Glen Gunderson

September 9, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 50th 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.

As we pass the one-year anniversary of George Floyd's murder, it is my hope that the rallying cries for systemic change and our progress on social justice will only accelerate. We are sustaining our voice for change, but we must continue the work.

My 23rd guest is Dr. Daniel Abebe, who has been an educator and leader at various institutions including Metropolitan State University in St. Paul for over 35 years, including 28 as a faculty member. A native of Ethiopia, Dr. Abebe has degrees from multiple universities, including a Ph.D. in adult education from the University of Minnesota. But beyond his credentials, he's been committed for over three decades to advancing and addressing multicultural issues. He's guided hundreds of college students, peers, and other U.S. professionals on trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Jamaica, Botswana, Western Samoa, Ghana, Liberia and other destinations. He coordinated the Perspectives Center, co-founded, and served as the first co-chair of the Ethnic Studies Department and served in many leadership roles in other committees. When I first started at the Y, Dr. Abebe was one of the leaders I learned so much from, and I appreciated his wisdom and incredible insight. In 2018, he was recognized by Metropolitan State University with the "Outstanding Contributions to the Advancement of Multicultural Issues Award."

Though he's retired, Dr. Abebe's far too valuable in so many ways, including as a professor at Metropolitan State University. I hope you enjoy Part 2 of my talk with Dr. Daniel Abebe. (You can read part 1 here)

Glen: How did you find the Y in the U.S.? And how did you get involved here in the Twin Cities?


Daniel: In Ethiopia, just to give the context, you could walk into the YMCA, visit the gym, and walk in the spaces where kids are playing. You could even join people to play a board game and so on. So, there were no borders, no gates, and no security. When I tried to visit the YMCA in Minneapolis, I couldn't get into the gym unless I had a membership card, and I couldn't join a club because I did not quite understand how to do that. So the structure did not allow me to explore what was inside. As a result, what I ended up doing was to stay away until I run into one of the Y staff at a conference we both attended in the 1990s, and he invited me to join the International Committee of the YMCA. I gladly joined, and I have been a part of that committee ever since! Now I'm not suggesting that the YMCA is, in a way, prohibitive. But I think one needs to understand that, like every institution, the YMCA also caters to its membership and so if I had to make a connection of joining the membership, at the time, I would have been privileged enough to be a part of the institution. 


Glen: I think there's a fascinating lesson there around exclusion versus inclusion. Thinking about YMCAs around the world, it sounds like Ethiopia would be a good example where all the staff are mostly volunteers. And it seems that in the movement towards more and more paid staff and more and more capital infrastructure, we're accidentally creating this exclusionary notion, versus being open to all, being more accessible to all. So, it's interesting, as we think about it now, could we take some of those lessons from your experience and say, "How do we remove some of these barriers for access, for involvement, for inclusion, for a sense of connection to the mission?"

That, to me, is interesting learning, as we think about what the Y should look like over the next couple of generations, and how does it evolve, and we begin to think more and study more about a belonging platform versus a formal membership platform. How can anybody belong to the Y, versus must join in a similar way to the way we've operated in the past. So, thank you for that insight.

So I recall meeting you early in my career at the Y, which has only been nine years, so I don't have nearly the experience or wisdom that you bring to this. But you were very instrumental in some of our early work around equity and inclusion. And I recall your voice being very important to us as Dr. Hedy Lemar Walls started to frame some of her work around the Mission Impact Council or the Equity Innovation Center. Can you talk about where you found the Y to be, around its equity work early on and would you mind sharing what you're seeing now?


Daniel: I think the YMCA is on the cutting edge of this work, in my mind, because most institutions remain tied in a complicated wave of interests. If you look at higher education, for example, very rarely is a large consensus on any specific agenda for equity or diversity or fairness toward addressing issues of race in the institution.

But what the Y has done is, bring many minds together, to begin to really articulate, as part of its mission, and to really enter a whole different place other than business as usual. For example, our Diversity and Inclusion committee started as an international committee, so our work was mostly to address issues of the YMCA's connection to international partnerships. That now has transformed into, "How do we address the issues of equity and inclusion, within the institution and its contribution to the outside world?"

