Glen Gunderson

October 22, 2020

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 11th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

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 seventh guest is Kevin Washington, the CEO and President of YMCA of the USA (Y-USA). One of the leaders I most respect, Kevin had a massive impact as President and CEO at the YMCAs of Greater Boston and Greater Hartford, and as the COO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago before that. But the Y didn’t just have a big impact on his professional life, as you’ll soon discover. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Kevin Washington.

Glen: Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with me, Kevin. Would you mind just sharing a little bit about your background?


Kevin: Starting when I was 10 years old, you could find me in the Christian Street Y in Philadelphia. There was a program that was a precursor of our after-school program, run by a gentleman who was a youth director by the name of Bill Morton. There were about 15 boys, and we would get together in the gym and meet with him and have conversations. And then we would go to the Y during other times to engage in sports and activities and things of that nature. So learning to swim, shooting my bow and arrow down there, early basketball, all of those things were part of the leadership process.

My mom and dad never needed to worry about where I was because they knew I was at the Christian Street Y, which was about five blocks from our house. I was too young to play, but there were basketball games on Friday nights, and I kept score and cleaned the gym up and got an opportunity to understand what volunteer service is about.

And I knew everybody there cared about me. So it was a place that really cared about all these young African American boys growing up in the city of Philadelphia in neighborhoods that were very different than what they are now. The house that we had was a little two-bedroom with eight of us in it that rented for $50 a month. That house today recently sold for $550,000.

But that Y kept me from being in gangs and kept me from having any significant issues with the law. It kept me on a path. And as I have said in the past, it helped me cross that bridge from adolescence to adulthood. It served as a solid foundation for me, and those folks cared about a lot of Black, young boys growing up in Philadelphia. So the Christian Street Y will always be an institution that is close to my heart for what they provided for me as a young man growing up in South Philadelphia. 


Glen: Thank you for reflecting on your childhood and the Y's influence on you. I’m really curious what went through your heart, mind and soul this summer after the murder of George Floyd? And how are you feeling about where we are right now?


Kevin: Good question. A lot went through my head. I had a lot of emotions that were very difficult for me to separate. One of them was a flashback to 1967, as a 13-year-old growing up in Philadelphia and seeing some of the same protesting that Dr. King and others were leading and how that was resonating with me at that time. And, “Could we get to a new day?” So that came into my brain.

I also felt sadness and frustration. This has been going on way too long — all of my life. And there was the conversation in 2008 that we were beyond race because we elected Barack Obama as President. But I think with all those issues that have happened with police brutality, of course the country sort of reinforced, “No, we're not. We haven't gotten past that.”

So frustration, anger, sadness, all of those things were emotions that I felt. But as I looked at who was in the streets protesting, as I looked at what people were saying, as I looked at the young people who I have an absolute passion for, and what I would call a rainbow coalition of folks, that gave me a sense of hopefulness. There were people who were very different than what the leadership was in the 60s in their perception of what equity means, who are very different in acceptance of diversity and inclusion, and they were out in the street, and they were saying, “Black Lives Matter!” So I have a sense of hopefulness for the future, because I am a firm believer that young people lead the way in these processes. And I see a group of young people who are committed to leading the way and are very different and socialized very differently than what I was and how you were.


Glen: I love how you characterize hope, and I'm hearing you espouse it more and more through the Y. I would love to get your perspective on what me — as a 50-something, white guy — can be doing?


Kevin: I know a lot of us would say we got to talk to Black folks, and I agree. But I also think you must act. The only way we can address the racial injustices that have happened in this country is, you’ve got to start with yourself. That's the self realization about your understanding of your privilege and what it means and understanding how that has affected others in this country. You’ve got to start with yourself before you can work on the institution. Listen, educate yourself, understand your privilege. Then become much more of an activist of what you're going to do to change the situation.

Now that also means leaving some of the old methods behind, and that may mean leaving and losing friendships and resources that are tied to a historical view, but it means action.

Moving forward, to lead in the 21st century, your staff members who are younger will expect that from you. And if you don't deliver, then they will leave you. Or you won't have the opportunity to use the platform that you have to move the needle, in this particular manner. So it's going to take courage.


Glen: Great insight! Thank you. One thing I’ve heard you say that I really find interesting is, there are a lot of folks in our country who want to make Black Lives Matter political versus humanitarian, right? And so I'm saying to our team, “Look, this is a human dignity issue. We can't allow it to be a political issue. Serving all is our mission, so we can't worry that we’re going to lose X number of dues paying members because they're not going to like that.” What's your reaction to that? 


Kevin: It does make sense. But you know, you're riding against the tide in that regard, right? If you look at all the things that come out, you hear, “blue lives matter.” Yeah, we know that. But the reality is, until Black lives really matter in this country, it doesn't matter for anyone. That's what you're talking about. Unconditional love for humanity.

But in our social media focused world, we can't take anything out of politics. It creates a very difficult arena for leaders. In many instances, you're going to be fighting against the grain.


Glen: What do you think the Y’s role is moving forward?


Kevin: I tell everybody that we are an American institution. We've been around since 1851. There is inherent racism that exists in our organization. We have to acknowledge that but move beyond it. Our journey is to become a multicultural, anti-racist organization. We have to start with where people are and move them from that point.

You're not going to move everybody to the same goal, at the same level, but we have to start and meet people where they are and move forward. And we have to talk about that. We have to have these courageous conversations as an organization, and some of it is going to be hard for people to hear, and some people will not want to participate in them. But we have to have these conversations because of who we are and because of where we are and because of the credibility that the organization has in the communities in which we serve.

Unfortunately, we're tied to a very huge capital structure that’s inhibited us from using our resources in a manner around social justice work. So I think that we are at a very pivotal point. The question is, “Do we have the courage to push it forward?”

I think we have a great opportunity, but not all leaders get it. And I think one of the things is, we can't wait for everybody to come along. You may be on a lonely island for awhile.


Glen: I've become more and more hopeful over the last couple of months because I know the Y will survive. We will thrive again. On a personal note, Kevin, can you share a time you were racially profiled?


Kevin: Nine times out of 10, when I walk into a room, I'm usually the only person of color in the room, particularly at this level of leadership. But I do remember walking into a department store with a white male Y leader and his wife, and I said, “Watch this, Michael.”

As I walked around that department store, the guards followed me. I’m in there with a beautiful suit on, but they followed me. And I said, “Michael, did I tell you?” I mean, it was uncanny.

And that’s something a lot of folks who are white don’t get. They don't feel it because it's foreign to them. It is foreign to them. But for me, it is a constant battle that I always, always have to be concerned about. No matter where I am, what I do is on my mind. I know I'm going to be treated differently. I know that wherever I go, I'm going to be treated differently.

It doesn't matter how much money you make, your title, or anything. You are still a Black man, and you're going to be treated differently all the time.


Glen: I read your comments in a Time article.  Again, your words were full of hope. Where does that come from, when you have to deal with these kinds of indignities, and you kind of know that these kinds of incidents are coming? How do you remain so hopeful and optimistic?


Kevin: I will tell you where it comes from. One, the unconditional love of young people is the hope for the future. The fact that I've been in this organization for 42 years as an employee and 50-plus years as a member — I've had the opportunity to work and be with young people. And I know people can change! I’ve worked with young people others would call “difficult,” and they turn out to be policemen, priests, teachers. So I have the ultimate belief in young people and their ability to create change. And I'm betting that they can help us change our society. That’s where the hope comes from!


Glen: That’s beautiful. Kevin, thank you so much for your insight and wisdom. I am grateful for your leadership.


To learn more about Kevin Washington, click here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race” next week.