The YWCA Madison has announced the hiring of Vanessa McDowell as its Chief Executive Officer today, a historic event as McDowell becomes the first woman of color to lead the organization in its 109-year history.

“I’m very excited. I think it’s a great opportunity to shift this organization in a new direction. I’m definitely grateful for those who have come before and I think that this is an opportune time, especially with our current political climate, to make this shift,” McDowell tells Madison365 in an interview at her YWCA Madison office in downtown Madison. “I don’t take it lightly that I’m the first African-American woman to have this position in 109 years. It’s very special. There’s a banner that I carry with it but also a weight that I carry with it, too.”

The selection of McDowell concludes a four-month national search by YWCA Madison to find a new CEO. McDowell, who had been serving as the interim CEO since January, brings nearly 12 years of experience to her position as YWCA Madison’s CEO. She was initially hired in 2014 as the director of support services for the YWCA and later promoted to Chief Programs Officer. Now as CEO, McDowell will be leading a team that will be offering a variety of programs and services that support women and social justice while helping families and strengthening the community.

“I would like to concentrate a lot more on making sure that the people that we serve are really feeling the empowerment,” McDowell says. “I think we have started to shift to an empowerment model but we haven’t quite gotten all the way there, so I’m really looking to make sure that every touch somebody has with the YWCA is an empowerment touch … whether that’s from our website to our Racial Justice Summit to our housing programs.”

McDowell is a Madison native and has been deeply committed to the serving of the Greater Madison community. She spent nine years as executive assistant to the pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Madison’s south side, where she was very much in tune at the grassroots level with the needs of Madison’s African American community.

“I think my work in the church really helped prepare me for this job,” she says. “I was at Mt. Zion for nine years working as an executive assistant there and I really worked with folks to find them resources whether it’s housing or help with the food pantry. Anything I could do to help folks live sustainable lives.

“Anytime I have a conversation with somebody, my goal is that they leave different than how they came. That they hopefully leave uplifted in some type of capacity. I think with the conversations I was having at Mt. Zion at that time period in my life, it really helped to prepare me for what I am doing now.”

Vanessa McDowell speaks at this year's YWCA Moxie Conference.
Vanessa McDowell speaks at this year’s YWCA Moxie Conference.

McDowell has also been a very active member of the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., an organization of predominantly African-American college-educated women committed to scholarship, sisterhood, and community service.

Her work in the community aligns strongly with the mission of the YWCA Madison, which is to eliminate racism and empower women. McDowell is well aware of the huge significance of her becoming its first African-American CEO in YWCA Madison’s 109-year history.

“First of all, it’s humbling to be in this position at this time,” she says. “But to be the first African American CEO in 2017, is also a little disheartening, to be honest. So it’s mixed bag, in terms of my feelings. But I definitely don’t take it lightly and I stand on the shoulders of people in our community who have come before me and am excited to get to work.”

One of those people McDowell says helped trailblaze a path for her was her mom, Candace McDowell, the founding director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Multicultural Student Center. “She was 36 when she did that; I am 36 now,” she says. “She was the interim director who became the permanent director, just like me. I feel like it’s a legacy that I’m living out when it comes to my family … doing something that is trailblazing. She was the first and now I’m the first.”

Vanessa McDowell at the 2017 YWCA Circle of Women
Vanessa McDowell at the 2017 YWCA Circle of Women

McDowell says that she is excited about the possibilities for the YWCA Madison in the future and, specifically, that YWCA Madison will be moving its Empowerment Center to 2040 South Park Street on Sept. 1. McDowell’s leadership was instrumental in the move that will improve accessibility, visibility and allow the organization to expand and strengthen its core programming.

“I’m very excited about the moving of our Empowerment Center location to the South Park Street corridor, next to El Pastor,” McDowell says. “We will be a lot more accessible and visible to our participants. This is the community that we serve, so we’re really looking forward to being in that area.”

The community is invited to an open house on Friday, Sept. 15 in the new Empowerment Center building to hear more about McDowell’s mission and to learn about ways to personally partner with the YWCA Madison organization.

In the meantime, McDowell says she’s looking forward to strengthening YWCA’s advocacy work and inviting its partners to deepen their involvement with the YWCA Madison. She says that she has a passion for serving others by leveraging voices that have been silenced as well as empowering others to live out their purpose.

“In the end, it’s about serving. It’s about coming alongside someone and saying, ‘what can I do to serve you?’ versus me thinking that I always have all the answers to your problems when, really, folks have the answer themselves,” McDowell says. “They know what they need. [We want to be] helping them to leverage their own voice. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sitting with somebody for a little while and spending time with them to find out what they really need.

“And if there is anything I can do to help them maneuver through these systems that are so hard to work through, I think that is the goal, too,” she adds. “It’s all about empowerment.”