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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Q&A: Vanessa McDowell-Atlas, CEO of Young Women’s Christian Association

 Vanessa McDowell-Atlas has been an integral member of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) for nine years and has undertaken the role of CEO for about six years. 

Emphasizing collaboration and diligence, McDowell-Atlas shared with The Daily Cardinal her knowledge on YWCA’s mission as well as its programs, strategies, struggles and goals. 

As a Wisconsin native, she outlined the organization's role in eliminating racism and empowering women along with her insights on how the YWCA has strived for equality in Madison.

As a Madison native and UW-Madison alumna, can you tell me about how your life and education in Madison originally got you involved in YWCA? 

I was born and raised in Madison. I went to the Madison School District through sixth grade, then my family moved to the Middleton School District. I graduated from Middleton High School. 

I went to UW-Madison, where I graduated with a degree in sociology. From there, I actually worked in banking. I was a teller at Summit Credit Union and then went to work for Mount Zion Baptist Church. I was executive assistant to the pastor and did that for about 10 years, and then worked a small stint in the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Lab on the [UW-Madison] campus. 

Then I moved to YWCA, and I started in a role called the “Director of Supportive Services,” co-directing our housing department at the time. About a year later, I was promoted to the Chief Programs Officer, which meant I was the head of all our direct service programs. A year later after that, I was asked to fill in the role of interim CEO, then I applied for the permanent role in June of 2017. I’ve been CEO ever since. 

Earning a Bachelor of Arts in sociology, what did you initially see yourself doing in the future? How has your background in sociology translated with the work you are doing for YWCA? 

When I chose my major, it was based on an experience that I had on campus in the chancellor's office as a student and started noticing some things that were bothersome. As student workers that worked downstairs in the chancellor’s office, we were asked to find new jobs because they were cutting back and had some funding issues. I noticed that most of the people that worked in the lower office of the chancellor were people of color and everyone that worked upstairs was white. 

So, I was training one of the white student workers upstairs on how to do my job, and they would be taking over those duties. She told me [the chancellor’s office] had just hired her sister in a student role, and she made a comment about how [the office said they] liked to keep it “in the family.” And that sent me on a journey of righteous indignation. 

That really sent me into what I believe is my purpose and what I've been doing ever since, which is to fight against injustice — racial injustice in particular. So that was an experience that forever shaped my life and is the reason why I went into sociology, because I really wanted to study systems and people. I think [sociology] prepared me in understanding how systems work, how they disadvantage people of color and how we fight against that. And so YWCA’s mission aligns with my personal values, and what I feel my purpose is.

What is YWCA’s main mission? 

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Our mission at YWCA Madison is to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

What are YWCA’s efforts in ensuring their mission statement? What programs and services does the organization provide? 

We operate in three programmatic areas. One is housing and shelter, the second is job training and transportation, and then the last is race and gender equity. Within those three buckets, we have numerous programs that we offer to the community, whether it's housing programs that we do in our downtown location where we serve over 100 women and children as well as men and children in our building. 

We also do community housing programs, [which is] getting people housed through programs that try to alleviate them having a shelter stay. We operate a 90-day shelter in our building of 12 rooms to provide immediate assistance to folks in housing insecurity. We have other programs that we offer for folks that are doubled up — those who don't have a real place of their own to stay.

In our chapter in transportation, we have a program called YWeb Career Academy, where the goal is to fill the class with people of color and women who want to go into the IT tech field. It's a 15-week course that serves that demographic, and it's been a phenomenal program that has really changed the trajectory of so many lives. We are now in our 90th cohort of operating — we've been operating that program since 2014. We give people skills to be able to find careers that change the trajectory of their family's lives. 

We also have transportation and transit services. We have something called JobRide, where we get low income folks safely to-and-from work all hours of the day. 

We also do race and gender work in our community. We finished our annual racial justice summit last week — which was a huge success — where we bring different speakers to talk about issues of racial and gender justice work. We also [offer a program] called Creating Equitable Organizations to do deep work with organizations around what they're doing to make their workplaces equitable. We also do work in restorative justice, where we are in different middle schools within the Madison Metropolitan School district, and we do work with other school districts around restorative justice and create restorative justice circles and clubs in schools. We also have community centers that we partner with to offer restorative justice programming. 

One of the other cool programs we offer is collaborating with Briarpatch Youth Services. In conjunction with the Madison Police Department, any student between the ages of 12 and 16 that may get a municipal ticket or [about to receive a ticket] can be offered restorative justice and get the ticket completely wiped out if they go through our program, keeping them out of the, what I call, criminal “injustice” system. 

What are the main obstacles that stand between YWCA and their mission, and how does the organization plan on overcoming them?

Racism and gender injustice still exist in America, and there are things happening in our community. We have [anti-trans] bills that are being passed right now, creating an environment not welcoming for everybody — that stands in the way of the work we do. 

[Another obstacle is] being in spaces where people don't want to have conversations about race and how that impacts people's experiences. Housing should be a human right, but there's many folks that are facing housing insecurity — that interferes with work we're doing. Finding landlords, finding housing for individuals who need to be housed and mostly folks that are people of color or marginalized folks that can't do that because of barriers that are set before them — that gets in the way of the work. [Challenges are] systems of oppression created to do just what they're doing, which is to put barriers up for folks that look like me. 

So those are things that they get in the way, but it doesn't stop us. It only makes us go harder, to be able to press forward in spite of these barriers that are put up. We know there is a whole population of folks that we carry on our backs, we are trying to make sure that they have opportunities and access. We'll continue to fight for individuals that are silenced or don't have the means or platform to advocate for themselves.

What have you seen to be YWCA’s impact on the community?

We're uniquely positioned in that we provide direct service. We also have an advocacy platform which we're able to inform people by the actual service we do, and [we also have] racial justice and gender equity work we do. There's no other organization in this area that does all that work simultaneously. The impact is great in our community and for a lot of folks that otherwise may not be served. We are the largest provider of affordable housing for single women in Dane County, and a lot of people don't know that. We have had women staying with us for years, and the oldest tenants have probably been staying with us since the ‘70s. I think we provide a real need in our community that, if we weren't here, would go unmet.

As CEO, what does your regular day look like when working for YWCA? 

My days are different everyday — it just depends on what's happening and what needs to be met. Today, I'm working on the budget. [My day] could be in meetings with stakeholders or meetings with residents where residents come [in my office] and we talk about what's going on. [My day] could be having staff meetings or going and participating in community events. So everyday is different, but I come with the mindset of wanting to be of service to my community.

What is the most fulfilling aspect about your role within YWCA? 

The relationships I'm able to form with our participants and residents. Also, just seeing the impact in individuals’ lives, giving them opportunities, access and learning from each encounter that I have. [A fulfilling aspect] is also being a model for young Black girls who see me in this room and know they too could [have my role] if they wanted to.

How can those interested in YWCA get involved?

You can go to our website,, and there's information about how to get involved. You can call us at either location and get more information.

What future plans does YWCA have? What do you see the organization accomplishing down the road? 

I think it all depends on what the community’s need is. One of the things I'm proud we're able to do is we pivot to the needs of the community. We see what's going on in our community, listen to what folks are saying and see if we are able to step in and help. I'm excited that we continue to be nimble and be able to adjust and readjust to the needs of our community that are ever-changing.

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