YWCA Greater Charleston’s LaVanda Brown forges ahead with anti-racism work

Mar 29, 2022 | Features, Recent Stories

When it was founded 115 years ago, the YWCA Greater Charleston was a safe space for Black girls and women during a period of institutionalized racism and discrimination. By 2017, LaVanda Brown’s first year as executive director, the organization needed an upgrade.

LaVanda Brown at the lobby photo booth during the 2021 “What Women Bring” event in Charleston. Photo provided by YWCA Greater Charleston

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Adam Parker

It really is a new era.

When it was founded 115 years ago, the YWCA Greater Charleston was a safe space for Black girls and women during a period of institutionalized racism and discrimination.

During the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, the YWCA’s beloved director Christine O. Jackson led the still segregated organization as its members fought to end Jim Crow. Jackson, a cousin of Coretta Scott King, provided one of the staging areas for the 1969 Charleston Hospital Strike. Soon she would organize an annual commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. that became the cornerstone event of the YWCA’s programming.

By 2017, LaVanda Brown’s first year as executive director, the organization needed an upgrade. The King weekend celebrations surely were important, but during the previous two years, Charleston had been shaken by two violent episodes that prompted some to think hard about racism, history and white privilege.

On April 4, 2015, a white North Charleston police officer, Michael Slager, shot and killed Walter Scott, a black man, after a petty traffic stop. Scott had been unarmed and running away when Slager aimed his Glock .45 and fired eight rounds, five of which struck the 50-year-old man from behind.

LaVanda Brown at the podium during the 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday celebration in Charleston. Photo provided by YWCA Greater Charleston

Then came the deadly attack at Emanuel AME Church. On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist joined a Bible study session, then murdered nine black members of the church, including its pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

These events sparked public protests, community mourning, heartfelt expressions of solidarity, and even some institutional introspection.

But they didn’t seem to have a transformative effect on government policy or police behavior. So right away, Brown knew what she needed to do.

And she was accustomed to swimming upstream, against the strong currents generated by the turbines of the status quo.

Mission-focused

Brown, 53, was born in Savannah, the oldest of three children, and spent the first 30 years of her professional life there striving to remove barriers and empower marginalized communities. Her mother was an assistant principal and civic-minded. Young LaVanda was the quiet kid who accompanied her mother to events and assignments, soaking in the values that would shape her life.

As a teenager, Brown volunteered at the Greenbriar Children’s Center for neglected, abused and abandoned youth. She remained there thanks to a college internship, then was hired by the center to help with case management. She was set upon her path.

Seeking a bigger challenge, she moved to Union Mission, which serves the homeless, providing access to healthcare, housing, employment opportunities and more. She learned about budgeting and profit-and-loss statements—the business side of a nonprofit operation. Then she worked at Family Promise, bolstering its shelter program.

She discovered she had a natural ability to see the future. She could meet a client, understand her need, then envision the outcomes. She knew what interventions were necessary and how to deliver them. She could map it all out in her mind, then follow through and make it happen.

In 2017, the YWCA Greater Charleston’s board of directors recruited her. Believe it or not, Brown had never been to Charleston before. She had always escaped southward on vacation, in search of the ocean.

She arrived two years after the organization had sold its building on Coming Street. The Charleston peninsula was changing fast. African Americans were moving away as incessant gentrification drove up the cost of living there. Walk-ins had declined, Fewer children showed up to events in the old building. The time had come to go virtual. Or so they thought.

The YWCA staff worked from a nondescript office in West Ashley, and their lack of visibility was hurting them, Brown said.

“Because we moved from downtown, people thought we went away,” she said. “So the first order of business was to reintroduce the organization to the community where we’d been for over 100 years. The second order of business was to establish programs that were mission-focused.”

She went on a listening tour and discerned that the Charleston area generally embraced the concept of diversity, but stopped short of addressing intractable and institutional racism. So Brown partnered with the Racial Equity Institute, based in Greensboro, N.C., to start a training program.

“It took off like gangbusters,” she said.

Who’s in the room?

The YWCA is the local convener, organizing a dozen two-day workshops a year, each drawing 40 participants affiliated with the Charleston County School District, North Charleston Police Department, the county solicitor’s office, and various corporations and faith-based groups.

The curriculum is divided into three parts: understanding the historical, cultural, and structural manifestations of racism, learning to view current institutional problems through a racial equity lens, and developing goals and an action plan for addressing systemic racism within organizations.

The training sessions have become increasingly popular, Brown said. But if state lawmakers pass laws limiting discussions about racism, that could interrupt the YWCA’s momentum and threaten the progress being made, she said. Many of the people who have the most to gain from this training are part of publicly funded organizations.

“These are the groups that need it most,” Brown said. “I don’t want to be preaching to the choir all the time. The people who can really affect change need to be in the room.”

So far, about 2,000 people have gone through the racial equity training in Charleston.

The YWCA now offers plenty of other programming. The “She Strong” initiative is designed to prepare high school girls to become community leaders. “Y Girls Code” teaches middle school girls about computers and encourages them to develop—and pursue—an interest in technology. “We 360˚” caters to women entrepreneurs of color, providing them tools for success. The YWCA also teaches public speaking, healthy living and self-advocacy.

Once a year, the organization hosts a luncheon called “What Women Bring,” featuring leaders from business, education, the arts, public service, healthcare and the media who share their stories and advocate for more women leaders.

Keeping the momentum

The YWCA Greater Charleston now operates on a budget of $600,000. That’s an increase of 1,000 percent since 2016. Support comes from big corporations with a local presence, such as Boeing, Comcast and Bank of America, and from many individuals. Some of them give so regularly it’s akin to tithing, Brown said.

The generosity has grown in tandem with the YWCA’s programming, which has increased the number of goals and deliverables in recent years, and which is producing favorable outcomes.

The 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer outraged many, spurring them to find some way to express their concerns. They were looking for solutions to the systemic racism that can result in such police violence, Brown said. The YWCA saw an uptick in donations.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a stick in the fundraising spokes, but the momentum had been established and the wheels responsible for the YWCA’s progress did not stop turning. In some ways, the pandemic highlighted the urgent need for anti-racist work. People were more isolated, spending more time on social media, observing troubling trends in the world, wondering how they might make a difference.

The YWCA Greater Charleston gave them an answer. 

Now the organization seeks to expand its offerings, to reach more people who can be trained to recognize and address systemic racism and push for institutional reform. But the political climate—those railing incoherently against “critical race theory” and any effort to confront America’s entrenched legacy of discrimination and racial bias—presents a challenge.

Anti-racism work is essential. In recent years, some halting progress has been made, and now much more must be done. But will our politics allow it? Will donors fund it? Will LaVanda Brown lead the YWCA into a future illuminated by hope and good will?

About the Author

Adam Parker earned degrees in music, then spent a decade in the business world before going back to school for a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University. At The Post and Courier, he has worked on several beats over the years, most recently race and history. A long-time student of the civil rights movement and race in America, he has written extensively about the African-American experience. He is the author of the biography “Outside Agitator: The Civil Rights Struggle of Cleveland Sellers Jr.,” published by Hub City Press, and “Us: A Journalist’s Look at the Culture, Conflict, and Creativity of the South,” forthcoming in the fall of 2022 from Evening Post Books.

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