Glen Gunderson

August 27, 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.

This is Part 2 of my conversation with Emily Holthaus (read Part 1 here), 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 also spent a decade at the Y in leadership roles in the Twin Cities, Pittsburgh and in national roles out of Chicago. She works near Austin, Texas, as the founder of Inclusivity Labs, a firm that “collaborates with organizations to design organizational strategy and implement leadership development solutions toward the outcomes of greater equity, inclusion and human capital engagement in both physical and virtual environments.”

Excited about more of our conversation with Emily. 

Glen: Who is an individual that you believe I could learn from? Is there anybody internally at the Y that you say, ‘This person really gets it, they've moved from ally to ownership?’ ”


Emily: If I'm thinking of your peer group, I'm thinking about Jerry Courtney, the CEO of the Valley YMCA in Huntsville, Alabama. He is someone who understands this and has grown up in close proximity around Black people, specifically in the South. He has a really nice, fresh perspective on this. 

Jerry is one of those people who really tries to speak up and help people expand their perspective — and he doesn't shy away from the conversation. I know that it's not always easy for him, but he’s been consistent.

He comes up against challenges, too, just like everyone else, but he is on that journey of trying to really figure it out. He had, for the first time ever, a female board chair who identified as multi-racial, and they have been led by their first Black male board chair recently as well. He really is trying hard to intentionally diversify his board because he knows that's an important part of the equation. 

I would also encourage you to talk to your staff within a variety of levels in your organization. There are also many new people coming into your organization. Learn from them. I think that you need to also talk to some of the staff of color who have been there for awhile. And you have lots of amazing board volunteers from diverse backgrounds, who are around you and who can tell you the truth about what they've experienced in the Twin Cities. 

Because I think sometimes the best insight comes from unexpected sources. And I think your broader staff team is going to be a really great source for you.


Glen: As it relates to the Y, what do you hope the Y looks like here in five years? 


Emily: I hope that the Y gets more connected to their social responsibility roots and leans in and really gets connected to community and begins to reflect the community again in a way that is meaningful at all levels of the organization. I think that is as much as I can wish for, ‘Hey, 50 percent of CEOs are going to be CEOs of color,’ I’m a realist. I've done the research. I know how many years it will take for us to even get to 20 percent of the seats switched over to get to more parity. Although it’s important to have diversity in the seats, I'm also really concerned about the attitudes of those who hold the seats today and their willingness to change systems. And I think that the Y potentially has the ability to be a leader in this space, if they decided to do so. 

Your Y has stepped out with a great approach on how the Y can be an influencer in this space. There is no reason why equity and justice centers can't be run by Ys all over the country. But as you know, we also have to do our internal work first and make sure that our house is clean and that we're doing what we want others to do, whether or not it's first or simultaneously. But I think, at the end of the day, we really have to complete the full examination of our systems and processes and begin to dismantle what is going on in our organizations and begin to share power with other voices that influence decisions in our organization because we are so top down. I would love to see the Y transforming and be less top down. 

I would like to see the Y really take a look at how we view or what limiting beliefs we have about leadership in our organization. And what I mean by that too, is it's not just about race. Our organization was founded by a 22-year-old young person, yet today we don’t trust young people in our organization to lead or make decisions. Why aren’t half of our boards young people? We don’t listen to them, and we don’t let them lead.

We are going to be extinct like a dinosaur if we do not start engaging young people in our organization differently. And that would get at both ends of it, right? Because today, in the United States, half of the people under the age of 18 are people of color. So if we even just focused on getting young people connected and getting back with relevance again and giving them power and influence in our organization, that is what I would love to see happen. 

I was in Colombia in South America, and I went to several Ys across the country, and their young people run it all. I had dinner with one of the boards, and they were all between 18 and 30 years old. The board chair was a female lawyer, probably 28. The co-chair, a teacher, was 27. Everyone on their board was young and the CEO was like, ‘Yeah, I'm the old guy.’ And he was like 40 something. They had this amazing plan to support young people in their communities, through social entrepreneurship and an anti-trafficking program and all these things that were plaguing their community. And this group of young people were just crushing it! I told them, ‘I need to take a picture of y'all because nobody in the U.S. is going to believe me when I talk about this board.’

Nobody will believe me because we have limiting beliefs about who should be in charge and who should have power and who should have influence. And it causes us to be behind the relevancy current from a race perspective, from an age perspective. And I think generally, just from a relevancy perspective, it's going to cripple us in the future. 


Glen: I absolutely love that recommendation. I think youth movements have to show up more. This has been so insightful, Emily. Thank you. In closing, I wanted to know if you could share experiences from your family, since you are a multi-racial woman married to a white man with two children together?


Emily: There's so many I'm thinking like, ‘Which ones do I share?’ Because this is daily. Like deciding how I want to be treated at the airport, based on what I wear. I go in my suit, I get treated differently than if I go in my yoga pants and Beats headset. It dramatically changes how I get treated through my airport experience. 

And my husband can be wearing his Adidas and t-shirt, and he gets stellar service, no matter how he shows up. 

I normally don’t take my kids with me when I travel. But I decided to take my youngest son on one trip because my aunt was at the place I was going. I went to get into the preferred traveler line to go get us checked in and a woman from across the terminal yells, ‘Ma’am, ma’am, that line is for our preferred customers.’ And I was like, thank you for the reminder. I fly half a million miles a year, and I know where I’m going. Thank you.

I walked up into the line and the woman who worked for the airline was so embarrassed. She was like, ‘I am so sorry.’ 

If I had my suit on, maybe she wouldn't have done that, but it shouldn't matter whether I had my suit on or not. Because I'm still the same person, no matter what. I always have to think about how I’m going to show up and that’s something my husband doesn't have to do. 

There are differences for how we get treated when we’re together as a family or when I’m by myself. Here in Texas, there’s the border and immigration issues, and some people don’t know how to identify me. Sometimes people think I’m Hawaiian or Latino or from India. So I’ve been walking with my kids and get stopped ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officers, asking me for my identification, which is illegal by the way. 

Or if I lock my room key in my hotel room. That’s a 20-minute experience for me, to wait for a security guard to walk with me. But if my husband is with us, I joke with him and say, ‘Go use your privilege and get us a new key.’ Then he’s back in two minutes.

Even things economically, like when we apply for loans or when we look for houses, we put him first because we get better interest rates. When we're looking for homes, he will always be the one that calls first or goes to any of those appointments. 

And in the Twin Cities, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly of law enforcement. You know, I've done really great programs with kids and police officers and trying to get them to understand each other and get exposure to each other. I've seen the positive, but I've also had an experience where I was the director of a Boys & Girls Club in North Minneapolis, a big brawl broke out right outside in the street. People pulling up with guns and baseball bats. We had to lock down the Boys & Girls Club, and we’re calling the police, and the station is three blocks away. We called once, twice, and no police came. They never came. If it would have been a white, upper class, suburban community that scenario would have played out very differently I believe. 


Glen: Emily, thank you so much for your time and your insight. It was incredible. 


Emily: I want things to change, and so I will talk about it. I want to help people grow and create change. Thank you so much for thinking of me.


To learn more about Emily Holthaus, visit her bio on LinkedIn by clicking here.