Recognizing the Importance of the Violence Against Women Act on Its 20th Anniversary

By Hannah Brinson
Violence Prevention Project Coordinator, YWCA Knoxville

Hannah Brinson

Hannah Brinson

This Saturday marks the 20th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA. VAWA was enacted in 1994 and includes measures to keep victims safe, and to hold perpetrators accountable. Here at the YWCA in Knoxville, Tennessee, the funding provided by VAWA has revolutionized our preventative and victim advocacy services. As we celebrate the anniversary of VAWA, we are particularly excited about a program VAWA funding allows us to offer to our community.

Our Engaging Men and Boys project is funded through the Office on Violence Against Women and directly involves men and boys in domestic violence prevention. The YWCA Knoxville’s project is creating a bystander intervention curriculum for middle school males, specifically those who are at-risk to witness or perpetrate domestic violence now or in the future. The bystander intervention curriculum will teach young men about domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, and help them learn new, creative, and safe ways to intervene when they witness violence against women, or acts or behaviors that perpetrate the culture of violence against women. Because it targets middle school males who were not formerly reached by efforts to engage young men in bystander intervention, this curriculum will be the first of its kind. The Engaging Men and Boys project will also utilize a multimedia campaign to raise awareness about domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, and to increase understanding of men’s abilities to prevent violence against women in the community.

As it picks up speed, the need for this VAWA-funded project has become readily apparent: one middle school participant witnessed a sexual assault in the school bathroom; two young brothers are living with a father who, just the week before, strangled and beat their mother; and a professional contributor told of how her sister was murdered by an abusive husband.

The Engaging Men and Boys project’s importance and relevance is emphasized in light of two major news stories this week, one local and one national. Locally, a report released Tuesday ranked Tennessee 10th in the nation for male to female homicide, and nationally, headlines were made when the video of NFL player Ray Rice’s brutal assault on his then-fiancé was leaked. This is a perfect time to begin talking to men and boys in our communities about violence against women and how they can be a part of prevention.

Join us this month in celebrating the impact of the Violence against Women Act in your community, the work you do, and the services provided. Remember the role it has played in decreasing the rate of domestic violence across the country, and the groundbreaking programs it has funded and inspired. Keep it in mind when you discuss your work with colleagues, friends, and fellow community members, and encourage them to vote for politicians who will reauthorize it when the time comes.

As the Violence Prevention Project Coordinator, Brinson manages the Engaging Men and Boys project. She has experience in Child Welfare and in Domestic Violence Advocacy. Brinson has a Master of Science from the University of Tennessee in Child and Family Studies, and a Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies from Berea College.


Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Children's Health and Safety, Domestic Violence, Violence Against Women, Women's Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

YWCA Billings Launches Campaign to Reach Victims of Abuse

By Merry Lee Olson
CEO, YWCA Billings 

ywca billings

Twenty years after the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was put in place to try to protect women, its value is more important than ever—and as needed in lesser populated regions of the country as it is in cities. Such is the case in Montana, where the entire state’s population only recently hit the 1-million mark.

Through its campaign, “Reaching Every Woman®,” YWCA Billings helps victims of domestic violence understand how to obtain help and enlists the community in getting the word out about the problem and available resources.

One in every three women in the 18,512 square-mile region that surrounds Billings is a victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or harassment. And with VAWA-based funding and help from other grants and supporters, YWCA Billings is able to help women even in very rural reaches—including the small towns and Native American reservations near Billings, which is Montana’s largest center of population and commerce.

“We have a tool kit we provide that has information about how to recognize violence,” says Merry Lee Olson, CEO of YWCA Billings. “It takes many different forms.”

That might include physical, sexual or emotional abuse. In this age of technology, Olson said, it could mean a boyfriend texting 100 times a day, checking up on his girlfriend, which could escalate to other types of abuse.

“It’s interesting how these modern devices allow predators to be more predatory,” she says.

The information campaign uses billboards, bus benches, social media, and other kinds of advertising to disseminate messages.

The informative campaign encourages women to call or text for help. With the most rapidly growing sector of women suffering abuse being females ages 18 to 30, it only makes sense to offer them an alternative way to get help, Olson says.

