I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Danielle Moss Lee, the CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York. With many years of experience in community development and education, Dr. Moss Lee provides insightful opinions on equality and the importance of continued improvement of our education system.
Rachel Bogin: Being that Women’s History Month has just passed, I’d like to open by asking you about your current role as CEO of YWCA, and how it feels to be working with and surrounded by such a strong group of women. Do you think that there is a support system that exists here that doesn’t in other workplaces, with regard to the majority of the staff and board being women? What are the advantages?
Dr. Danielle Moss-Lee: Because the YWCA has a mission of eliminating racism and empowering women, we don’t get to save our activism for special occasions or a “marginalized group of the month”. We understand that we have a responsibility to model what we want for women in the workplace through how we identify, develop, support, and recognize our staff. So we have a level of consciousness about how we approach every aspect of the business that makes us unique; whether it’s professional development for our staff or leveraging board networks on behalf of the organization – gender and race are always comfortably in the room. The advantage is, when you call the world what it is, you have a better opportunity to make necessary changes.
RB: As the Women Leaders of Social Change Speaker Series wraps up, can you give us some insight into some of your own inspiration? Who inspired your drive for social change? Were there any panel speakers whose message resonated with you more than others?
DML: It may seem like a cliché, but my mother was the inspiration for dedicating my life to social change. She was really active in the post-Civil Rights early ’70s in our community, and she always made sure I knew who I was and what it meant to be a Black girl in America in all the best senses of that identity. She belonged to a social club for conscious Black women that met weekly in the various women’s homes. Their steadfastness and their willingness to examine issues of gender in the context of race was more than I could comprehend as a child. Later, when I was an adult, I understood how incredible that time was. To this day, my mother is always growing, always reading, always learning, and always connecting the dots. As one of a few Black women in management in corporate America when I was a kid, she took a lot of hits. She was even asked to accept a demotion when I was in elementary school because a white male colleague had a baby on the way. When I think about what that took on her part, and how she went back to that job with her head held high – even though she was more credentialed – because she had to support our family, I’m completely in awe of her.
I’m proud to say that the YWCA of the City of New York did an extraordinary job at bringing women from many walks of life together to advance the conversation on women this month. Our World YWCA General Secretary Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda talked about a global village of women and called intergenerational leadership; Journalist Zerlina Maxwell and Andrea Shapiro Davis of Mayor Bloomberg’s office spoke about the need to hold men accountable for how they engage women from an early age to eradicate rape culture; Shamika Lee of BET Networks challenged us not to forget about young women in foster care who are vulnerable to sex trafficking, and Arva Rice of the New York Urban League and Deputy Borough President Rose Pierre-Louis reminded us that the struggle for women’s equality is not over. The response to the Women Leaders of Social Change Speaker Series was tremendous, and the YWCA of the City of New York looks forward to reestablishing itself as a safe place for women to share their experiences and to highlight opportunities for social justice engagement.
RB: The YWCA offers young girls and women many programming opportunities: after-school programs, mentorship, vocational training, benefits counseling, and more. I’m curious as to how have technology and the advances made in the past decade (easier access to the internet, computers, social media, etc) changed the way that YWCA supports its clients. Do you feel that social media has played a role in engaging younger women?
DML: I would venture to guess that a great many of our participants in the speaker series found out about the events through social media. We know that the playing field in terms of how people get information has changed substantially over the last 20 years. Technology is here to stay. Social media is special because it’s not a one-way news monologue. It allows organizations like the YWCA of the City of New York to engage the larger community of women in new and fundamental ways through conversation. So, if we’re going to engage a younger audience at the YWCA, social media and technology have to be central to our strategy.
RB: It seems as though social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have given a voice to young women who may have previously not been able to so easily express themselves and their emotions. Do you feel that this is the case? Are these sites a step in the direction of female empowerment, or perhaps, just the opposite?
DML: Social media is just like the power of the tongue. When we use our words and our networks to build nations, we can do that. When we use them to tear down others, we can do that, too. The power of sites like Facebook and Twitter depends on what the goal is. I’ve been able to reunite with old friends, interface with some of my favorite authors, and get the word out about the YWCA via Facebook and Twitter. But, these media are all relatively new, and I think a lot of young women struggle with what the boundaries are, how to control their online images, what’s worth sharing and what isn’t for the public domain. In all fairness, I know there are a lot of adults still trying to figure out how to use social networking sites constructively. But the reality is that social networking sites aren’t going away. So education about their power and possibility is essential.
RB: How would you describe the education experience you had growing up, compared to that of young women today? Do you feel there have been significant advances made to encourage and welcome women into STEM fields since your early education?
DML: I think there is much more excitement about the possibilities for STEM to build a future America when girls are represented more broadly across disciplines. We’re in cheerleading mode on this issue right now. We unanimously agree that it’s a good thing but we’ve not figured out how to make it stick. There are a few scattered efforts, but I’m not sure we’ve developed the pedagogy to really match our enthusiasm – not just for girls but for all of our kids. Nonetheless, the YWCA of the City of New York is looking forward to tackling this challenge, and joining the conversation around solutions to get girls excited about STEM in a meaningful, outcomes-driven, program-oriented way.
RB: There is a growing divide in NYC in terms of public versus charter schools, and their respective pros/cons. Do you feel that one is exceeding the other in terms of fostering STEM fields and equality amongst young children (particularly girls) in general?
DML: If either traditional public schools or charter public schools had figured out the secret to this dilemma, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. What I do hope for is that as both sides continue to challenge themselves to advance education for all children there will be increasing opportunities for crosspollination so that as proven best practices are developed on both sides of the education fence, children don’t lose out because there’s no sharing of ideas, methods, or new approaches to teaching and learning.
RB: Finally, picture the world five years from now: where do you hope the biggest changes will have been made and implemented in STEM field education and the advancement of women, and where does YWCA fit into that vision?
I hope that all children of every economic background will have increased access to the best teachers our country can develop in all areas of STEAM (the added A is for the arts), and that those teachers will have the strategies to engage kids in using STEAM to solve real world problems through an understanding of the fundamentals, and a willingness to step outside the proverbial box in creating solutions to everyday problems. The YWCA has a unique opportunity to position itself at the forefront of this transformation. As an out-of-school time provider, we have the opportunity to take risks and use broad instructional methods because we’re not bound by a complex system of rules and regulations that calls itself “accountability.” And, as a supporter of women, we can take a teenage girl from high school through college and then mentor her into a career that matters. This kind of work is built into our DNA as an organization. STEAM and the YWCA are the logical next step.
About Dr. Danielle Moss Lee: She was born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and enthusiastically joins the YWCA of the City of New York after a stellar ten years as President and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund. Danielle joined HEAF in 2002 after many years of experience in education and youth and community development in the nonprofit sector. She previously served as Assistant Principal of the Grace Lutheran School, Assistant Executive Director of the Morningside Area Alliance, Director for Community and Parent Partnerships at The After-School Corporation, and most recently as Director of the CTY Goldman Sachs Scholars Program of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth.