August 26, 2021
As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 48th 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.
Glen: I worry about mission drift, and the potential within even our generational leadership where the Christian mission of the Y kind of fades into the background.
And I'm hearing you say that there's a real mutuality — or an important connection — that our historic basis in a Christian mission can thrive, and our ability to be more inclusive and more focused on equity can go forward together.
Is that a fair statement?
Lynda: Absolutely! I go back to James White. One of the more recent workshops that we introduced at the Diversity, Inclusion & Global Innovation Network conference was Jesus as an equity leader. And I continue to be really inspired by that. How can we deep-dive into this idea of Jesus as an equity leader? And James and I, and others from his team, were always surprised but then not surprised at the reactions. At the beginning of that workshop, there is a picture of what is known as the very light-skinned Jesus Christ, or what some people have named the Norwegian-looking Jesus Christ. And then an image that came out of Popular Mechanics, of what Jesus Christ would have looked like as a Palestinian Jew from that time period. And it's very different from the one that we're familiar with. And when people see that, their reactions are intense, to say the least. And just getting our heads wrapped around that again shows how race shows up. It would be a fascinating conversation to have, and to continue to journey with, but it says a lot.
When you start thinking about mission drift, and we still have so many people that identify as Christian, or as ecumenical or a secular humanist, or are from the Muslim tradition, or from the Jewish tradition or Hindu, many of us can still look at those spiritual leaders and what they did to move us towards equity. I mean, where would Jesus be with us in this storyline?
Well, as we reflect on Biblical stories, it was always with the poor, the thieves, the sinners. He was always where he saw the deepest pain. That's where the energy was cultivated. In seeking to serve the most of the oppressed, the most suffering. That's a very powerful story today, and many of our religious traditions do reflect on the beauty of humanity, not just in the love of humanity, but in calling out inequities and serving those who are most marginalized and hurt. And in our conversations, Glen, we're seeing a lot of communities are poor or living in poverty, Black, brown, underrepresented.
That's why I stay so committed to this work. I don't want anybody to ever feel like I did as an eight-year-old kid. There's no reason for that. There's no reason why we should have the loss of these tremendous contributors to our society that aren't even allowed to live past the age of 21.
Glen: Thank you! You had a powerful experience earlier in your career, working with gangs in New Mexico. Could you share something you learned from that experience?
Lynda: It was gang intervention. I was actually hired because more girls were joining the gangs. Although I had some of the girls that I worked with early on, I ended up becoming really effective with boys and young men. When we started that program, one of the first things that we did was built in a Chicano studies class, with a cultural identity component to it. Again, we needed to get these young people comfortable with other groups, so we were really intentional about having them meet with, for example, with the Irish community of Albuquerque, and they started talking about the journey of the Irish and the Potato Famine, and being excluded, and being Catholic, and really started those kinds of connections. I remember when we took them to meet with Vietnamese Buddhists and, again, from the shared journey of the indigenous Latinos in the same DNA line, and how much they looked alike.
But we were intentional around Chicano studies. Even as we talked about Jesus as an equity leader, one of the key symbols that we used in the gang program is Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Many people even have her tattooed on their body. One of my colleagues painted a beautiful poster, and I went to go get them printed, and a white man was the owner of the store. And he says to me, "Here's your thousand copies for free. I want to contribute to doing something positive in the communities we serve."
We truly believed in the gang intervention program, that spirituality was critical. The spirituality for many of these kids, especially in New Mexico, came from our cultural, religious traditions that were very mixed with indigenous Spanish.
I learned the power of working with faith leaders very early in community engagement, especially when you're working with kids that are impacted by this level of violence. I could talk for a very long time about gang intervention!
Glen: That's powerful. Can you recall a moment, as a senior leader, when you were reminded that you were different?
Lynda: There are so many times that I've been the only person that looks like me in the room. Small, brown woman? You don't see a lot of leaders that look like me. So it's oftentimes very surprising, and I'm oftentimes very overlooked. One example that does stand out for me, people not recognizing that I would be coming in as the Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Global Officer. Usually, it's this recognition that they're very surprised, or they say, "Oh, I didn't expect you to look like this." One time, I walked in with my African-American colleague Michael, and people did not know who we were, but they automatically went to Michael and thought he was the Chief Diversity Officer. So what I've learned is, although it can be very offensive, I'm really doing my best not to get angry and not to be offended, but to find a way that we can start leaning into this conversation. Like I was talking about relating to that academic side of leader categorization, why does a leader have to look like many of our presidents? Over 6-feet tall, white male, from privileged backgrounds, educated and usually, for the most part, with a full head of hair?
But it's happened so often, that I don't even remember.
Glen: After George Floyd's murder, there's been a bigger push for diversity and inclusion. But you've been doing this work for a long time. Will things finally change? Will there be meaningful changes now?
Lynda: I feel very optimistic, moving forward, that things are going to stick. I really do. I've seen organizations taking it to significant levels, including constitutional changes, public/consumer facing commitments, because they don't want to just say the right thing, but they really want to do the right thing. And I'm also very encouraged by the multicultural-ness of the protests, and the young people going to the streets, arm-in-arm, and stating that they really want to make this difference and then acknowledging their own privilege, when appropriate. They just did it themselves.
I feel optimistic about how multicultural Gen Zs and Millennials are right now. I feel optimistic about how many of our family members are having conversations with children and what this means.
I heard the most inspirational thing. A colleague told me about one of our staff at Y-USA, who was talking about our work around undoing institutional racism. And their 10-year-old child was like, "Mom, I'm so happy you're undoing institutional racism because I hate racism, and I want you to know that you're doing a really good job."
So the fact that these children are seeing the negative impact of racism so young, and what we've been able to witness collectively, both in the pain but also in the hope, makes me cautiously, very optimistic. I really am.
Glen: Thank you, Lynda. I am so thankful for your candor, your leadership, your role modeling and how you humbly come at the work. I mean, I'm indebted to you personally.
My last question is, what can I do, as a while male in his fifties, to be a champion of diversity at the Y and in our community?
Lynda: There is such an important role for you and other white men, and white-identified community members, to partner with us in this space. I mean, it's critical. So first off, being proactive in the learning journey is incredibly important. Organizational Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), when it started out because of limited resources and such, it was really about the gap analysis. We've not been able to really study "whiteness," or what it is to be white, and we're learning a lot about that. So that is an incredible role that you can help with, help unbundle and discuss what it means to be white. We're doing what we're calling "caucusing,” where we give white folks the opportunity just to have time within themselves so that they feel comfortable asking questions of people, maybe white leaders, who may have more experience in that conversation. There's so much that can be done there.
The other area where I see the white community and in particular you, as a CEO, is to be very intentional about representational diversity on your own team. What you've been able to do in hiring such a multicultural, incredibly talented team, you can give a lot of tips to others who are seeking to do that, too. Then continuing to be vulnerable and opening yourself up. I've seen you in action, and I've seen you apologize if you didn't say the right thing, or not showed up in the right way.
But people who are willing to share their mistakes give others an extra sort of lift to not feel shamed. It's incredibly important to have these conversations.
Learn more about Lynda by clicking here. Look for a new “A Conversation on Race" next week.