“They’re not as likely to go to a website or use a brochure as they are to go to their mobile device and text for information,” she says. “They can discreetly text and an advocate at our Gateway domestic violence shelter will get back to them to see if they’re in immediate danger or if they need information.”

In another part of the outreach, advocates go to high school and college campuses, churches and community forums to get the word out. The hope is that women in abusive situations will get the information, or family or friends of those women will learn about it and pass it on.

YWCA is using social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to reach younger women.

“That’s not to say we don’t see women come into the shelter who are over 40, even over 65,” Olson says. “We had a woman in the last several months in the shelter with her grandson, seeking safety from her husband who abused them both.”

Gateway House offers 24-hour support to women in crisis. In addition to information and referrals, the shelter has 10 bedrooms that can each hold two single women or a woman and her children.

In the fiscal year that ended in June of this year, Gateway provided more than 7,800 nights of shelter to 132 women and 122 children. Women can stay up to 12 weeks at a time while advocates help them figure out how to move forward, Olson says.

That might include referrals to other community agencies for services the YWCA doesn’t provide. For example, Gateway partners with RiverStone health to help women and their children with their health needs.

But it isn’t always smooth sailing, Olson says. The biggest local hurdle is the lack of affordable rentals.

Some women end up on the streets or back with their abuser. Some are able to get help through Family Promise of Yellowstone Valley, which works with homeless families.

“We have a vision to create more transitional housing that would then allow up to two years of affordable protection,” Olson says.

Many of the women come back to Gateway House several times. Most of them leave their abusers five to seven times before they take permanent steps, Olson says.

Gateway House also offers other services, including the Employment and Training Center, which helps adults overcome barriers to finding full-time employment, and the Child Center, which provides a safe and enriching environment to children ages six weeks to six years of age.

Gateway is funded by a variety of federal, state and community funds that includes the United Way, as well as private grants from foundations and individuals.

The “Reaching Every Woman” campaign is supported by the Billings community, including St. Vincent Healthcare and other local donations.

To learn more about YWCA Billings, please go to or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

This post is based on an article written by Susan Olp of the Billings Gazette with input from YWCA Billings’ staff. Olp has worked for The Billings Gazette since 1988 and been a full-time reporter since 1990. She has covered a variety of beats, including medical, Yellowstone County government and education. Her present assignments include religion and the Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes, plus general assignment reporting.

Posted in Children's Health and Safety, Domestic Violence, Economic Empowerment, Empowering Women, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Commemorating Women’s Equality Day

By Samantha Plotino
Mission Based Coordinator, YWCA Bergen County 

Samantha Plotino

Samantha Plotino

Historically, women in the United States have grappled with the perceived notion that they are not equal to men. It’s easy to forget that until 1920, women were not allowed to vote: they were, essentially, rendered voiceless.

Often subjected to a lesser status in society, women continue to fight for equality; a battle that has waged on for centuries. Thanks to some truly incredible women leaders – past and present – today’s women are graduating from college at increased rates, earning higher wages, and are better represented in all levels of government.

What is Women’s Equality Day?

In 1971, Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), requested that the U.S. Congress designate August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.”

Why August 26? Rep. Abzug selected this date to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920, which granted women the right to vote. This unprecedented Amendment was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, women have continued to fight for what they know to be true: there is no difference in the value of a woman versus a man. And while the status of women has vastly improved over time, it is critical that we continue to call attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality, including passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), equal pay for women, equal rights under the law, and a right to personal freedom and autonomy.

A Celebration of Women’s Equality Day

On Tuesday, August 26, YWCA Bergen County will be co-sponsoring a Women’s Equality Day event: From Girl to Leader: A Celebration of Women’s Equality Day. Presented by the League of Women Voters of Northern Valley, the event is also co-sponsored by the Women’s Institute at Bergen Community College, UniteWomen.Org, Women’s Rights Information Center, Girl Scouts of Northern New Jersey, and Bergen County Commission on the Status of Women.

