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

May 8, 2014  |  

Dr. Danielle Moss-Lee, CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, could wallpaper her office with all of the diplomas and educational certificates she’s received. She has B.A. in English Literature and History with a concentration in Black Studies from Swarthmore College and holds M.A. and Ed.M. degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University, where she completed her doctorate in Organization and Leadership. Dr. Moss-Lee is also a graduate of the Institute for Not-for-Profit Management’s Executive Level Program at Columbia Business School and completed the Harvard Business School SPNM program for non-profit executives.

Having served on numerous boards and as president and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, she understands what it takes to be an effective leader and what it means to have a vision. The war she fights nowadays focuses on eliminating racism and empowering women. She won’t stop until she wins.

MadameNoire: You have such an extensive background in education and nonprofits. How did you get started?
Dr. Danielle Moss–Lee: I think I kind of got started accidentally. When I graduated from undergrad, I had plans to just get whatever job and wait a couple of years and go to graduate school and get a PhD in English or History. But I started teaching at a parochial school in the Bronx and I had a really wonderful principal that I had the opportunity to work with. So that was really where I found my passion.

I didn’t just engage with the young people and their families, but also this idea of putting systems in place that could increase the likelihood of student’s success. I think that was also what attracted me to the nonprofit sector as opposed to going into formal public education because there was an opportunity to just be more creative, I felt. A little bit more control over the process you use to get to certain outcomes and just always something new, something different.

MadameNoire: As the CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, can you discuss the Y’s effort to eliminate racism and to empower women?
Moss-Lee: Theyadopted the first interracial charter for a national organization back in the ‘50s owing in larger part to Dr. Dorothy Height, who got her first job with the YWCA of the City of New York. And I think that if you look at where women were in the ‘50s, white women were having an experience, yes, but black women were having a very different experience based on the color of their skin that had an impact socially, politically, and economically. So the mission really evolved to eliminating racism and empowering women because we understood as an organization that you couldn’t empower all women without paying attention to race and realizing how that impacts our experience, our opportunities, and our access.

We think that it’s really important for the YWCA to serve underserved communities, but we also exist to create important and meaningful conversations among women across the board. There are women in the boardroom, black or white, who are catching hell and there are women who are law partners who are catching hell; women in media trying to get their voices heard in a way that is not stereotypical who are catching hell. So how can we be a convener of a community of women and girls to really shape an agenda going forward? I feel like that first generation of women coming out of the Women’s Movement, coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, they got a seat at the table. Now we need to change the rules because getting a seat at the table means we have the opportunity to play by rules that we had no role in creating. And I think this next generation of women is going to bold in terms of saying we need workplace flexibility, my contribution is just as valuable.

MadameNoire: What does this mean nowadays when it seems like racism and sexism are not only prevalent, but rampant?
Moss-Lee: Who says what’s professional and what’s not professional? Usually it’s the white men before us who have defined what it means to be empowered in public and professional life. So now it’s on this next generation to really reshape the agenda for women. Like I said to a group of women recently, for the next generation of women, abortion may not be the galvanizing issue for them. When I hear my daughter [she’s 18] and her friends, they’re talking about access to technology careers and they’re talking about dealing with street harassment. And they get to say that. They get to define their own agenda, which I think is really important. If we’re going to be around for another 150 years, we have to homage to our past, but we also have to be willing to give space and a platform for younger women to invent their own future.

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