It’s been a century, but the work isn’t yet done.
The YWCA Boulder County is celebrating its big 1-0-0 this year—and the timing of this birthday couldn’t be more relevant, with women’s reproductive rights and abortion issues moving again to the forefront in the United States.
The YWCA is focused on helping women and racial justice—and it’s not affiliated with any religious group, despite the “C” that historically stood for “Christian.”
The publicly funded, secular nonprofit provides services like affordable child care, youth empowerment programs, anti-racism education and issue advocacy. For example, the YWCA has been involved in organizing marches protesting abortion bans in other states and passing an act in Colorado to help protect women’s reproductive rights if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned nationally.
“We still see so many issues where we’re not making the same salary, professions we’re commonly in are low-paid, work we’ve been doing hasn’t been valued in the same way,” says Debbie Pope, CEO of YWCA Boulder County. “It’s taken time, and we continue to push and make sure we’re changing systems more permanently than just putting band-aids on them.”
Pope got involved with the YWCA four years ago, after a career in journalism focusing on women’s issues and then working in leadership with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for 17 years. Her mom, who had MS, was her inspiration to get involved with that nonprofit.
Her three daughters inspired her to segway into the YWCA. Her daughters are biracial.
“When I saw the opening, I almost couldn’t believe it included both eliminating racism and empowering women,” Pope says. “One of those missions alone would have been compelling to me. But recognizing the intersecting point between the two and how important that is was the space I needed to be in.”
Pope grew up involved with the YWCA in Wisconsin, too. That’s where she hung out with friends and even had her first kiss.
The YWCA started nationally 165 years ago to focus on the needs of women and girls. It was active in the Civil Rights movement and in voting rights. It was involved with many big pieces of legislation over the years to provide equity for women.
The YWCA has three main tenants: racial justice; economic advancement and empowerment (including parent and caregiver education); and health and safety for women and girls. The nonprofit expresses these values through direct programming, advocacy and issue awareness.
“You have to be aware of the issues to be able to make long-term changes, but on a day-to-day basis, people still have to be able to live their lives and thrive. That’s how the programming all works together,” Pope says.
She says the problems with early childcare and women’s vital role in the economy came to the forefront in 2020 with the school and childcare closures related to COVID-19 restrictions. More women dropped out of the workforce than men due to the lack of childcare.
One of the local YWCA’s key programs is quality, affordable childcare for children aged 3 months to 6 years. This includes an on-staff nutritionist, partnerships with local farms and the kids spending time in gardens to learn about and understand food. In 2020, the YWCA expanded its facility and can now help 50 percent more families with that childcare program. The goal is for holistic support, Pope says.
“We hear from all kinds of different women how this has impacted their lives,” Pope says.
There’s the mom who was able to get her doctorate degree, thanks to the YWCA providing care for her children two days a week. That mom is now working at Columbia University. There are also the women leaving abusive relationships who need help trying to get their lives back.
Racial equity and women empowerment come together with the Latina Achievement Program, where Latina high-schoolers are mentored by Latina college students with the goal to get the teens prepared for life after high school, whether that’s college or other postsecondary education. Many of these girls are first-generation students whose families don’t have knowledge about financial aid, immigration law and the college application process.
The YWCA’s STEM program works with girls in fifth through eighth grade to introduce them to coding and computer science – higher-income career fields that are male-dominated. The Reading to End Racism program teaches volunteers to use literature to open discussions about racism for children in elementary school up to sixth grade. This program even extends into the community to train corporations, government organizations and nonprofits.
“We are really proud of the work we do. We have opportunities for different women wherever they are in their life and whatever their situation,” Pope says.
And then there’s the advocacy. The YWCA has been at the forefront of the women’s marches in Boulder and voting campaigns, although the organization is nonpartisan.
“Every step has to be a milestone. Some are smaller steps than others, which can feel discouraging,” Pope says. “But we have a lot more power than we give ourselves credit for. We have buying power. We’re an integral part of the community. Our voice does matter. When we’re working together and have a shared goal is when we can make the most change—and it’s going to require that right now.”
How to Help
The YWCA can use volunteers and also donations. Learn more about how to help at ywca.org/get-involved.
By the Numbers
212 – YWCA associations in the United States
2 million – People helped by the YWCA each year
1858 – Year the YWCA was formed in New York
100 – Countries around the world helped by the World YWCA
1922 – Year Boulder’s YWCA started in a former dance hall in the Masonic Temple