We will hear from two vibrant leaders – Liz Abzug, Director of the Bella Abzug Leadership Institute, and Lucy Beard, Director of the Alice Paul Institute – and you will have the opportunity network with your local women Mayors, Senators and Assemblywomen.

We encourage you to bring your daughters, mothers, sisters, and friends to this dynamic event. Starting at 5:30 p.m., the celebration will take place in the Technology Education Building at Bergen Community College in Paramus. Drinks and refreshments will be available, and parking is free in Lot B.

We look forward to seeing you there!

The National Women’s History Project,

Cross-posted with permission from YWCA Bergen County

Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Empowering Women, Leadership, Upcoming Events, Voting, Young Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Heal Our Communities, We Must Treat Each Other as Family

By Amy Hunter
Director of Racial Justice, YWCA Metro St. Louis

Amy Hunter

Amy Hunter

What’s going on in Ferguson?

We have failed as a community to treat each other as kin. This is apparent in the way this incident was handled. If Mike Brown had been Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson’s son, he would still be alive. This is not about breaking the law, or being under the suspicion of breaking a law. Every adult, at some point of their lives, likely has broken the law, but it doesn’t have to cost a life. We have a judicial system to assess crime and punishment. The situation in Ferguson, where there is mistrust of that authority, exposes the issues that are deeper and more systemic, like failing educational systems, profiling, and the lack of trust between people that are different from one another. Today Missouri Governor Jay Nixon said there may be “bumps in the road” ahead. No doubt. How we navigate those “bumps” will be key.

Some of the media who covered my public remarks in Ferguson identified me as a “mother.” I am a mother; I am also the Director of Racial Justice for the YWCA Metro St. Louis. Racism is a social construct, and its defeat can be as well. I am encouraging everyone to reach for each other with love, as if we are connected and related. If we are going to learn from this incident, grow, and elevate our current disconnection, we are going to have to embrace, support, and handle each other as if we were related. In scholarship, this is called “fictive kinship,” meaning that, although we are not related, we are claiming each other as if we were in the same bloodline. As women, we do this with each other all the time: our best friends are often referred to as our sisters and our children even call them aunt. It happens with men, too.

If we are going to get through and beyond this, we are going to need to adopt this belief. It will dramatically change our actions and work toward healing. The world is watching, and it will take all of us to move forward in healing communities.

I don’t know Darren Wilson, so I am going to take some license that he is a good person who misjudged his response to the situation. If Mike Brown had been his biological son, he would have handled the situation much differently. Maybe he would have taken him to the police station and booked him, or talked sternly about the positive responsibilities of manhood.

If I apply this rule to myself and other mothers, Mike Brown could have been our son; in some ways, fictively he is my son. As a professional and as a mother, I never want to see a young person die from violence. Nor do I want tear gas, police dogs or swat teams used on U.S. citizens who are protesting.

The tragic events this week in Ferguson highlight the importance of the YWCA historically and today. We have much work to do in this community and others around the world to prevent these moments. We need the support of our community leaders, major corporations, supporters and families to fulfill the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. A mother’s movement is a powerful force.

This incident has provided an opportunity for the YWCA to make a difference. We can take a stand against violence in any form, support grieving families, assist in peaceful demonstrations, and teach our youth to accomplish change through non-violent means. It has opened the dialogue about the need for more racial justice programming, like our Witnessing Whiteness groups to educate, inform, train and equip our white allies for social justice advocacy. Or our Mosaic Group, for people of color, to understand the impact of racism and to heal and work towards liberation from its harm and hurt. I have seen the good that honest communication in a safe space can accomplish. Together, we can change the world for the better.

As director of racial justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis, Amy Hunter is responsible for ensuring that eliminating racism, part of the YWCA’s two-prong mission of eliminating racism and empowering women, is incorporated in all of the organization’s internal and external programming. She serves as a representative of the YWCA in matters that address institutionalized and systemic oppression. She joined the YWCA in 2008; she has more than 15 years of experience in the corporate sector. She previously worked at Edward Jones in the area of diversity and served on the faculty for the Dismantling Racism Institute, a program of The National Conference for Community and Justice. Hunter has provided strategic direction for organizational development for universities, school districts and the corporate community. She has published works and is a presenter on issues of race and social justice throughout the United States and Canada.