Even in our partnership with nations like Liberia, South Africa, Guatemala, Colombia, how do we transform that connection based on equity and inclusions and addressing issues of race and racism? Our committee has done quite a bit of work in that area to show the depth of commitment that the YMCA could have and has had, to go beyond just doing somewhat of a relational type of activity over the years.


Glen: I would love your thoughts and advice on what would you like to see the Y do in this equity space? Then what is your advice for me, as a middle-aged white leader, trying to make a bigger impact here?


Daniel: I think the Y is doing all the things that it could do and potentially, but I think it could extend that further, to reach to a broader community. I remember when the diversity and equity work started, one of the areas that we focused on was our relationship with the Sioux YMCA in Dupree, South Dakota. That, I thought, was very critical.

A lot of the work that we've done oftentimes has been dependent on contributions that we make and sending our volunteers to forge relationships. But I think what we did with the Sioux YMCA was send YMCA professionals to do some serious work, not just to help train the staff there, but also to learn from them and bring that back. The root of the current work began a while back when we started to recognize that the relationships need to be broadened.

And I think as an executive of the YMCA, you have opened an opportunity for the staff to freely engage in complicated and very difficult subjects, including dealing with issues of race, equity and inclusion not only to embrace differences but also to be transformed by them.

Institutions, including the YMCA, have tried many different ideas over the years, but those ideas didn’t have a lasting impact primarily because they were not meant to go deeper. But I think what we have done in the past few years at the YMCA is to persevere and engage communities deeply on critical issues of equity and their  impact around us. We established conversation boundaries where we say, "We're going to forge ahead to address issues of equity and inclusion and how we address them in the work that we do and their impact on our communities. And in so doing, I think today I see even the fact that we talk about this as a milestone. The fact that, even from the leadership, these issues are important enough for you to do a series of conversations with leaders in this world, so that others could learn from them. Because I was listening to some of the conversations you've had, and the diversity of opinions and thoughts and experiences are just enormous.

The fact that we're bringing that home, and people could be able to use them and learn from them in the future is enormous. So, the YMCA, I think, in many ways has transformed itself from sitting in the background and being sympathetic to the issues that are faced by society to becoming a change agent. With the racial incidents that have occurred in the past few years that triggered all these conversations, it was critical for the YMCA to being at the center and inviting those conversations, encouraging those engagements, inviting those reflections, and building on those conversations to improving the critical work of the institution. Because the YMCA, as an institution, would have to think about its own place in society for the next 20 to 30 years.

As the diversity of the American society changes, so is the membership of the YMCA. And so is the relationship of the YMCA, on a global scale.  In that sense, we are ahead of the curve, I think, where we are literally forecasting the future by the work we are doing today. The death of George Floyd may have triggered these conversations for many, but the truth is, all throughout my career in higher education, we've been fighting these battles, trying to get students to take classes that would engage them in a much deeper appreciation of the diversity of our society and the significance of equity and inclusion and the connection between the various ethnic communities, and the impact they have on each other, and the significance of that impact in forging ahead with our lives. I think what the Y is doing is, "Let's go beyond just addressing the simple issues of hiring a couple of diverse employees to literally transforming our policies, looking at how we do business and using the lessons learned to educate one another, to educate new employees, to educate new membership, to educate the board." We must be holistic in the way we do things. So, I think that the overall conversation has been overwhelmingly significant, and certainly Hedy has been an incredible leader. I have been overjoyed, working with Hedy over the years, and I think she persisted, and her leadership has made a huge difference. And certainly, you are being right there with her, as an executive, is no less significant because when the leadership is in it, so is the heightened level of commitment on the part of the staff and the depth of the impact of the organization's work. Employees are now getting the OK from the executive saying, "Yes, we can do this. Let's do this." You are taking the lead, which is much more significant. You're not just saying, "Yes, we'll give you some money to do this." You're right in it, and the YMCA is grateful for your leadership, in this arena, and hopefully we'll persist.


Glen: I appreciate those words, and especially those words about Hedy. She is a phenomenal mentor and leader, and I've learned so much from her.

The other thing I'm ruminating on is going from sympathetic to being at the center. I think that's really something that our team can grasp, and I'm going to be playing that back with our team. So, thank you for that wisdom.


Learn more about Dr. Daniel Abebe by clicking here. Look for Part 3 of our “A Conversation on Race" with Dr. Abebe next week.