Awards shed light on murky YWCA past, bright future

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This year’s YWCA Greater Pittsburgh Racial Justice Awards marked the 140th anniversary of the local branch. In honor of the anniversary, CEO Magdeline Jensen took the opportunity to look back on how the YWCA has handled issues of race over the past 140 years.

“In short, for 140 years the women of the YWCA in Pittsburgh have been trying to do the ‘right thing’ for racial justice,” Jensen said. “We have not always exactly agreed as to what the right thing is, and we have not always proceeded in the right way—but we have had some success along this journey, and we keep working at it.”

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HONOREES—From left: Laurence Glasco, three members of the Nueve Lunas organization, George Miles, Grace Robinson, Father Regis Ryan, and Lisa Thorpe-Vaughn.

For the past 18 years, the YWCA has used the Racial Justice Awards to honor leaders and organizations for their efforts in eliminating racial disparities in the community. Although this focus had always been at the core of their mission, Jensen said the YWCA has had to overcome racism within their own ranks while working to fight it outside their doors.

“As far back at 1875, it was recorded at the Third International Conference of the YWCA, held here in Pittsburgh, that the ‘program showed inclusiveness of all—regardless of race, economic status, nationality or creed,’” Jensen said. “As we have learned in our nation’s history, sometimes what is recorded on paper as fundamental values do not translate to practice in the real world.”

In their earlier years, although the organization provided services to all races, they were often segregated. Jensen said some members at that time expressed racism quietly and others were not aware they were perpetuating it at all.

Through her research, Jensen also discovered that as years went on segments of the organization felt they had done enough in the battle against racism. She said this same sentiment lives on in the United States today.

“It is this recurrent refrain in our history where I think the phrase ‘the past is prologue’ has relevancy. Today we hear folks saying that with President Obama in the White House, we no longer need to focus on issues of racial justice,” Jensen said. “Unfortunately, we are not there yet and must keep focus on the issues.”

For this reason, the YWCA’s logo, “eliminating racism, empowering women” leads with their dedication to the issue. It is also for this reason that they take the time to recognize those who are also dedicated to the issue.

Everyone on this year’s list of honorees expressed appreciation for the YWCA while also expressing appreciation for the work of their fellow honorees.

“I must say I’m extremely humbled and grateful. I’m not sure I deserve this,” said Laurence Glasgow, associate professor of history, University of Pittsburgh. “I don’t make history; I just try to write and record it.”

“This award is very dear to my heart,” said Grace Robinson, State Farm agent and founder of Tomorrow’s Future, Inc. “From my humble beginnings in Alabama, we were always taught to give back.”

Other honorees followed Jensen’s lead by reflecting on past struggles and the battles fought by those before them. Honoree George Miles, executive director, WQED Multimedia, pointed to Wendell Freeland, his role model, who was a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and a former Racial Justice awardee.

“The 140th anniversary has given so much visibility to the YWCA, but what it really does is give visibility to empowering women and eliminating racism,” Miles said. “I often think about my blessed journey in life, how far I’ve come. Anytime I find myself thinking things aren’t fair, I just think of Wendell and my father’s generation.”

The other honorees were Father Regis Ryan, executive director of Focus on Renewal Sto-Rox Neighborhood Corp.; Nueva Lunas health care organization; and Lisa Thorpe-Vaughn, president of the Non-Profit Leadership Training Institute.

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