Hunter is a native St. Louisian and is currently pursuing her PhD in Social Justice from the University of Missouri St. Louis. She has served on several boards and committees in St. Louis.

Hunter’s zeal and passion for creating an equitable society is unmatched. She is extremely busy being engrossed in her quest for equality while loving and being loved by her family.

Posted in Children's Health and Safety, Hate Crimes, Racial Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Uncomfortably Predictable: Race, Community and the Cycle of Violence

By Donte Hilliard,
Director of Mission Impact, YWCA USA

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- U. S. Declaration of Independence 1776

YWCA is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
- Adopted by the General Assembly, 2009

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.
- Zora Neal Hurston

Donte Hilliard

Donte Hilliard

Once again, an unarmed Black person is dead at the hands of local law enforcement agents. How many spectacles of bullet-riddled, broken Black bodies must we endure? How many cablecast reports and tweeted acts of grief and rage must we consume before we declare it is too much? How much evidence do we need before we admit that the United States of America has a problem?

Unfortunately, we at the YWCA USA know all too well that racialized community violence is neither novel nor rare for people of color in the U.S. Even as we join the hundreds of thousands of people who demonstrate their solidarity with the Brown Family (on the ground and online) as they grieve the loss of Michael Brown and seek justice, we know there are innumerable victims and survivors of this type of systemic violence who will never be acknowledged on a national platform.

We also know, that despite what continues to be revealed about the specifics of this incident in Ferguson, Mo., the script is uncomfortably predictable:

  • A person of color is racially profiled, surveilled and killed;
  • Despite being unarmed, he/she is accused of being a threat or threatening;
  • Peaceful, organized community action is ignored — framed as a riot rather than a protest or civic engagement, or rendered moot because of other acts (such as looting);
  • The local community is admonished for “rushing to judgment” and not waiting on the facts;
  • Images of the dead person of color surface that portray him or her as a scary, menacing, or gang-affiliated;
  • Local and national law enforcement agents and agencies will seek to frame the death in a race-neutral context, denying the reality of institutional and systemic racism; we will be asked to see victims, survivors and perpetrators only as individuals and not as members of social groups of varying institutional and structural power, while simultaneously being bombarded with racially-coded words and images;
  • Taxpayers will be treated as “enemy combatants,” rather than citizens who are guaranteed the right to gather, speak, and protest per our founding and governing documents.

What do we say and do in the face of this gut-wrenching, all-too-familiar cycle of violence against the psyche and soma of people of color?

We at the YWCA USA dare not desecrate the lives and memories of the victims and survivors of racialized community violence with hollow platitudes. Rather, we seek to transform our anger, confusion, and despair into action.

Here’s what we can do:

  • Locally, those near Ferguson can contact the YWCA of Metro St. Louis. This YWCA has a long history of working on racial justice and to end discrimination in St. Louis, through workplace seminars, hosting speakers, guided dialogues, and more. Amy Hunter, Director of Racial Justice, leads these groups to “increase understanding of the institutionalized and systemic impact of racism, work towards peace and healing and positively impact the community we all live in.” Earlier this week, she joined other community leaders at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant for a forum with Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
  • No matter where you live, please take action today and tell Congress the time is now to end racial profiling—a United States problem that destroys American values of fairness and justice. Congress must take action and pass the End Racial Profiling Act this year. This bill requires that local law enforcement agencies receiving federal funds maintain adequate cultural competency policies and procedures for eliminating racial profiling. In addition, this bill allows victims to obtain declaratory or injunctive relief.
  • If you are or aspire to be a White racial justice ally, you MUST show up. Racism is a problem for all of us. People of color cannot be the only ones putting their bodies on the line.

Do not let this movement end here. Racialized community violence must not be allowed to remain a normal part of our daily lives. We must come together and continue to fight for the fair and equitable treatment of all.

The YWCA is a social justice organization and movement with over 150 years of experience providing direct service to, building with, and advocating on behalf of the most vulnerable people in our society: low wage workers, the unemployed, women and girls, people of color, non-native English speakers, members of the military, abuse survivors, etc. As a social justice organization, we have a deep and abiding commitment to working on issues of economic, gender, and racial justice — particularly in the places where these systems of oppression overlap each other.

