YWCA Of NY CEO Dr. Danielle Moss-Lee Is Using Her Nonprofit Platform To Empower Women & Eliminate Racism

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May 8, 2014 ‐ By Rochelle Burnley

MadameNoire: You’ve served on various boards such as Dodge, YMCA, Teacher’s College Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation Advisory Board and a term on NYC Department of Education Community Education Council for District 3. How important is leadership and community involvement?
Moss-Lee: I think that we can’t sit back and complain about the way the world is if we won’t dedicate part of our life to adding our perspective and voice to how decisions get made. I think board service has given me the opportunity to not only lend my perspective, but also to give back to institutions that have had a huge impact on me. I think that leadership and service go hand-in-hand. Cornell West has a saying: “You cannot lead the people if you do not love the people.” You have to serve the people in order to really have the credibility to lead people when you’re called to do so. And people need to see you rolling up your sleeves in not just ways that are self-serving, but that really kind of put the ego aside and put the needs of the community or the institutions that you’re working at ahead of all of that.

MadameNoire: Where do you believe the urgency lies within both the community and within education?
Moss-Lee: There’s a reason why people think that black folks and brown folks can’t learn. There’s a reason why our schools are underfunded. There’s a reason why our kids have access to the least experienced teachers. And it has nothing to do with our inferiority. I think what we’re working at the YWCA to do — and we’re not the only one’s beginning to have this conversation — is really looking at institutional and structural racism and how they create the circumstances under which our kids are fighting to get equal access… I say to folks who would say that being poor is no excuse, “If you haven’t gone to school without having had a meal the night before or that morning, then you’re not in a position speak to the impact emotionally, educationally that poverty has on young people.”

All of the situations that we force our young people to live in outside the school send a message about what we believe they are worth. When they show up in ways that don’t reflect a sense of high self-worth, we can’t be shocked and appalled.

I think that education is a big piece of it; curriculum development is a big piece of it, but connection to community, and really uplifting people in all areas of their lives, you know affordable, quality healthcare, all of that, is what drives achievement in many cases.

MadameNoire: On your journey to CEO, what challenges have you faced and what lessons have you learned?
Moss-Lee: I think there are two important lessons that I’ve learned. Everything is not personal. As a woman of color because a lot of the people that I interact with are not used to seeing us in leadership roles, there have been times where I have been a little bit defensive about how things are handled. [O]n the other side of it I will say some things are personal and just using your judgment, getting smart about which battles you take on or you’ll have nothing. And also knowing when to walk away. When to put yourself, your own sanity, your piece of mind ahead of everything else and knowing when to walk away. And then just surrounding yourself with the right people. People who are positive, people who want to see you do well.

MadameNoire: What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the nonprofit sector and to bring about change in their community?
Moss-Lee: My advice is don’t start your own organization. It’s a huge financial and legal responsibility. I recently advised someone “go work for an organization that has a clear infrastructure.” I would say pitch your idea to an existing entity so that you don’t have to deal with the issues of infrastructure, but you can leverage those resources and that expertise to kind of establish your own expertise. And to make sure that the idea that you had to help women, really improves the quality of their lives so that you can in the future, pitch something that funders have reasonable confidence that will work.

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