YWCA Metro Vancouver’s mission is to help build bright futures for women and their families through advocacy and integrated services. The CEO for YWCA Metro Vancouver, Deb Bryant is right on the frontline and always has her pulse on the issues affecting the services they provide. On today’s episode, she joins Douglas Nelson to talk about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women and children in 2020. She also shares how the organization has pivoted through it, and what they’re doing differently in response to the pandemic.
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YWCA Metro Vancouver with Deb Bryant
Our guest is Deb Bryant. She’s the CEO of YWCA at Metro Vancouver and we are thrilled to have her on the show.
Deb, I have been looking forward to having you on the show for a while now because I have been interested to watch how your organization has pivoted through the pandemic. Not necessarily in terms of how the organization is operated but because you are right on the frontline and on the point of the issues of how this pandemic has disproportionately affected women and children in 2020. I’m curious, how has the YWCA pivoted? What are you doing differently in response to the pandemic than what you are doing before March of 2020?
We have changed a lot in the way we operate our programs and services. To your point, what’s changed and sharpened our attention as an organization is observing how the pandemic has impacted women, in particular, in the economy. I would say women from racialized communities who experienced poverty or homelessness with disabilities, you see the intersection of being a woman, and then having the other identities that are traditionally marginalized the impacts have been very challenging for women. We have taken a long hard look at that try to connect with other organizations and other researchers, scholars and community members to get as to the best of our ability and understanding of what that impact has been like.Being a leader is tough, grueling, and exhausting work but also very fulfilling to see how your staff and board step forward. Click To Tweet
As an organization, you certainly have your finger on the pulse of the issues to the services that you provide. You would have seen these impacts early in the pandemic. What did you start to see and when did you know that this problem was going to be even more disproportionately than usual impacting women?
Looking at our own organization, we saw a number of the people that work for us and with us having to go home and look after their children, school their kids, look after aging parents who might have been in adult day programs. That was the first thing that I noticed. It’s a load of care and caregiving falling on women, how that interrupted our ability sometimes to carry on in our jobs, to do our job successfully or to get the rest we needed to do, the work we had to do and that sort of thing. That was certainly the first impact that we noticed.YWCA shut our childcare centers down briefly because the information we had about how to operate safely wasn’t clear to us. Our staff was anxious about keeping themselves safe and keeping our families safe. We know that even though that was a very brief period for us, that impacted some families who were still trying to keep all the pieces going, and then it snowballed from there seeing that impact on women in particular, in their families taking and shouldering that additional burden of care.
You see this start to happen and the example you shared was the members of your own team. How did that change the conversation that you were having around your leadership table around how the organization needs to respond to this?
Running alongside that, we were seeing the workforce shed. Many women who were in hotel, hospitality, service jobs, those things lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. For one thing, the real importance of keeping some of our core services going for women, we reinstated our childcare. We ensured that to the best of our ability, we were able to reach out and offer support through our single mom support groups and other services like that. It changes from in-person to online or virtual services. That was inside the organization and what we were doing. We also saw an opportunity and a need to start talking about that publicly to become a vocal advocate for women and to name the impact that the pandemic was having on women, women’s lives and incomes.There was a chorus of voices out there. In the beginning, more anecdotal, and then as time went by, statistical information. RBC release is a great report. There are some great work coming out of the Rotman School that named and observed what was happening with women in the workforce in particular. YWCA got a strong group of communicators. We raised our voice, tried to convene other women leaders and get the message out there that this was falling disproportionately on women. That was going to be a big problem going forward if we didn’t get our attention on it.
We saw several surprising voices joining the YWCA in bringing the issue to light. The CEO of Scotiabank is saying that, “The key to economic recovery in Canada was going to be affordable daycare,” which was viewed as a reason for keeping women out of the workforce in some instances. In some ways, the YWCA and other voices that have been trying to communicate in normal times were finally receiving that headline-level treatment that it deserved at a very difficult time. There are some success in the advocacy, but then the reality on the ground of the services you’re providing to the women that you are directly supporting. As the CEO, how did you balance those raising voices and looking outward within the organization with the need to support the direct service delivery that the organization does daily?
That dual purpose of providing supports and services to women and families where they are, what they need, to support folks to build a better future and work alongside them, that service focus has always been part of the organization but so has the advocacy voice. It wasn’t a change in our strategy. It was amplifying that strategy of looking to what needs to be changed. What are the barriers that women face every day? How has the pandemic exacerbated those that made them more apparent? What do we stand to lose? What progress, especially on the economic front, do women stand to lose? How can we capture that information and then speak clearly about it?We had to step up our game on both sides. The call to be part of that conversation get in front of when the provincial election happened. I’ve got in front of every MLA and minister that I could and introduce myself, introduce the work of the organization, talked about the economic impact on women in particular and other impacts and ask them to work with, find ways that I could work alongside them and ask them to build that awareness into their mandates going forward. We use many strategies like that but with that topic right in the center.