As an organization dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women, we will not allow issues of racial profiling, hate crimes and/or community violence be placed on the back burner.

Donte brings more than 10 years of administrative leadership in the areas of: Diversity, Inclusion & Social Justice; education/training in African American, Gender, and Religious Studies; knowledge and application of various social change models; history of advocacy for historically underrepresented groups; and coalition building within and across various communities. Donte has notable experience as faculty, trainer, community volunteer and activist, researcher and author, and has received many awards and honors. He is the co-founder and Chair of the Institute for Justice Education & Transformation (IJET), an initiative of the UW Madison Multicultural Student Center, that provides and supports opportunities for deep reflection and action around issues of Social Justice for underrepresented communities and their allies. Donte has a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas, a M.A. in African American studies from Ohio State University, and a M.A. in Religious Studies from Chicago Theological Seminary.

Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Children's Health and Safety, Hate Crimes, Racial Justice | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Top 10 Questions to Ask About Your Title IX Rights on a College Visit

By Michaela Olson
Intern, NWLC

‘Tis the season for college visiting. As campuses across America are flooded with high school students this summer, there are some hard-hitting, crucial questions to keep in mind—and they may help to give you better perspective on where you could spend some of the most formative years of your life. Although it might not occur to many prospective students and their parents, one of those questions is how a school responds to reports of sexual harassment and assault. While it’s been in the news a lot lately, campus sexual assault isn’t just a hot topic or fodder for politicians and pundits, but rather a harsh reality for far too many. The more you know about how each school responds to it, the better.

And taking steps to prevent and respond to these acts isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the law.  Title IX requires all federally funded schools to have policies and procedures in place to help educate the community about sexual harassment and assault and to promptly investigate reported incidents.

Before you go:

Fortunately, new tools are available that provide information on campus crime and allow anyone to look up which schools have been investigated by the federal government for potential violations of Title IX. Go to and to learn more.

At the Information Session:

This is usually led by an admissions officer, and for questions about official school policies and programs, this is the time that you’ll get the most comprehensive answers or at least the contact information for the appropriate person to ask. Some possible questions include:

  1. As Title IX requires, is information on the school’s sexual assault policies made accessible to students?
  2. Does the school’s orientation program cover its policy on sexual assault and misconduct? Is there bystander intervention training?
  3. Is there a women’s center, or a similar facility for counseling and support?
  4. How are student penalties for sexual assault or misconduct determined?
  5. Who is the college or university’s Title IX coordinator, who would handle any complaints of sexual assault? How can students get in touch with this person?

On the Tour:

As a tour guide at my own school, I know that the campus tour can be especially telling because the guide is usually a student, and can talk more about his or her experiences at the school. While students may not know the parameters of school policies as precisely as an administrator would, they can provide an insider’s view on how they are actually implemented and perceived.

  1. Do you feel as though students have all the necessary resources to feel safe on campus and can report any sexual assault or misconduct?
  2. Are there sexual assault awareness or prevention campaigns organized by student groups on campus?
  3. What steps do you see your school administration taking to prevent sexual assault?
  4. Are prevention efforts focused around women being extra vigilant, or around discouraging men from acting without consent? (Or, more bluntly, is the responsibility for safety placed on potential victims, or potential perpetrators?)
  5. In the event that the school is one of the 60 under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education: Do you think that the Department of Education’s investigation is causing policies or attitudes on campus to shift?

If your questions are not answered fully when you ask them, follow up! Ask the admissions officer and student for their contact information, and, along with a thank you for showing you around their school, ask again about how the school complies with Title IX. You may want to be in contact with the Title IX coordinator directly, whose information you can get from the admissions office or online.

What students or administrators don’t know can be as telling as what they do. If Title IX compliance and student safety are not perceived to be a campus priority, it may be because they aren’t.  While of course there are many bases on which you should be narrowing down your college selection, don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions when it comes to your civil rights.

Cross-posted with permission from NWLC. Follow NWLC on Twitter and Facebook.

Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Women's Health, Young Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Video Gaming and Tropes Against Women

By Monét Muñoz
Generation YW Youth Specialist, YWCA Greater Austin 

Monét Muñoz

Monét Muñoz

Video gaming has often been seen as a world dominated by a male audience, viewership, and consumership. However, more recently there has been a surge of women who are consuming this form of media at a rapid rate. In the late 2000s, Anita Serkeesian came onto the scene and changed the way we look at video gaming today. Sarkeesian is a media critic whose work focuses on “deconstructing the stereotypes and tropes associated with women in popular culture as well as highlighting issues surrounding the targeted harassment of women in online and gaming spaces.” In 2009, Sarkeesian began a video web series titled Feminist Frequency as a thesis for her Masters Degree at York University, in which she discusses how women are sidelined in the realm of video games.

Through this web series, Sarkeesian largely focuses on women’s roles within the video games and brings new light to the old world of video gaming. Sarkeesian states that Feminist Frequency “largely serves as an educational resource to encourage critical media literacy and provide resources for media makers to improve their works of fiction.” Sarkeesian proposed a web series that would place a focus on women in games through crowd funding on Kickstarter. Initially asking for $6,000, Sarkessian actually raised $158,922 from a total of 6,968 backers — an unprecedented amount for the kind of content proposed. However, not all was well after the large amount of money was raised. Although there were many backers, there were just as many, if not more people who did not agree with the mission and goal of the Feminist Frequency web series. Sarkeesian has received numerous death threats and constantly gets harassed online by those who see no issue in the world of video gaming.

However controversial Sarkeesian’s web series may be, it is bringing a much needed dialogue within the world of video gaming and the media at large. Sarkeesian raises awareness for those who do not like how video games are reinforcing negative and problematic gender roles and the ways women are represented within them.

To see more from the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series, visit Feminist Frequency on YouTube.

Monét Muñoz is a staff member of the Generation YW indicated prevention education program for youth at the YWCA Greater Austin. Muñoz obtained both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in History, with a focus on Central American Revolutions and human rights, from the University of Texas at El Paso and continued her graduate studies with postgraduate work at The University of Maryland at College Park with a focus on gendered identities in Central America during the Cold War. Through her studies, Muñoz been an advocate for women’s rights in Latin America and has done extensive research on women’s roles in conflict zones within Central America.

Cross-posted with permission from YWCA Greater Austin’s blog.

Posted in Beauty and Self Image, Empowering Women, Video, Young Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Generation Progress: “Never Be Afraid to Take Educated Risks”

by Alexis Demandante and Gretchen Oertli 
Communications and Advocacy Interns, YWCA USA

Generation Progress hosted its annual Make Progress Summit last week, where millennials from across the DC area and from all over the country joined progressive leaders in discussing problems facing our generation. Workshops and panels covered topics like the student debt crisis, sexual assault on college campuses, gun violence prevention, and civic engagement, among others.

The ballroom of the hotel was packed with roughly 1,000 college students, interns, and avid activists.  Generation Progress lined up a star-studded list of guest speakers, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren, all of whom expressed incredible optimism in the power of the millennial generation to make meaningful progress on these important issues.

Hearing our nation’s leaders was inspiring. A notable example is when Senator Elizabeth Warren took a strong stance against current student debt policies and asked her fellow Congressmen to choose: “billionaires or students?” By closing loopholes in tax policy for those in the highest income brackets, Senator Warren believes that we could make up for the $66 billion dollars that the United States stands to make off of student loans issued between 2007 and 2012.

Later, Vice President Joe Biden took the stage and gave a speech on his unwavering optimism about the millennial generation.  As a politician who has spent several decades in public service, he has seen incredible progress made in the arenas of civil rights, LGBT rights, and violence against women.  He encouraged the room to continue challenging orthodoxy, crediting the millennial generation with gaining momentum on the important social issues of our time.

The “Millennials in Office” panel was particularly inspiring. Panelists Svante Myrick, mayor of Ithaca, and Texas State Representative Mary Gonzalez have a combined age of less than 60, yet they each have incredible personal achievements, including holding public office. Together, they challenge the stereotypes of race, sexual orientation, and age as limiting factors to effective leadership. They each said that they felt that their youth and relative inexperience was a positive factor for public office rather than a limitation.

