I’ve had the honor to serve on several non-profit boards for causes I care deeply about, but it has been during this pandemic that I have found myself more deeply connected to the cause of the YWCA. I’ve been a board member of YWCA Greater Austin since 2018. At our board planning retreat last year, my colleagues elected me to chair the Fund Development Committee. Not so sure anyone else wanted it – but I was genuinely honored and up for accepting the challenge. The timing felt right as I had wanted to amplify my non-profit work with hands on fund development experience.
Who could have foreseen that in less than three months we would be here? Fund development during a global pandemic? As the saying goes, timing is everything…
Three months into flatten the curve, shelter in place, here’s what I am seeing so far. Because of the volatility, our priority path has been to take a short-term view of the organization’s funding needs and to focus on best case outcome opportunities. Fund development for a non-profit entity in normal times is critical to the livelihood of any organization. We are responsible for ensuring the organization has the financial resources to realize the mission and enact the vision. Layer on a global pandemic, even for someone hardwired to take on challenges, it has been a continuum of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows.
The challenges have forced me to jump in and to problem solve in creative ways that have somewhat upended what I considered traditional lines between staff and board member roles. Not to mislead, ours has always been a working board – no posturing, no VIP lane – we have always been a working board, but this pandemic has forced all of us out of our comfort. Board work during pandemic times is not for everyone.
However, it has not been all stress and panic. The surprising, positive outcome? Bearing witness to the quite literal heroic efforts of the staff making sure Austin’s longest and inarguably most impactful social services agency, continues to deliver on its mission to empower women and girls and to fight for equal rights and social justice. In a perverse way Covid-19 has validated the very existence of social services organizations such as the YWCA by laying bare and exposing even more clearly the social and economic inequities in our system that have always existed. “Covid-19 represents a new and additional disparity that sits atop the already existing mental health and social justice issues that have been at the heart of our (YWCA) organizational mission for over 100 years,” stated CEO, Executive Director YWCA Greater Austin, Naya Diaz. See the full story behind this quote at the organization’s official Covid-19 response, “An Update From Your Greater Austin YWCA.”
When we talk about “additional disparity” we are looking at a complex web of societal and institutional inequities that are so baked into our institutions and societal norms that many of us may not even question their very existence. Shortly after doing the fact finding needed to communicate the agency’s initial Covid-19 response, I came upon this New York Times article, “A Terrible Price: The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America.” When I read this comment from the current president of the United States, “Why is it that the African American community is so much, you know, numerous times more than everybody else?” I paused. Well, at least he asked the question.
According to this story, the reasons are complex and deeply multi-faceted: “The conditions in the social and physical environment where people live, work, attend school, play and pray have an outsize influence on health outcomes. Those in the public-health field call these conditions social determinants of health.” This is exactly why non-profits exist – to meet the tremendous gaps in our social construct wherein the private sector cannot adequately address these disparities.
Social determinants are not a new concept for the team at the YWCA. Deploying culturally and linguistically sensitive therapies and trainings is the hallmark of the YWCA Greater Austin’s approach to healing the most vulnerable in our community. In fact, they have been recognized nationally by YWCA USA as leaders in the field. According to YWCA Director of Clinical Services, Laura Gomez-Horton, LCSW, “We view all of the women and families we serve through a lens of oppression. What does that mean? Rather than seeing the person as the problem, we ask: What have they experienced? What social determinants need to be considered with regards to this person’s mental health?”
Very few organizations can claim the deep historical footprint of progressive social change of the YWCA, an organization with over 200 affiliates deeply embedded in communities all over the country. This model makes their reach and impact possibly unparalleled in the world of economic empowerment for women and girls, social justice and elimination of racism. Here in the Southwest region alone there are nine (9) YWCA affiliates which includes Greater Austin. All affiliates share the same mission – empowering women and eliminating racism – with each location developing their programmatic strategies and priorities based on the needs of their community.
YWCA Greater Austin has been an integral part of the fabric of Austin’s community, leading at the forefront of the most pressing societal issues since the early 1900’s. Being ready and able to address the many impacts in our community from this global pandemic is why this organization exists.
When the city wide shelter in place mandate was instituted in early March 2020, YWCA very quickly made the difficult transition to all-remote work. Easy enough for a high-tech company, but for a social service agency that serves the community primarily via face to face counseling, care coordination and training services? The logistical and operational challenges were intense, while at same time having to “answer the phones” to ensure they remained responsive to the many needs of the community they have always served.
While the agency has been on the front lines of this pandemic, providing mental health services and support to already marginalized communities throughout the eight (8) counties in and around Austin, their financial health has been at times in jeopardy as they are largely reliant on Travis County, City of Austin and Office of the Governor contracts. Technically these are termed awarded “grants” but they are in essence contracts for services with very specific guidelines and benchmarks to meet. As the state and the city have struggled to enact emergency measures, agencies with contracts have been living a day to day game of Whack-A-Mole securing one essential source of grant funding then learning another grant renewal is in jeopardy.
During the past three months I have become more integrated with the agency’s day to day operations in addition to the short and long-term finances and fund development pipeline. Working alongside our incredible CEO, Executive Director, Naya Diaz and key members of her staff that oversee fund development, government contracts, and the clinical team. I have learned the importance of really listening, asking the right questions and conducting timely next steps with the right subject matter experts. I have loved learning the language of equity, justice and equal rights from these incredible women with deep expertise in social justice work.
Over a recent Zoom, I asked Naya Diaz to take a moment to share her experience as the executive director overseeing the organization’s transition.
When did you know this crisis was real? “Within a week of shutting down our physical office and everyone working from home we saw a dramatic spike in calls from our current clients as well as lots of new people seeking help. We began hearing from families and their children about what was happening to them.”
What was one of the first needs that you identified as a result of the coronavirus? “We learned that several agencies here in town had shuttered their services completely and / or eliminated their help/crisis lines. As a result, many of those calls started coming into us. Because of the dramatic increase in calls and the broader range of needs of those callers, I quickly saw the need for us to develop a centralized warm line. A warm line is an alternative to a crisis line that is run by trained and experienced peers. Unlike a crisis line, a warm line operator is there to hold space for those going through a crisis such as suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors. Trained peer support specialists can get them to someone who can handle this level of crisis.”
What is one surprising and positive impact as a result of this? “Even though I had to focus very quickly on the operational challenges of getting our telemedicine and training services running at full capacity, the one thing that stood out was that everyone on our staff just understood that we all had to step up and be problem solvers in a way that we had never had to be. Our team already worked very well together – but this situation made me really see everyone’s strengths very quickly. Each person took on an even higher level of ownership and accountability. As mental health providers, we don’t have the Hippocratic oath, but we don’t need one. We instinctively understand what we signed up for. Many of us are women, women of color. We are the lived experience of women supporting women.”
As the mother of three teenage daughters, I am feeling right at home living this language of inclusion and empowerment. It’s a scary time thinking about the world my children will inherit. But knowing that there are incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate women working together to make our communities stronger and more inclusive, gives me hope. As a member of a non-profit working board, we get to do more than just hope. I know that collectively, we are all making a difference.