You described what a lot of leaders in the sector felt early on in the pandemic. It was, “What’s going to happen? What’s happening in our organization? What are we going to do about it that intense period when we were all trying to make sense of what was going on and, whether this is going to go away by May long weekend or not?” You have that initial period. You mentioned closing the daycare center, but then you found your groove and what you are describing doing the advocacy, louder, wider reach, more direct services, getting in and meeting people where they are and the services that they need in response to the pandemic. Was there a moment when you felt like the organization was starting to find its footing and groove in responding to this pandemic?
Not one moment. It has been an evolving process and awareness. As a leader, one of the things that I noticed was that in the early days of the pandemic and that heightened urgent crisis, people’s attention and focus were extraordinary. That was both in terms of all of the internal work that we had to do around like workplace safety plans and planning for vacating or changing the way we did provide services. Also, that leaning in to respond to the impact on our mission and vision and where we could be most effective.In the early days and the first several months that there was a real groundswell of commitment in the organization, as a leader, that was so delightful to see. It was tough, grueling work and exhausting but also very fulfilling to see how fully the staff, leadership and board stepped forward for that. They have been there right from the get-go like, “It’s okay. Let’s get in here and do this,” and what needs to be done, both to keep our wheels moving as an organization but also to turn to that mission and vision. That has been a top priority for me, too. It’s to keep that to hold those principles, our reason for being in the first place out there at all times and keep that motivating as we move forward.
Deb is one of the leaders in your organization who embodies that this is what we were built for. Responding to a crisis like this is what the YWCA is there to do and you have done it so well. I learned long ago to stop asking CEOs what they think of their board in a public forum.I would be happy to tell you about that.I would ask people, “How are things with your board?” Everybody would say, “Great,” and then I realize, “It’s because we are recording this.” Some boards are great. We are built for this. YWCA is built for responding to this crisis. You were looking to amplify your voice and your services at the same time. I’m curious about how does that changes the conversation that’s happening around the board table?
Rather than a substantive change, it has sharpened, amplified that and broader awareness of the importance of those two tracks. The way I think of it is that in an ideal world if we achieve our vision, our organization like the YWCA would be left doing health and fitness classes, art classes and bringing people and women together in celebration but we are not. There’s still such a long road ahead of us to achieve equality, equity and the intersectional feminist vision that we have where it’s not where that equity extends to people of all identities. As I said, the conversation around the board table stepped up to match the intensity of the time but it was not a fundamentally different conversation.
That recognition that the world and the community need us now.
I love the way you put it that this is what we are built for because, in some ways, that’s exactly what we are built for.The diversity, equity, and inclusion work that’s going on now has become so important to many organizational conversations. Click To Tweet
It’s something I have seen across the sector and the social profit sector exists to address issues that are complicated and difficult knotty. If it was simple and straightforward, the private sector might be able to help find a solution. If the solutions were relatively straightforward, there would be a specific government program that would look after them. Organizations like yours exist to do great work in those areas where the problem isn’t always very clear. The issues are very difficult and with many different perspectives, considerations and the solutions aren’t obvious. You have to build consensus often to find those solutions. How has this experience impacted your leadership style around that idea of consensus and bringing everyone along? You have mentioned a couple of times that putting the vision and the mission of the organization first to say this is what we are here for. Is that how you have managed to keep everyone collaborating and moving in the right direction?
That hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do. We have used this language. It has been well used that the pandemic has shone a light on the existing, underlying inequities in society and the underlying worn spots in the social fabric. I think that is true. As I said, it’s not a different conversation but a more intense and in some ways more urgent conversation. In the middle of the first wave of the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered.The overlay of that awareness of how racialized communities experience oppression and hard times was laid over the experience of women or integrated with the experience of women and looking at diversity. That diversity, equity and inclusion work that’s going on now has become so important to many organizational conversations, including ours. I would say that’s where it has been very important. Challenging isn’t quite the right word because it’s not that we don’t have consensus but it’s to build the vision for the organization that has been a real leadership challenge. I would say that, for sure, I don’t have all the answers to the way forward to what that means for the YWCA of 2040 where we should be going. What changes do we need to make? In what ways we need to reimagine ourselves for that future? What I do bring into that picture as a leader is I have 100% confidence that we can do it. I don’t know what it is yet, but I know we can do it.