With 2014 marking the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Fight For Civil Rights Continues panel was a timely and important discussion of the work still needed to eliminate racism and bring equal rights for all. Modern civil rights leaders Dante Barry of Million Hoodies Movement, Carmen Berkley of AFL-CIO, Scott Roberts of the Advancement Project, and Vincent Paolo Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality shared their ideas on how young people can use their voices and power to make a difference in equality, especially in the workplace and voting booths, and be effective allies.

To close out the evening, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez reminded us that John Lewis, Cesar Chavez, and Alice Paul were all in their 20s during their respective movements. “Never be afraid to take educated risks,” he urged the crowd, admitting to the failures he experienced on the road to becoming a Cabinet member.  Leaving the summit, there was an air of urgency and optimism that promises progress.

This marathon of issue-oriented problem-solving sessions in a highly interactive environment fostered open discussion of the most prominent issues for the millennial generation.

Gretchen is a senior at Rice University, where she majors in Economics and English. She is interning for the summer in the YWCA USA Advocacy Department.

Alexis is a senior at California State University, Fullerton, interning in the YWCA USA Communications Department this summer. She majors in Communications and American Studies.

Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Economic Empowerment, Empowering Women, Leadership, Young Women, yw Under 30 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New Perspective on Bathrooms

by Miriam Barnett
CEO of the YWCA Pierce County

No big deal. It’s just a bathroom.


That is exactly how I would have responded if someone asked me about our bathrooms at the YWCA. Then I attended a workshop at the YWCA USA Annual Conference called “Addressing Issues of Gender Identity and Gender Expression.”

As I sat in the audience listening intently to panel member Kylar Broadus, I heard his personal stories of violence for being a female-to-male (FTM) transsexual. I never thought about what it would feel like to have to decide which bathroom to use. And I certainly never thought of the humiliation and violence that trans people endure as a result.

In that ah-ha moment, the light bulb went on in my head (and heart). The best thing about being human is gaining knowledge and then acting on it.

Back at home at the YWCA Pierce County in Tacoma, WA we had bathrooms clearly labeled “Women” and “Men.”

I took my concern for the way we were labeling our bathrooms to our Cultural Competency Committee. Gaining their full support, we decided that we would discuss changing how we label our bathrooms at the next all-staff meeting that was almost a month away. Then someone said, “But we have a trans FTM (female-to-male) with a baby right now in our meeting room.” The only changing table was in the women’s restroom.

Waiting was out of the question.

Temp bathroom sign

While one committee member went to let the individuals in the meeting know of the change, another committee member printed up temporary signs, and I typed this email to the 45 members of our staff:

“The Cultural Competency Committee met today and on our agenda was a discussion about bathrooms and how people identify. At the national YWCA Conference, Jennine and I heard a trans speaker share how he has endured unbelievable personal violence as a result of the bathroom he chose to use. This made us aware that our bathrooms force people to make a decision that does not always include their identified gender.

Examples of bathroom signs were shared that create gender inclusive and welcoming environments for all. You may notice that we have placed temporary signs on the 405 main floor bathrooms.

We will be making some changes. For instance, the bathroom now identified as “men” will become a single locked door. The bathroom now identified as “women” will have privacy strips attached to the stalls.*

Until we get the right locking door for the former men’s bathroom, if you prefer to use the bathroom on the mezzanine level, it already is a single locking door bathroom.

If you have any questions or concerns, please free to discuss them with me or other members of the Cultural Competency Committee.”

I also sent an email to the board since they also meet here. All totaled, over 70 people received the email.

And one week later, only one concern has been voiced. That concern is that women will not be safe. Luckily I had read an excellent resource titled “Peeing in Peace.” It addressed that very concern by pointing out that woman are not safe now. Just because there is a sign that says “Women,” there is nothing to keep someone out if they want to do harm. They can hide in an adjoining stall or barge right in. I will point out that this has never happened. Regardless, if this staff member is worried, there are options. They can opt to use the other gender-welcoming and inclusive bathroom (formerly called the “men’s” bathroom) which is a single use bathroom with a locking exterior door.

