Glen Gunderson

January 21, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 22nd in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process. 

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6 is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.

I was saddened, sickened, frustrated and appalled to see the Capitol taken over while our democracy was being stewarded and carried forward. I was horrified by the overt examples of White Supremacy and Nationalism — and the sense of entitlement as the world watched. Everyone knew for weeks that these groups would show up at the Capitol and that it could become volatile. But imagine how different the preparations — and actions — might have been with a group of African Americans approaching the Capitol?  

It's hard not to see the disconnect. Or the sad irony.

But I lean into the timeless wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr.: "We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."

The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.

My 13th guest is Dave Brown, the President and CEO of the Capital District YMCA in New York. He has one of the most remarkable career trajectories at the Y, as you'll learn in our conversation. He's esteemed in his community, having won awards such as 40 Elite Alumni Honoree and the NYS Governor’s African American Community Distinction and Director of the Year Award.

But beyond those accomplishments and accolades, Dave is a friend of mine, with our shared passion for sports, especially basketball. In fact, we had tickets to enjoy some March Madness in 2020 before COVID-19 altered that plan.

I hope you will enjoy and perhaps learn from my conversation with Dave Brown.

Glen: Glad we could connect, Dave! Let's start with a little bit about your background, like where you've come from and how you found the Y?


Dave: Well, I have an interesting YMCA story. But I started going to the Y when I was three or four years old. I grew up in New Jersey, and my Dad would take me for swim lessons. When I was eight or nine years old, we moved to Plainfield, New Jersey, which is where all my formative years took place. And they would take me to the Y on Saturday mornings, and I was in a program. I got to swim, play in the gym, eat a snack and do arts and crafts and then your parents picked you up. So you were there from like 8 a.m. to noon, and I did that every Saturday!

I had a blast, and I loved playing basketball. As I got older, I kind of aged out of that program, but I would occasionally go to the Y and play basketball with some friends, even though I wasn't a member. One of my best friend's brother said to me, 'You know, if you want to get better, you should join the Y and work on your game at the Y.'

I said, 'Wow, I never thought of that.' So I joined the Y, and I started playing basketball at the Y. I got to a point where you're trying to learn responsibility and all that, and I thought I should stop asking my parents to pay for the membership. I learned that if you work at the Y, you get a free membership. I went in and I asked the guy that ran the place if they had a job, and he said, 'Yeah, we do. Meet me down here Saturday morning, and you can get started.' 

So I show up, and he hands me a mop and shower scrubber, and I had to scrub down the showers and clean all the toilets. So my first job at the Y was health club attendant, which was really a fancy name for being a janitor.

And that's how I started at the YMCA.

Now what really kept me going was our next door neighbor, Ron Sargent. He was the President and CEO of our Y, and he was one of five African-American CEOs in the country. I got different jobs in high school and college, working as an after-school counselor, camp counselor; I was getting all these experiences at the Y without even realizing it! And I had this man as my mentor, not even really fully understanding what he was doing. He went on to be the national field executive for the Midwest. He helped me get my first professional job at the Rochester Y, and I said, 'Geez, I'll do this for a year until I find a real job.' But one thing led to another, and I ended up in Albany, and I've been with the Y ever since. He's been my mentor and friend. We talk all the time, and he counsels me on different things in life and in my Y career.


Glen: Interesting what a mentor can mean to you personally and professionally. You’ve played that role for me! Thank you for sharing your background. Let's start by discussing the Y. Where are we right now, as it relates to embracing diversity, equity and inclusion, and really trying to get after a new future that more overtly serves all?


Dave: That's a great question and, sadly, I think that we're not where we need to be. I think what we see going on in the country now, and on the news, and the division that we see, that's happening in our YMCA communities as well. I think we're a microcosm of what's happening nationally, and so I think we have YMCA leaders, such as yourself, who've embraced the social leg of the YMCA and led that with passion and courage.

And then I think we have others who are very focused on being transactional and solid off of selling memberships and really being, unfortunately, tone deaf to what's going on in their communities.

And I think we have a lot of work to do. The good news, though, is we do have a significant amount of YMCAs signing up for the equity work and that are focusing more now on becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization. And I think that that's really a pivotal step for a lot of our YMCAs, and I think that's going to get more momentum because I think that we're seeing some ugliness in our country right now, and it’s helping people lose the blind spots.

