“We have collectively decided to fight the good fight. We have decided to get into the necessary trouble”, said David Brown, President and CEO at Capital District YMCA, Albany, New York, and Chair of the network of YMCA African American CEOs in the US. He was chairing an ‘Unlearning Systemic Racism’ virtual town hall meeting on Thursday 24 February.
The event was addressed by World YMCA Secretary-General Carlos Sanvee, who said that young people must have a home and a safe space in the global YMCA, and be able to use their voice to create an organisation and a world of dignity, equity, compassion.
The aim of the event was to share resources that can help YMCAs take steps – individually and collectively, working alongside the communities they serve – to create a more just, equitable and anti-racist society.
Young people opened the first session, with YMCA leader and changemaker Paris Smiley interviewing poet and activist Alycia Kamil. Alycia shared: “I got into doing activism work through poetry competitions. I always wanted to use words because I’m a writer. It was important for me to find the connection between poetry and activism, because it’s so accessible for other people and it’s something that other people can do as well”.
In a video message, Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of the City of Atlanta, stated: “As a mother of four, including three African American sons, I am encouraged by the work being done by the YMCA and other organisations which are committed to ensuring that black boys and young men are equipped to become the leaders and change agents that they were created to be. We know that there are systemic structures in place that too often prohibit young men of colour from reaching their full potential. But we also know that collectively we can create and sustain solutions to address barriers and inequities”.
There followed a panel on racism as a public health crisis, led by Monique Parsons, President and CEO of McGaw Family YMCA, Evanston, Illinois. “Racism, intentional or unintentional, operates at various levels in society. Racism is a barrier to health equity. Racial disparities have been amplified during this pandemic. Our YMCAs, whose focus includes healthy living and social responsibility, can no longer be silent or inactive during this crisis”.
She was joined by Dr. Nailah Thompson, Primary Care physician at the US healthcare company Kaiser Permanente, Dr. Ben Danielson, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle, Dr. Robin Martin, Deputy Director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mr Landis Rush, National Vice President, Advocacy and Education, Public Sector & Labor Trust for United Healthcare. Mr Rush shared his memories: “For my brother and me, as kids, the YMCA was our safe haven. My mother was tired of hearing people talking about problems all the time. She used to say: What’s your solution? What are you going to do to make a change?’”
After the panel discussion, the floor was given to a social justice activist to talk about reimagining America. Author Dr. Eddie Glaude spoke about the violence at the US Capitol on 6 January. He went on to say: “We have to understand that racial justice, if it is to be genuine, isn’t a philanthropic enterprise. It isn’t an act of charity. We have to learn a different way of being together, a different way of doing our work. Every time we do, a new America is born. We have to commit ourselves to building a country that affirms the dignity and sexuality of every human being, no matter the colour of their skin, their zip code, who they love, their gender, or ability. It involves telling the truth. We have to risk everything in this moment to do something bold and visionary if we are to become the kind of people that democracy requires”.
Then Kevin Washington, President and CEO of the YMCA USA, and Carlos Sanvee, Secretary General of the World YMCA, shared their insights on leading the YMCA Movement.
As he is about to retire, Kevin Washington said: “I will always be a youth director at heart. Because I believe, as we talk about commitment to America, that we are partnering with new generations of change makers who will create the communities we all want to live in. Young staff of all backgrounds are speaking, and demanding action. And quite frankly, I am glad that as an institution, the YMCA is opening up to allowing that to happen. Remember, if you don’t confront it, you can’t change it. So here is my call to action: keep pushing us, keep raising your voice and demanding to be heard. Keep holding those around you accountable, particularly those in power. We need your energy, your support and your excellence. And so do our communities and of course our country”.
Carlos Sanvee added: “I pray that God will give us and give the global YMCA the grace to tackle the issue of institutional racism. We are starting to do so but we need to do much more. It’s my hope and belief that the issue of institutional racism will be tabled at our 20th worldwide YMCA World Council in Aaarhus, Denmark, in July, 2022, and that it will lead to a Movement-wide resolution and accompanying actions”.
Watch his full statement
The final speaker was Dr. Yusef Salaam, who in 1990, along with four friends, was falsely accused of rape, and sentenced to jail. He served nearly seven years for a crime he did not commit. Today, Dr. Salaam is a well-known speaker and author, dedicating his life to advocating and educating people on the issues of false confessions, police brutality and misconduct.
“Our job, if we so choose, is to live as full a life as we can, so that we could die empty. Our job is, if we choose, to [try and ensure that] when death comes for us, it should find us climbing up a new mountain, instead of sliding down an old one”. He concluded: “We are living in a divided States of America that needs to be united. We have to be getting to plan our lives for a lifetime, and then go beyond that. We have to plan inter-generationally, and package our Deoxyribonucleic Acid and pass the baton back to the generations that are coming forward, so that they know what’s at stake. So that they continue to break generational curses with the power that they exude, so that they stand on the shoulders of giants, beyond their ancestors’ wildest dreams. So that they can and will make it happen. All we have to do is lean in….”