I am reminded of the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere.”

Thank you, Kylar, for opening my eyes to an injustice I was not aware of. My hope is that one day in the not so distant future, labeling bathrooms for men and women will go the way of the dinosaur… into extinction.

Privacy strip 1*There is a vinyl product meant for stripping the edge of windows. It has an adhesive strip and is a very inexpensive way to provide privacy to existing stalls. It has always bothered me that you can look right in a bathroom stall through the space between the door and stall. Now that issue is resolved and it took a mere few minutes with a product we happened to already have in the building.

Posted in Beauty and Self Image, Empowering Women, YWCA National Conference | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

YWCA of Queens Attends UN Women Global Launch of Beijing+20

By Jane Lee
Communications & Outreach Associate, YWCA of Queens

From left: YWCA Queens HSE Students Umme Sheuli, Moises Churio, Adrian Lezcano, Director of Center for Education & Career Services Stacy Mckelvey, Communications & Outreach Associate Jane Lee, and HSE Student Erick Menendez at the Apollo Theatre in New York

From left: YWCA Queens HSE Students Umme Sheuli, Moises Churio, Adrian Lezcano, Director of Center for Education & Career Services Stacy Mckelvey, Communications & Outreach Associate Jane Lee, and HSE Student Erick Menendez at the Apollo Theatre in New York

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women launched its year-long Beijing+20 Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it! campaign on Thursday, June 26, 2014. The campaign is a year-long movement with the mission of cultivating global dialogue and actions on women’s rights and gender equality. Several staff and students from the YWCA of Queens attended the Beijing+20 launch event at the Apollo Theatre in New York City. Our High School Equivalency (HSE/GED) students were eager to listen to the amazing line-up of speakers and performers, ranging from the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to noted feminist leader and activist Gloria Steinem.

The Beijing+20 campaign celebrates the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. Nearly 20 years ago, the UN adopted the Platform for Action, which outlined and defined a policy framework and plan to achieve gender equality and women’s rights.

By 2015, UN Member States aim to “renew political commitment to accelerate implementation of the comprehensive affirmation of women’s rights and empowerment adopted in 1995 by 189 governments, which remains only partially fulfilled.” With the modern issues that are being debated around the world on and offline, a new framework can be developed based on the real and transformative changes women need today.

It was truly inspiring to listen to such a range of successful women of all ages from all over the world, all advocating for gender equality and human rights, at the Beijing+20 launch. “Our goal is to rekindle the spirit of Beijing to re-energize all of us in our work to advance women’s rights, women’s empowerment and gender equality,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “The vision laid out in Beijing, with 12 critical areas of concern for women, still resonates deeply around the world. It is still unfinished business.”

Among the topics discussed were education for girls and women worldwide, the issues of rape and domestic violence, employment and wage gap between genders, women empowerment, and the importance of the role of men in our society to eliminate gender inequality. These subjects were discussed in insightful speeches, musical performances, as well as spoken poetry.

Tiffany Rodriguez, our HSE student who spoke at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum, said “I was pretty amazed by how everything turned out. It was full of energy and definitely worth coming back to again. I enjoyed everything, especially the poetry; it stood out to me the most.”

Another student, Erick Menendez, stated, “The event was a good learning experience for me. I think it’s great that there [are] so many people supporting these [women empowerment and gender equality] movements. My favorite part would be the performances, all of them were wonderful.”

As an organization that serves underprivileged women from diverse backgrounds, the inspiring messages from this event gave us extra motivation to keep advocating for the rights of women and elevating our educational and social services that we provide to our community.

Jane Lee is a Communications & Outreach Associate at the Queens branch of the YWCA in New York. She graduated from Ithaca College in 2012 and spent a year teaching English and traveling in Southeast Asia before moving to New York to pursue her career in nonprofit.

Posted in Advocacy and Policy, Domestic Violence, Economic Empowerment, Empowering Women, Hate Crimes, Leadership, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women, Women's Health, Young Women | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment