Nonprofit Spotlight: YWCA Madison

Posted by Samantha Haas on Tuesday, January 19th, 2021 at 9:32am.

In one way or another, we each live in a bubble. And as we encounter new experiences, that bubble may widen so we are able to see beyond our own viewpoint. Like many others in my mostly white sphere, we were seeing the world through rose-colored glasses...until 2020. 

"The death of George Floyd woke more people up who weren't tuned into the atrocities that the black community has been enduring for centuries," said Vanessa McDowell, CEO of YWCA Madison. "We at YWCA Madison are glad people are starting to wake up and learn about racial injustice and want to do something about it, but quite frankly, it is about time."

Vanessa is a Madison native and the first Black woman to lead the 111-year-old nonprofit, which addresses challenging issues such as gender equity, affordable housing, racial justice, restorative justice, and family supporting wages. YWCA Madison’s mission is to eliminate racism, empower women, stand up for social justice, help families, strengthen communities, and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.

“We encourage people to take advantage of the educational opportunities that we provide, including our racial justice series,” said Vanessa. “It’s important to have a deeper understanding of the history behind systemic racism and then move into action by putting this education into practice.” 

That reminds Dane County resident Joyce Dieter of the saying, “Before you take a stand, take a seat,” because it’s critical to know what you’re fighting for, where you fit in, and why it’s important. Now the Board Chair of YWCA Madison, Joyce remembers that her “lightbulb moment” occurred several years ago when she attended her first Circle of Women event, which has been providing a window into the work of YWCA Madison since 2004. 

The stories shared at Circle often highlight the YWCA’s affordable housing and shelter initiatives for women and families impacted by homelessness and domestic violence, employment and training programs, safe transportation solutions, and racial and gender equity programs. “I was blown away that I was living in a bubble of naiveté and didn’t even know that these were issues in our community and that we have programs to address them,” said Joyce, who each year has taken on a larger role -- from a Circle Captain inviting more people to Co-Chair of the fundraising, networking, and awareness event. “Vanessa has a tremendous vision for her team and who the organization serves,” Joyce added.

YWCA Madison was at risk of losing some of its pivotal housing programs serving vulnerable populations because two longtime grants were unfortunately not renewed for 2020. The organization was under more stress when the pandemic hit, especially because the virus has disproportionately impacted communities of color and the organization’s essential services. Thankfully, an amazing donation that Vanessa is calling the “MacKenzie Scott miracle” came through right before the end of the year to temporarily keep these programs running. 

“MacKenzie Scott was clear that she trusts the work that we are doing and my leadership through this tremendous gift,” Vanessa wrote in a news release about her $4.2 billion donation to 384 worthy organizations. “She is setting the bar for what I believe is the future of philanthropy, unrestricted giving (no strings attached).” 

Consistent support from the community is critical to maintaining these and other programs into the future. The Circle of Women is YWCA Madison’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and because donations collected at the event are unrestricted they can be used to support the nonprofit’s greatest needs. The 2021 theme is “Reimagining Resilience,” and we hope to see you there (virtually)! 

To learn more ways to donate, volunteer, and get involved, visit

You’re invited! 

Several members of the Mad City Dream Homes team will be attending the Circle of Women virtual event from 12-12:30 p.m. February 17th to learn more about YWCA Madison and to pledge the suggested $100 donation over the course of 2021. We would love for you to join us (guests of all genders are welcome) and expand our circle and view of the world. To register, please follow the steps at this link and indicate that your Circle Captain is Samantha Haas. Questions may be directed to or 920-248-2676.  

Q/A with YWCA Madison

We spoke with Vanessa McDowell, CEO of YWCA Madison, to learn more about how the pandemic and protests have impacted the organization in 2020 and beyond. Responses have been edited for space. 

How has YWCA Madison been involved in racial justice work? 

This past summer I spoke at many of the protests happening in the area, and we collaborated with other groups to move this racial justice agenda forward. There is a lot of movement and energy right now around policy and supporting people of color who are running for office. The younger generation has been really invigorated to start advocating and being on the front lines of the movement to push against the status quo. I encouraged them to keep pushing forward and voicing their opinions, and I really felt called to be a protection out there for them because of the fear of possible violence from police. But it’s not new for the YWCA to be talking about issues like this that have just come to more people’s attention in the summer of 2020 with the death of George Floyd. 

Prior to that, we were planning our annual Racial Justice Summit for the fall with a different theme (“Restoring Our Lives”), but what I appreciate is that we could pivot. We are not an organization that is stagnant or deaf to the times, so we shifted to what is important to the community and nation right now. We changed the theme to “Reconstruction. Centering Blackness – A Path to Build Collective Power and Justice for All,” and we had powerful speakers for the virtual event. Many participants said the experience was life changing, and now they are on a mission to be more active and show up in their spheres of influence to reflect on how they have been operating in anti-Blackness and how they can center Blackness in their life no matter what they look like. We also launched a Black Thought Wall in South Madison as a space for the Black community to express their thoughts and dreams on a chalkboard. It’s also an invitation for non-Black folks to protect, witness, and honor the space. 

In addition to our Racial Justice Summit, we also hold a Racial Justice Series at the 100, 200, and 300 level. When I’ve listened into the 100 level class I sometimes hear some pretty ignorant things, but by the 300 level people are in tears every time. I believe this is because they are learning about things they never knew existed and weren’t taught in their educational system. For example, the concept of generational wealth and how it’s nonexistent in the Black community was like a lightbulb that went off in someone’s head because of their privilege. They just had no idea that it’s all part of the system designed to keep people of color out. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted YWCA’s programs? 

Our downtown building houses over 100 people, so to be able to protect that many folks in a communal living space during a pandemic has been nothing short of a challenge. We have an awesome cleaning company that comes in to sanitize the building, we’ve changed the furniture so it’s easy to wipe down, and we’ve installed plexiglass for the offices and in the vans we use for our 24/7 transit program to protect the drivers and riders. At the start of the pandemic we emptied the second floor of the shelter to become a quarantine floor in case anyone tested positive. We are also working with Public Health Madison & Dane County in a great partnership to make sure any residents who test positive can go to a medical respite hotel with nurses and quarantine there until they come back. This has helped keep the spread down in the building, and we have had under 10 cases. We’ve also limited visitors and locked the doors so everyone has to be buzzed in.

One thing the pandemic has done has allowed our creative juices to flow -- things we never would have thought about. Now a lot of in-person services are being done online, such as our virtual Racial Justice Summit, Circle of Women fundraiser, and our YWeb Career Academy employment service program for women and people of color interested in the IT field (which is typically held at our Empowerment Center on Park Street). It’s been challenging for people to volunteer in-person because of COVID, but we are developing new opportunities such as computer literacy that can be done virtually. We are also trying to find more ways to continue to provide some kind of community building activities since we can’t be together physically, so we were grateful when laptops were donated for everyone in the building at our downtown Madison housing complex. Isolation is a huge issue during this time, especially with folks struggling with mental health. We’re hoping to set up movie nights and coffee/tea with the CEO to make sure we’re seeing each other and helping people to not feel so alone. I’m very proud of our team and staff (approximately 70 people) -- because it’s hard, exhausting work every day. This is a group of passionate people who show up and push through and continue to provide tip top service. We’re a family.

Check out YWCA Madison’s website to learn more about how it is advocating for change, standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and providing trainings and resources to support YWCA Madison’s mission during this time.

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