Glen Gunderson

August 20, 2020

George Floyd’s murder in my hometown of Minneapolis once again shined the spotlight on the problems of race in our community. In the weeks that followed, calls for social justice have reverberated around the world. In my time at the Y, I have come to understand and recognize — on a far deeper level — my many privileges as a white man. But my self-reflection and education is constant, and I feel compelled to utilize this medium to interview equity leaders. These leaders have served as mentors, teammates and dear friends. Each has allowed me to see a different perspective on systemic racism through their lived experience. As I seek to understand, my hope is that these talks will help humanize the issues and, in some small way, help lead us toward efforts to make a better way for all.

My second guest is Emily Holthaus, who grew up in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and is a phenomenal leader with extensive experience in recruitment, diversity and inclusion and equity training. What’s also unique about Emily is that she spent nearly 17 years at the Y in leadership roles in the Twin Cities, Pittsburgh and in national roles out of Chicago. 

She is the Managing Director, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion with Nonprofit HR, which has for two decades worked to “strengthen the social impact sector by strengthening its people.”

Excited to share our conversation!

Glen: Tell me a little bit about your childhood?


Emily: I never went to the Y as a kid. Growing up in the 70s, before Y scholarships that offer financial assistance were created, it was something that we couldn’t afford. My mom and I lived in South Minneapolis. I was one of those latchkey kids. I would get home from school, let myself in, get a snack, do my homework and go to the Park District or Boys or Girls Club because they were affordable. 

Agencies like that shaped my life. 

As I grew up, and my mother felt, ‘Education will get you out of here. Hard work will get you out of here. Love and gratitude will get you out of here.’ I could have done anything, but I wanted to serve. I started out thinking I would be a teacher, and I did that for a while. But getting into the nonprofit space was a good fit for me. 

My dad was in St. Paul for 60 years, and he spent a lot of time at the Eastside Y. That was my dad’s community. It was special when I got a chance to serve (as executive director) of that Y. But I told him, ‘You need to quit cussing down here or I’m going to have to kick you out!’


Glen: What drew you to equity work? 


Emily: Because I am multi-racial, I have this interesting perspective as a Black person in America and also perspective as a white person in America, just because I’ve had very close proximity and exposure to both lanes of the racial dynamics, so to speak. Personally, I’ve always struggled with, ‘Where do I belong? Where do I fit?’ 

I moved from South Minneapolis, where my mom was the only white person in the neighborhood, to North Dakota, where my mom is from. There, it was me, one Native American guy and one Asian guy. It was crazy because for prom, I ended up going with the Korean exchange student because no one else would go with me.

I was in environments where I never really felt I fit in, not with dad's family or in the African American community, then being in the white community where you see the ugliness of racism, either blatant or inadvertent.

So I've seen the gamut, and I understand how it feels not to fit in. I really have dedicated my career — whether it's been operations or leadership development or now where I actually get to focus on helping people understand this more — to create spaces where everyone learns and everyone belongs. 

It’s not really rocket science, but it’s counter intuitive to how humans operate normally. And we need to unlearn that. 

I think for me, it's just personal; in my family, there are varying shades of brown. And my husband will say he’s a self-proclaimed, goofy, white guy. And my oldest looks just like him and my little guy, he looks more like me and on the brown side. 

We talk about the realities of race and how we see kids having different experiences in the world based on what shade of brown we are. And I don't want them to have to feel what I felt growing up in the 70s and 80s and even into my college years. 

I really want to be able to help organizations get to that systems change that's required, but I also want to help leaders see what they haven't seen before and get in the business of using their influence. So that's why I do it and what I hope to accomplish. 


Glen: That’s really good! So we're having our challenges here in the Twin Cities, not just broadly in the community but also at the Y. What role do you see the Y playing?


Emily: I think a lot of things, so I'll just start out with historically the YMCA is Young Men's Christian Association. So by design, our original systems were created to support the needs among white, Protestant men, not even Catholics or anything else. Let’s understand the foundation on which we're built. And it was a foundation of exclusion and a very direct focus, which at the time was what was required. 

But at the end of the day, we can't be surprised by where we are now because the system has always been built that way. That thought process, that decision process, has not changed enough yet. 

Why don't we go out and try to really take a stance somewhere else, like related to inclusion or related to diversity or related to equity? Because it's so ingrained in us from our donors to our volunteers, to our structures and systems and decision making that we must not be surprised that we're here. 

I think the Y mission is to make sure that no kid or family is turned away.  We're going to support them, and we’re going to morph to meet the needs of the community. That’s something that I really gravitated to as a leader. And I think that communities need organizations like the Y, that are willing to step up with them and be their voice to engage them, whether or not they have monetary resources. 


Glen: For me, as a middle-aged white leader, and with all my baggage and white privilege, what advice do you have for me? What can I do differently?


Emily: I need you to move from allyship to ownership. What I mean by that is, you can be the biggest fan of a game, but unless you're playing, the stakes aren't as high, right? And this idea of saying this issue is outside of me, or it's something happening next to me. Really, racism belongs to white people. People of color are often asked to be the ones to fix it. And, it's just not possible, right? It takes all of us together, but it also takes white leaders to own that right now, the power lives with you and because the power lives with you, the power to change things also lives with you. 

My husband and I talk about race a lot, and he talks about feeling guilty a lot and about not always knowing what to do. And he has grown through proximity to me by seeing how the world treats me differently than it treats him. And he's seen it firsthand now. He has no doubt that white privilege exists. He has no doubt that there are spaces that he leverages that give privilege to our family. And I want all white people to do that. 

Oftentimes, we'll focus on, ‘Okay, so who's fault was that?’ But that's the wrong question. It doesn't matter whose fault it was. We need to know that we're here. We know why we're here. The question is not whose fault was it. But now that we know that we're here, what is the path forward now that we all see where we really are? 

I also think that we’re made up of good people that have good hearts, who have a hard time separating their goodness as an individual, to the institution in which they work. And it's hard to separate that. I know that you don't come to work every day saying, I'm going to perpetuate racist policies, but you might be doing that without your knowledge. 

I give people the example of the invisible doors. If the world is full of invisible doors, sometimes, they’re wide open and we walk through them. But we don't know that the exact same door that we just walked through is shut or locked for someone else with different dimensions of diversity than us. And because they're invisible, it makes it so hard for those of us that can walk through those different spaces of privilege to see it. 

‘It was just open for me. What are you talking about?’ And it's just this sort of mental block that we have. And so helping people start to see what they're not seeing and see some of those doors and then not just walk through them, but then turn around and unlock them for everyone else coming through is what I feel today’s YMCA needs to do. 

And Glen, if I'm being honest, I don't think our organization yet has really admitted that we have a lot of closed doors. What is wrong? I say, we like I still work there, but the Y has yet to really admit how far we need to go. And they have yet to really admit how strong of an issue it is. 

And the thing about it is, there's no end game. It's just like on repeat. Like, I want you to live your life with equity as something that you always keep at the forefront of your decision making. 

No, I don't want you to give your seat away. I just want you to be an equity leader. I don't want your chair. I want you to use your chair to make sure everyone has the opportunity in the places and spaces where you have power and influence. 

Your white friends will ask, ‘What are you doing?’ 


Glen: I do get a lot of that. The pushback started with the launch of our equity and innovation work. It comes from community volunteers, from peers in the community, donors, friends. And it comes from other peers around the Y, which has always surprised me.


Given Emily’s local roots, her experience with the Y both locally and nationally, we will extend our conversation with her to a Part 2 next week. To learn more about Emily Holthaus, visit her bio on LinkedIn by clicking here.