Brighton Pride Parade – YMCA,” Dominic Alves

May 21, 2018; Advocate and MetroWeekly

Of the two extant “Y’s,” the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) has generally been seen as more socially minded, with decades-old explicit guidelines around social justice goals and a mission that vows to “eradicate racism by any means necessary.” But now, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) is stepping forward with the Biden Foundation to announce a three-year program to boost LGBTQ inclusion in programs throughout the nation.

The program, which will inaugurate a dedicated new staff position at the Y, will have a local focus, working with families and through community outreach, as well as directly with the LGBTQ community. Pilot programs will launch in select Y’s, with an eye to scale up across the nation. (Currently, the 2,700 YMCAs in the US serve 22 million adults and children.) Funding from the Gill Foundation and the David Bohnett Foundation will help support the initiative. Louisa Terrell, executive director of the Biden Foundation, says:

We could not ask for better partners in this work than YMCA of the USA, with its history, reach, and impact in communities across America. The Gill Foundation, which has supported innovative strategies to advance LGBTQ equal treatment for decades, and the David Bohnett Foundation, which has invested significant resources in supporting and empowering local LGBTQ communities, are equally powerful partners in this work.

“The Biden Foundation is committed to changing our culture so that everyone, including LGBTQ people, feels supported and affirmed,” Terrell says.

The Biden Foundation was founded in 2016 by former US Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to “protect and advance the rights and opportunities of all people through educational programming and public policy analysis,” highlighting specifics such as the promotion of LGBTQ equality and ending violence against women. In this endeavor, the Biden Foundation has partnered with the Gill Foundation, which has assets of $199 million and which has been “working to secure equal opportunity for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression“ since 1994. (Its founder is software entrepreneur Tim Gill.) There is also buy-in from the David Bohnett Foundation, with assets of $27 million, which works to improve society through social activism.

But our observation of the YWCA rollout of its social justice orientation decades ago leads us to some questions. Changing orientation is hard in a federated system, where levels of commitment can range from enthusiastic to nonexistent to hostile. Individual boards will have to fall in line, and this is not always easy. In some cases, they’ll need to address organizational cultures to create an inclusive environment; in some cases, the environment may already be present.

In other words, an initiative like this will come with challenges that will require a whole growing system to resolve, led energetically not by a staff position but by the national board and many local champions. That’s where the rubber will meet the road. If this initiative is championed by influential members of the network who can act as models, mentors, and advocates, the program has a chance of being far more than window dressing. For its part, the Y says it is ready to go, and that the new program fits its mission.

“The Y is committed to addressing critical social issues and helping all people reach their full potential with dignity and respect,” said Kevin Washington, President and CEO of YMCA of the USA. “Our commitment is rooted in our inclusive mission and our belief that communities are stronger when everyone has the opportunity to thrive. Supporting the well-being and safety of LGBTQ youth and adults is an important need in our communities, and we are proud to partner with the Biden Foundation, Gill Foundation and David Bohnett Foundation to support it.”

“Despite tremendous progress over the last decade, LGBTQ individuals and families continue to face discrimination and challenges at work, in their communities and schools, and even within their own families,” said Scott Miller, Co-Chair of the Gill Foundation. “We are grateful for Vice President and Dr. Biden’s leadership to promote inclusion through their foundation and to have the opportunity to work closely with YMCA of the USA.”

There is no federal law at this time that protects LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in common areas that are taken for granted by others, such as housing, healthcare, and employment. In this initiative, the Y will be working in the communities, side by side with residents. Communication will be vital, letting the members of the Y know from the start that the organization is all-in on this, and it’s not just something thrown on the table because funding appeared.—Marian Conway