Things are happening that are resonating with people. Certainly the murder of George Floyd opened up a lot of eyes, but there's other things that are taking place that are helping people not only open up their eyes but to open up their ears and want to listen now and talk more.

I think the Y can play a major role in facilitating those conversations. I think that our Zoom conferences and discussions on COVID, race, social equity and racial equity can do a lot of good. So I think there's a huge runway in front of us, an opportunity for the Y to really make a difference.


Glen: You've had a historic, long-term leadership role, whether formal or informal, around African-American leadership in the Y. You've been a mentor to many, and you look out for our leaders of color in really dynamic ways. Could you talk about where that is?


Dave: It's funny because Ron Sargent was my mentor, and I don't think I have a full understanding of the African-American movement in the Y until about 1991. I was in Baltimore at the Black Service Conference, and there I met Harold Mezile, your predecessor there in Minneapolis. It was Julius Jones, Harold Mezile, Kevin Washington and Eric Mann. These were kind of the giants in the African-American network, and they were the people that everybody looked to. There's a few others whose names are escaping me right now, but that's when I started to really realize how strong the African-American network of professionals was.

There was a move to more multicultural, and so you really couldn't have conferences that were specific to your ethnicity or your group, and it kind of faded. Then we started reviving the African-American group, which, by the way, has a really rich history that goes back. There's a book called "Light In The Darkness: African Americans and the YMCA," which focuses on the years 1852 to 1946.

Well, we revived the African-American group about four years ago in Washington D.C. The second year into us meeting, we said, 'We can't just get together and make this about socializing and networking. We've got to uplift our community.' There was an article in the New York Times titled, Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys. This was an interactive article that showed you how kids were going to be dropping off. Middle-class, upper middle-class African-Americans’ children were not going to make as much money as them or do as well as them. In fact, they were going to do worse than white kids with no high school education.

We said, 'What are we gonna do about this?' And so we birthed the Boys of Color initiative. We held a very successful Town Hall, a meeting this past July, and Kamala Harris was our keynote speaker and Steven Reed, the Mayor of Montgomery, Alabama. We had a panel discussion with you and some others that was very helpful. 

Our network has been doing a lot to lead the equity conversation, and we recently partnered with our LatinX CEOs.


Glen: That Town Hall set some Y records, with upwards of 10,000 folks participating. Can you reflect on that more?


Dave: The George Floyd situation happened, and we were all frustrated and the network was on a Zoom call. I said, 'You know, we had planned to have our conference at the end of June, beginning of July and canceled it. Guess what?  We're still going to have a conference, and I don't know who we're going to have come speak, but we're going to have a Zoom conference, and it's going to be big. We've got to speak up on these issues!'

I was thinking 1,500, 2,000 people. But it was global, and I certainly didn't think that we would have folks like Vice President Kamala Harris as a speaker. It was a great event and people are still talking about it and how it really set the bar. People are looking for us to lead the conversation on systemic racism.


Glen: Kudos, Dave. It was a spectacular event, and it blew people away. What are your thoughts around where the Y is right now and where you'd like to see it go, relative to social justice and the race dynamic? What would be advocating for from a national movement?


Dave: We're in a place where it's a perfect opportunity for the YMCA to pivot and really show how transformational we can be, and we have a huge opportunity to do a lot of work in the equity field. I think that we're helping lead conversations around race and how we bring people together, helping solve problems, such as the health disparities and inequities that happen in communities of color and marginalized communities, food insecurity, cycles of poverty, access to healthcare. I believe that we can do a lot in those areas and help improve the quality of life for communities all over, in particular children. Our Boys of Color program is going to really focus on educating and making sure we can keep kids in school and go on to secondary education and college and hopefully walk into a job.

I think that would also help us in terms of how people view us. The public perception is typically gym and swim, and this would really show the big C in the Y. And when I say big C, I mean charitable. We need to really make sure that people understand we're a charitable organization, and I think that gets lost sometimes because of the buildings and the pools and the gyms, and even our camps. You get to talk to folks like, 'Oh yeah, I went to Y camp,' but they don't realize a lot of times the leadership development that we teach at camp and then the lives we are transforming at camp. But I think COVID has helped us feed more communities, clothe more communities and really uplift that social responsibility, like in youth development and healthy living.


To learn more about Dave Brown, click here. Look for Part 2 of our A Conversation on Race with Dave next week.