YWCA chapters begin adding men to leadership

Friday, August 20, 2004

SAN DIEGO -- "Please NO men or boys allowed on elevator," warns one sign at San Diego's downtown YWCA. Informational e-mails are called "hot flashes" and tablecloths come in pink.

But changes are coming to this YWCA and others. Men have joined the San Diego chapter's governing board, making it among the first nationwide to end an almost 150-year-old policy of female-only leadership.

The shift, implemented here last month in violation of the YWCA's national bylaws, is proving neither easy nor uncontested.

Meeting in Massachusetts last weekend, the YWCA's national board said it would wait before deciding how to reconcile its formal policy with the new direction several local chapters have taken.

Members of some YWCAs, mostly on the East Coast, want their boards to remain the domain of women. And the leaders of those branches believe if U.S. chapters change, YWCAs worldwide might feel pressure to follow.

"There is something very powerful about women closing the door and sitting around a board room, identifying their issues and then resolving them," said Mary Reardon Johnson, executive director of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts.

YWCA leaders in San Diego and three other chapters that have opened their boards counter that the change lets them tap talent previously off limits and reflects one of the organization's central goals -- stamping out discrimination.

"Men and women do think differently. When you have multiple perspectives on an issue you can make better decisions," said Lambert Hsu, one of three men now on San Diego's board.

But the inclusion of men does present challenges, big and small.

At Hsu's first board meeting, discussions on a new building and the budget went smoothly. Anyone who asked about the elevator sign learned the rule protects the privacy of female residents at a shelter upstairs.

One concern that did come before the 24-member board was practical: Where's the men's room?

It's a question not often asked at YWCAs. The organization has about 300 chapters nationwide that run programs predominantly for women -- shelters for domestic violence victims, child care centers and job training programs. A few YWCAs share some facilities and staff with YMCAs, but the two are distinct organizations.

The membership reflects the institution's mission. Men can volunteer, donate and become associate members, but under national rules only women can vote on their chapter's policies and men are ineligible for the governing boards.

Though the national organization says it doesn't track the trend, San Diego appears to be the fourth that added men. The others include chapters in Berkeley, Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore.

YWCAs in Madison, Wis., Seattle and Olympia, Wash., have changed their bylaws to let men serve, though their members haven't elected a male member.

In response, the national board created a gender task force last year. The committee circulated its 15-page summary of the issue to chapters across the country and presented a status report last weekend at the national meeting. The task force next will suggest how the national YWCA should proceed, said national board Chairwoman Glenda DuBoise, recommendations that could be ready as early as November.

The board's circumspection reflects the issue's emotional charge. Not least of some leaders' concerns is that including men might pressure the worldwide YWCA, which in some parts of the globe provides a rare women-only haven.

"The most passion that I have heard is connected to the women in the rest of the world who need the YWCA umbrella strong to keep them safe," said Roz Branson, the executive director of the YWCA of Greater Baltimore.

Other leaders point out the simple fact that if the change spreads, it would eliminate one of the longest-running women-only groups -- and that the YWCA's focus on women might blur over time if men are allowed to make decisions at the highest levels.

But leaders at chapters such as Tucson's counter that excluding men simply won't work anymore.

Director Janet Marcotte said her particular group runs a large racial justice program, and that it felt awkward to preach tolerance when her own board was exclusive.

One of Marcotte's new colleagues, board member Tim Wernette, hopes he adds something as a white man who vocally supports feminism and anti-racism work.

Still, as the Tucson chapter's board changes, Wernette tries to avoid muscling in on board discussions.

"I'm real sensitive to the air time I take during meetings," Wernette said. "I don't want to dominate."

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