By Desiree Hoffman
Director of Advocacy, YWCA USA
In honor of Black History Month, I was pleased to have the opportunity to interview a true YWCA leader: Mary Douglas, a 40-year YWCA veteran and advocate. She was present during one of the YWCA’s most historic moments; she shares her reflections below.
1) Tell me: how did you get involved in the YWCA? What positions have you held?
In the 1960s, I was going through a divorce and my first job was with YWCA in Wisconsin as a program director. I continued to hone my empowerment tools that had already been in the making as an independent professional working for an insurance company as a student at University of Wisconsin prior to this position. Within a couple of years, my brother and family moved to California. I decided to follow suit, and I first became a volunteer with small YWCA in Glendora that is no longer there. I became the Secretary of the Board, then Treasurer, and eventually became the President. Then I decided to leave real estate, and I landed a position as a Program Director at the YWCA Pasadena. After that, I became the Executive Director in Orange County for 17 years.
Collectively, I was with the YWCA almost 40 years. I was also on the National YWCA Inaugural Board after the Change Initiative, and served on the Nominating Committee.
2) Black History Month is coming to a close. Do you think everyone should celebrate it?
Absolutely. I had such an awakening in my own life. Growing up in a segregated community, the only black people I saw growing up were stewards on the train in Green Bay, Wisconsin. That was a point in history, in the early 1930s, when there were also Polish and Jewish sections – it was very segregated. I am very happy to say I grew up into a passionate, open-minded person dedicated to fighting for the rights of all.
3) In the YWCA’s history, we were the first to hold an interracial meeting in 1915 in Kentucky. The Atlanta YWCA cafeteria opened to African Americans in 1960, becoming the city’s first integrated public dining facility, and in 1970 we adopted the One Imperative: “To thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism, wherever it exists, by any means necessary.” Why has the YWCA been at the forefront of racial justice and women’s issues?
I think that the YWCA has been at forefront because it is WOMEN, women caring for women. When we talk about all the YWCA programs we have, we have to remember the precious words of our mission statement, of empowering women and girls and eliminating racism, and think about what it really means. A long time ago, I started thinking about women in my own neighborhood and women all around the world. We are only strong as our weakest link. The focus has to be about women caring for women and helping one another.
4) You had mentioned to me previously that you attended the 1970 Convention when we adopted the One Imperative. What did it feel like to be a part of the movement at that time? What conversations do you most remember?
For me, it ran the gamut. There were 500 Black women gathering at the Convention who brought forward the resolution of the One Imperative. My recollection is that there were 2,700 in that convention, and probably 1,500 of those women were voting delegates. That was my first convention. I was 41 years old and was in Houston, Texas for the Convention, far away from California. It was the first time I left my children for an entire week.
You could feel an undercurrent happening. I was trying so hard to learn and get to know other women. You know that feeling, when you are in a room and can feel things going on. We knew something was happening. There were conversations swirling about how one woman who had a nervous breakdown, emotions were running so high.
I remember how you had said it was like a pressure cooker. After all the years/decades of things building up, this was a place where it could either be pushed under rug or come to the surface.
That is a perfect way to describe it. I remember Helen Claytor, the first Black president of National YWCA. Her words felt good to me — to hear a Black woman want to be a leader of all of us was amazing. The one thing I remember so clearly was hearing her talk about her concern for change, and then speaking to the need for self-determination in meeting the needs of different groups in that Convention Hall. I can still see her face and hear her words to this very day. I felt as if she was encouraging everyone to listen and understand this resolution.
There were students of the YWCA, young women committed to action who were very much a part of it, and other white women who were a part of it. I shiver still thinking about the end of the Convention where we all held white candles and walked out into the darkness. We sang, “We Shall Overcome.” I still get choked up.
5) How was the adoption of the One Imperative received?
The One Imperative was voted for almost unanimously. In the past, the protocol was to have all associations chew on a resolution for a year before the Convention, and the Black Women’s Caucus brought the Resolution up during the Convention. I assume many women were working on it before the Convention. Before the Convention, Dr. Dorothy Height was working with women in the North and South to bring them together. This was all working towards that end.
6) You had mentioned you had an opportunity to meet Dr. Dorothy Height. What was that like?
I treasured every minute I was able to be a part of meetings with Dr. Height. What a teacher, oh my goodness! Her passion for bringing women together was incredible. Helping us to see one another and be a part of one another. It was incredible.
7) What kinds of current initiatives do you think that the YWCA can undertake to achieve its mission of eliminating racism and empowering women?
As much as I have really struggled with technology and accepting my age as I am, I still think the greatest change comes about is when women come together physically. When we are able to see one another and talk with one another. It is when the greatest possibility of focusing on what women need comes about. We have all these reports, emails, and blogs and everything else, and this can help. But if you really want action and long lasting change, you need to bring women together.