Executive Director, YWCA Greater Charleston
LaVanda Brown makes a distinct first impression.
You expect substance from a woman whose lofty mission at YWCA Greater Charleston (YWCAGC) is “to eliminate racism and empower women,” as she explained.
“Our organization was founded on the empowerment of women, but we learned along the way that unless we were addressing the disparities of racism, we could not empower all women,” said Brown. “So, all our YWCA programs are about informing an entire community on why gender and racial disparities are not good for any of us.”
Brown knows disparities.
After graduating in 1991 from Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia (the first college in the world chartered to grant degrees to women), Brown returned to her hometown of Savannah to work as a case manager for abused, abandoned, and neglected youth. In her next job, she spent nearly 16 years rising through leadership roles as she developed programs to prevent and end homelessness. She worked with shelters, employment efforts, and behavioral and primary health.
Then, in 2016, Brown arrived at the YWCAGC with big ambitions.
“I spent so much of my time building programs and removing barriers on an individual basis,” she said. “I felt with the YWCAGC that I could take the same skill set and mobilize a whole community.”
She found a ready partner in Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC).
“I looked for a partner that could help transform a community,” said Brown. “Someone mentioned that TFASC was sending people to the Racial Equity Institute in Greensboro, North Carolina. I went myself, and I was overwhelmed with how impactful it was.”
The Racial Equity Institute (REI) is an alliance of trainers, organizers, and institutional leaders who are devoted to creating racially equitable organizations and systems. Through trainings and workshops, REI partners with organizations like TFASC to develop tools to challenge patterns of power and grow equity.
“TFASC introduced me to REI,” said Brown. “When I returned, I pulled some nonprofits together, and we hosted one REI workshop ourselves to see what would happen. Then, we did four workshops, and now, they’re twice a month, 40 people per session. The Charleston community is truly hungry and thirsty for training like this.”
Brown trains more educators on racial disparities than people in any other profession. Why?
“The education system is the first system most of us come into, long before we experience any issues with, say, healthcare or legal systems,” said Brown. “We’re students first; education touches us from the beginning. Equality must start there for us to have it elsewhere.”
Brown feels achieving racial equity will take some soul-searching.
“Equality requires understanding the intentionality that racial systems are built on,” she said. “And it requires understanding how our own biases play out in classrooms.”
“Structural racism doesn’t require your intention – if you’re working in a biased system, your intention is not required to sustain it. But it will take our intention to undo it.”