Glen Gunderson

August 12, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 46th 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 22nd guest is Lynda Gonzales-Chavez, the senior vice president and chief diversity officer of the YMCA of the USA, a national resource office that works with over 2,700 YMCAs with approximately 20,000 staff and 500,000 volunteers in 10,000 communities across the country. She is one of our nation's foremost leaders around diversity and inclusion and engagement for many years, and Lynda has blessed the Y in many capacities for more than 25 years. One key role earlier in her Y career was as senior associate director in Y-USA’s International Group, helping to train more than 500 volunteers and staff annually on cultural competence, inclusion practices and integration of immigrant and underserved communities.

A native of Albuquerque, Lynda earned a master’s degree in public service and nonprofit management from DePaul University and a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of New Mexico.

On a personal note, though, Lynda has long been a mentor and advisor, providing me unmatched wisdom in her expertise in so many ways.

I know you'll see why I so deeply admire her in Part 1 of my talk with Lynda Gonzales-Chavez.

Glen: Lynda, I've known you as a leader at the Y, and you have a remarkable personal story. I wonder if you would share where you come from, and what were some of your formative experiences before you came to the Y?


Lynda: Well, I've been looking forward to this conversation. I was born and raised in Albuquerque New Mexico from a very big Chicano family, which basically is Mexican-American or the mix of indigenous with Spanish. Our large family comes from very humble roots and beginnings and goes back hundreds of years in New Mexico. One of my first jobs was in a restaurant, and I did everything from washing dishes to bus girl, and I finally made it to become a waitress. But I needed another job to augment my college education, being the first one in my extended family to go to school. That was really important.

And my very good friend, Antoinette, who is a long-time mentor of mine, as well as a best friend, told me about the YMCA and asked me if I wanted to fill in for Christmas day camp. So that became my before and after school job. So I'd get the kids to school, go to class, come back and pick them up and then go to the waitressing job.

I fell in love with youth development. So I started at the Albuquerque YMCA about 33 years ago.


Glen: Very interesting, and the Y has become a bit more than that for you!


Lynda: Absolutely. Back then, there were fax machines and snail mail, and I was applying for the Peace Corps. But an executive at the Y said we should call the national office because there was a program like the Peace Corps. It's called YMCA of the USA's World Service. Long story short, I was placed in the YMCA of Mexico. In 1990, at a very exciting time, I opened up the international relations desk of the Mexico YMCA, and started doing a lot of work within community development. One of the big projects we were working on was a tremendous youth exchange. Again, when we start talking about conversations related to race, what we're able to do when we're very intentional is having young people come together at a formative time of their lives. And so it was a tremendous program. 

We ended up exchanging hundreds of young people between Mexico, the United States, and eventually Canada. And then we opened up homes for border kids that are still present today. So any young person that is deported can actually find a place in the YMCA, and you get them back to their families.


Glen: How did your work around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) come to be, because you are one of the foremost leaders in the world and U.S. movements?


Lynda: Early in my career, especially in Mexico and when I went back to Albuquerque and did gang intervention work, so much of my work was related to community engagement and building connections between people. You can imagine, young people that are impacted by gangs and violence oftentimes can be some of the most despised young people in the community. And yet they have a story. They have a significant story, and oftentimes those stories are very sad ones. And so I started delving into cultural competence that was required to do that work. At that time, I was also recruited to the Y-USA national board and the executive committee of the World Alliance. So here I am, I'm under the age of 30, I'm a woman, I'm Latina, they're trying to diversify boards. So there were a lot of conversations about that. Again, this is like 1994. Then I was recruited by YMCA of the USA by another great mentor of mine, who was the vice president of the international group at the time. I had done so much work with a grassroots community, and there were such challenges happening across the globe. HIV and AIDS were a big deal, and, at that point, it was explosive, it was horrific, it was stigmatizing. Youth and violence, and the spread of gangs becoming multinational. So I fit right in with the international group and started running that portfolio and was very passionate about that portfolio. And we took a lot of people from the United States overseas to experience firsthand some of the tragedies of our time and the cultural competence that was built in that. I started becoming very attractive in the DEI space, when we first started bringing diversity and inclusion to the YMCA of the USA.

Interestingly, your predecessor Harold Mezile had been doing this work with General Mills and in the Twin Cities. He really became a source of technical knowledge around diversity and inclusion, and he felt that if we were able to bring somebody in who knew the organization, that had all of this cultural competence that had been doing a lot of work within organizational DEI, and to try it that way. And you'll see that in the DEI space, that became a strategy for many of the early adopters of diversity of organizational diversity and inclusion work, getting somebody who had the cultural competence, the willingness to learn the connections across different departments, across the movement, and then really applying that organizational knowledge with the overlay of DEI. Then, academically, I started studying it, so it was a really good fit.

So we've been providing the nuts and bolts — the technical knowledge that they know — and then giving them the opportunity to infuse those strategies into our organizational processes. But when you take the diversity, equity and inclusion lens and apply it to our core business areas and mission standards, it can be very sustainable in real-time.


