout the last century and a half, YWCA has been a champion for organizing, mobilizing, and stepping up as a catalyst for change by working to fight racial injustice, support gender equity, and provide safety and resources for women and families.
We convened in our nation’s capital, where our many panels, sessions, and activities focused on ways to carve out new opportunities and to take bold steps forward to ensure our organization’s health, sustainability, and impact far into the future. In addition to tackling some of the issues at the heart of our programs, such as gender-based violence and STEM, this year’s conference sessions included panels focused on future vitality and efficacy. Topics included:
- Strengthening local association governance
- Building national fundraising infrastructure
- Engaging with innovative strategies in philanthropy
- Developing women’s political power and leadership
- Advocating for federal funding streams
We also hosted sessions to discuss YWCA’s efforts to leverage our existing expertise and build leadership through our new YWCA University initiative. And we tackled pressing issues such as the 2020 Census, women in the media, and recent opportunities to access capital through mission-driven partners and federal programs.
Some of the most prominent women leaders of our time convened together for a powerhouse panel focusing critical current issues in the halls of Congress, at our borders and in our communities.
Co-founder of Supermajority and former Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards, Director of Gender Justice Campaigns for the National Domestic Workers Alliance Mónica Ramirez, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Vanita Gupta, and President and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Melanie L. Campbell discussed activism, leadership, self-care, and the future of the racial justice and women’s rights movement. We were reminded that we succeed when our ideas and actions are intersectional, intergenerational, and inclusive.
Conference attendees were also inspired by an intimate armchair conversation between YWCA USA CEO Alejandra Y. Castillo and bestselling author and former Obama Administration advisor Valerie Jarrett. This delightful conversation included valuable insight into Jarrett’s career experiences and the external forces, circumstances and events that shaped her life. The two also discussed politics in Chicago, the importance of being an advocate and mentoring people – women specifically, among them former First Lady Michelle Obama.
YWCA USA also honored the achievements of extraordinary women leaders Sen. Joni Ernst, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Fatima Goss Graves, Brittany Packnett, and Mónica Ramirez during the conference, and presented them with awards for their work and impact in racial justice, advocacy and civic engagement, and women’s empowerment. As YWCA USA CEO stated, “These women are fearless leaders whose impact on women and girls in our country is undeniable. They exemplify the essence of Audre Lorde’s words and the ethos our organization’s mission to eliminate racism and empower women. Their tireless efforts and dedication to improving and centering the lives of women and girls—particularly women and girls of color—are truly admirable, and we are proud to lift up and recognize these women for their leadership.”
Our two pilot cohort programs continued to provide in-person training. Our state advocacy pilot cohort, a group of local associations who work on policies around racial justice in California, Michigan and North Carolina, met for the third year in a row. This year’s training brought the cohort together to share lessons learned, build skills, and determine next steps for each state advocacy agenda.
This year, the Women of Color and Native Women’s (WOCNW) Leadership Cohort was comprised of 15 women of color who convened for a powerful pre-session exploring the critical needs of women of color leaders. The cohort also hosted a roundtable of women of color CEOs within the YWCA network reflecting on their individual leadership journeys. Grace Lubwuma reflected on her journey as a woman of color in leadership to becoming CEO of YWCA Kalamazoo. It doesn’t matter whether or not a space is built for you—we have the right to build what we need, she remarked. “If the dress doesn’t fit you, make another one that does.”
YWCA leaders joined together to fill the halls of Congress with persimmon during our 2019 Capitol Hill Day, “Our Power, Our Congress.” More than 250 advocates from over 110 local associations in 38 states and the District of Columbia raised our collective voice to promote the importance of the policies, programs, and funding needed to ensure a safe, economically secure future for women and girls to 203 legislators.
It was wonderful to connect and reenergize with leaders from YWCAs across the country, engaging with one another and sharing our experiences as we collectively work to create a safer, more just world for women, girls, and families. We were able to celebrate one another and the tireless work YWCA leaders do every day and reflect on the myriad ways in which we can dare to lead, innovate, and inspire.
The conference affirmed that we are one network, one movement—one YWCA. When we come together, we can build towards a brighter future in service of others. We remain steadfast in our determination to create lasting change, help women, families, and communities, and stand on the side of justice. As an organization, we have always dared to be powerful, and will continue to strengthen our vital movement for women, girls, and communities of color across the country.
Check out more photos from our 2019 National Conference here.