Last week, as the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr., I reflected on the history of the YWCA. Many people in our community don’t recognize the YWCA as a social justice organization and are shocked to learn that the mission includes eliminating racism in addition to empowering women.
People wonder how this mission came about.
YWCA’s national and local mission of eliminating racism and empowering women is the result of the historical struggle to become an anti-racist and inclusive organization. Through the leadership of women of color, YWCA’s view of poverty, labor and women’s issues expanded to include race, in addition to gender, as a critical factor for understanding the root causes of social disparities.
During its inception in the U.S. in the 1850s, YWCA began in response to single women flocking to urban centers to work and live on their own. Groups of local women provided supportive services for these emerging employees including affordable housing, employment bureaus and job training.
Wages for working women were low and conditions were poor. Stories show that women were working so many hours that some gave custody of their children to orphanages and some turned to prostitution for additional earnings.
Due to these challenges, in 1911 YWCA USA committed itself to educating the public on the need for a living wage for women and the need to support legislation to regulate hours and wages of women workers. Today, economic advancement has remained a central focus of YWCAs across the country including in Olympia.
Over time, YWCA USA recognized that it was impossible to empower all women without also addressing institutional and structural racism. Interracial efforts included desegregating the organization. Policies designed to address racism and bias began near the start of World War I and continued thereafter.
In 1946 YWCA USA proclaimed itself an interracial organization.
Nearly 20 years later Rev. Dr. King gave a speech in London. On MLK Jr. Day, I listened to this speech and was enthralled by the following segment:
“There are those individuals who argue that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice in the United States, in South Africa or anywhere else; you’ve got to wait on time…The only answer that I can give to that myth is that time is neutral.
“It can be used either constructively or destructively ... somewhere along the way it is necessary to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.
“It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.
“And so we must help time, and we must realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
These words still resonate.
The documented inequality of all women across the U.S. and here in Thurston County shows that race and gender still matter. These disparities have not been resolved over time.
One example is the wage gap in Thurston County. Women who work full time, year round earn 68 cents on average for every dollar earned by their male counterparts. However, state data show that across Washington, black and Native American women who work full time, year-round earn 60.3 percent of what white men earn, and Hispanic women earn 46.6 percent.
If we rely on time to fix this issue, white women in our county won’t earn the same as men until 2071, and it will take even longer for women of color to reach economic parity. The wage gap is a good example of how the intersections of gender and race place women of color at a dual disadvantage when it comes to economic advancement.
YWCA has historically and continues to believe that the entire community benefits when all people are valued. However, to bring about economic advancement for all individuals and support overall community vitality, we must collectively agree that we cannot be indifferent and we cannot rely on time to solve these challenges.
In the words of Dr. King, “The time is always ripe to do right.”
Hillary Soens, CEO of YWCA Olympia, is a member of the 2016 Board of Contributors. She can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.