Glen: I'm curious, go back to when you're this young board member in a national context. Where were we then versus where are we now? What are you particularly proud of? And share a little bit about how much further we have to go?


Lynda: As you know, we're never going to arrive, but we are going to make progress on our journey. And organizational diversity, equity and inclusion, because there is a lot related to it, as far as change management and change processes and people getting fearful of new concepts or breaking from tradition, has incremental moves and incremental change. And so it's been a long journey. And I have to say, Glen, that what we were able to do early on with what was then the Global Centers of Excellence, which are now the Diversity Inclusion & Global Innovation Network, and deciding to move collectively on the journey together with our local YMCAs built the momentum and that built our long-term sustainability. And so what I'm most proud of about our universe of global diversity, equity and inclusion is how we've journeyed together in it. Also, the integration of DEI work with our global work was critical, and a lot of that took place in the Twin Cities. I know we remember those conversations that you and I had when we integrated your DEI, and we started moving that nationally. But that was another critical thing, this global-ness and being able to address risks raised through the world is incredibly important. When we start looking at the history of race, it's impossible not to look at it through a colonial construct. And that has to be global, if we're going to analyze it accurately.


Glen: Well, that's powerful! As you think about your own life journey and the steps you've taken and your amazing evolution as a leader, would you share where race has shown up for you? I think people around the Y movement would say, "Wow, Lynda has arrived. She's like a rock star." But you've lived through some stuff, experienced some adversity. Would you share a few examples?


Lynda: I'm happy to share because one of the first times that I actually shared it publicly was with you, Glen. I remember that you've got a powerful group of colleagues who like to know, "What's your story? Let's get to the heart of it." And I'm learning that story, and I'm telling that story. Carolyn Creager created the space for people of color to start sharing what are very sad stories and usually those stories are accompanied by a lot of tears. And, you know, me. I'm one of the more emotional people that anybody's ever going to meet.

I'm highly empathetic, and it goes back to the fact that I come from a very large family, and when I had just turned eight years old, I had a brother who was 15. He was at a football game, then ended up at a party and, in a race-related situation, a wealthier white man shot and killed my brother. Race became very clear to me at a very, very young age. The entire situation was very racialized. I remember, very clearly, memories of the night my brother was shot and killed, and then what happened afterwards, when the guy that killed him was found guilty of second degree murder. But he got two years probation, and that created an entire wave of, seeing the impact of race and poverty on a family. That happens, and then it becomes unraveled for decades, right? As soon as something like that happens, it impacts the family for generations. But it was there, that I heard for the first time, things like what the guy had said, "The only good Mexican is a dead Mexican."

Knowing immediately that I was not white, at such a young age, and being put into this category whatever we were calling ourselves. I'm from a colonized state — so New Mexico didn't become a state until 1912 — but I'm navigating this, and I realize that other people are also defining me. So it's not just how you see the world, but how the world sees you.

So then, "What am I?" And that was a really big question, because of my brother's death, but then just being in a space that was very racially segregated. Seventies, in New Mexico. I remember at one point, because of my last name, people knew I was something. And so back then, I remember thinking, "Nobody really knew what Chicano was." But I remember one time, I'm just like, "You know, I'm just gonna say it." And I must have been 12 or something, and I said to my friends, "I'm Mexican." And a white girl corrected me, and she's like, "No, no, no. You're not Mexican. You're Spanish. Mexicans are the poor ones."

Then you start to see waves and waves and waves of classification of individuals, and so I became heightened and aware of it very, very young. And I saw the haves and the have nots so clearly because it was also very visible, quite honestly, in my family and in my community. So I'm very aware of race, and now studying it, after all these years, is incredibly fascinating.

As you know, our undoing institutional racism work, and our journey to become an anti-racist, multicultural organization has led us into a lot of deep-dive conversations related to race. And there's a lot there academically, as you start studying as a construct. But at the same time, for us to really get at the heart of it, Glen, it's doing what you're doing right now, and allowing people to tell their own stories, about how race has transpired or come up in their lives. Now, what we've been able to do to move forward in the learning journey. 

I do want to share that before we go into our unlearning institutional racism cohorts, when we go into those spaces, we recommend people to watch the PBS series RACE, The Power of Illusion. That's a really great starting point, I think, for many folks to start recognizing that race is, "Yes, a series of stories that the individual's lived experiences of which we engage with." But there's also an academic side of things, related to the historical perspective of how race has shown up in our own lives, through our own educational systems and through our own lived experiences. And how do you start getting in a place where we can collectively learn together? Because the more knowledge you have, the more practice you have in having the conversation, the less fearful you become. And you know, like with the cultural lenses, I think that is something that we take great pride in is, let's reclaim the fact that we can start out in conversations with a lot of ignorance. That's okay. As long as we're willing to move towards the knowledge that will allow us to have these types of great conversations. 


Learn more about Lynda by clicking here. Look for Part 2 of our “Conversation on Race” with Lynda next week.