That has to be part of the solution because we have seen many of our clients across the country have been asking questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. What does that mean? A real awareness that this needs to be different than a cosmetic change to who is on the board or a cosmetic change to who sits around the leadership table that this is a moment of importance and a pivot to change. In our sector, we’ve got a general consensus. I’m sure there are outliers but we don’t need to worry about them. People wanting to get this right this time. What I have observed in some leaders want to get it right and are so worried about getting it right that it freezes them in place. They are not moving in that direction. They don’t have that 100% confidence that you suggested. What advice would you have for leaders who were like, “We know we’ve got to get this right,” and they don’t know how to get started or how to continue that conversation?
Know that you are going to make mistakes for sure unless you’ve got years of equity work under your belt. There’s no way to do this without messing it up, appearing and being publicly outed for your lack of finesse in this area. That would be one thing and be courageous about. The other thing is to turn to the people around you because no doubt there are folks in your organization who do understand this either from a lived experience perspective from their own political activism. Most organizations have a wealth of knowledge there that can talk into.
Get started, get moving. The courage to be wrong, courageous and take steps with the awareness that you are going to get wrong is scary. You are 100% confident we are going to find a solution. Of all the people we have had on the show, I would say you are right. If someone is going to figure it out that you are going to be part of that answer, what gives you that confidence or what allows you to say, “We are going to get there, let’s figure out how?”
Partly, it’s my experience in the organization and my stance as a leader because if I wasn’t confident honestly, we couldn’t at least make substantial progress on these systemic change issues, then I would be doing another job because it’s hard work. It’s a long game. If I didn’t think it was going to work, I would do something else. I’m thinking what that would be but maybe I would go back to being an artist. That’s what I started with.
I have another question about the advocacy that you have been doing. We had Niki Sharma on the show as a Minister of State for the sector. Amazingly, we have that voice around the Provincial Cabinet here in British Columbia. One of the questions I asked her is, “What is the one thing you wished all of your colleagues on either side of the House knew about the not-for-profit sector and the social profit sector?” She had some good answers for that I’m curious, given that you have had those conversations with Ministers in MLAs, MPs, and Federal Cabinet, what is the one thing that you wish the politicians of all stripes understood about the issues that the YWCA exists to address?
Understood the issues that they are not inevitable. The issues that we are trying to address are the result of human behavior, policy and decisions that are made. They are not baked into core reality so they can be changed and we can change them.
There are positive steps that can be taken that this is a solvable problem.There are more than one and they are solvable.
Figuring out the order and all that stuff, that’s the work to be done. When you have that conversation with elected leaders, how open are they to the idea that this is something that we can address? A lot of the issues that the YWCA stands for particularly are in advocacy, sensitive, urgent and important. Politicians may have an aversion to addressing those head-ons. How do you keep them leading forward or get them to start leaning forward?
Politicians do have an array of things to think about but most people get into public office because they do have a vision and think that things can change for the better. That’s what they are there to do. It’s connecting with people on that level and to find out to articulate or talk about what that vision is and get it clear in mind. From there, plot the path forward. One thing that I would like our governments to understand about our sector or to help to build an understanding about our sector is setting aside the social change, which is important.We accomplished that vision where you wouldn’t need organizations to be picking up the pieces for the result of poor public policy to be blunt. That’s oversimplifying it but oversimplify it, let’s say that. One thing I feel like governments don’t have a handle on and this worries me quite a lot is the rule that the charitable and nonprofit sector is being asked to take on in society. There has been gradual offloading overtime of the social contract on to organizations like mine and without a thought about how to support that work well. I have watched my sector grow phenomenally over the years.We are picking up all these contracts. We are doing all this work. We are doing it cheaper than the government can do it. We are doing it better than the government can do it but in the end, they are very transactional relationship. We’ve got this grant and contract, you can apply for it then we may or may not continue that relationship. The work that we are doing is long-haul work again to build and maintain a healthy society. I feel like the government, for the most part, does not have its arms around that situation. That’s the conversation that I would love to be having like, “How do you see as strategically fitting in? How do you make sure that we are here because we are hearing lots of pretty deep concern about the future of the charitable sector or the impact that the pandemic will have on the charitable sector? What if we went away? What’s the plan?” What if we were seriously harmed? What’s the plan? I feel like that conversation is starting to happen but it’s not there yet.
Let’s figure out how we get that conversation going. It is important. As we come near the end of our conversation, I’m looking forward to your answer to what is often my final question, which is, what are you looking forward to? As we come hopefully to the end, vaccinations rollout as our province is opening up slowly. What are you most looking forward to as it relates to your organization and the work that you do?It’s a long-haul work to build and maintain a healthy society. Click To Tweet
I’m looking forward to being able to get back together with people. Much of our organization, our staff and the relationships that we build amongst our staff teams are very high-touch face-to-face relationships. We have missed that as a staff team. I would say the same in our work in communities. The ability to be in the same room together, break bread, talk, watch the kids run around and be connected. I’m looking forward to that.
Hopefully, that’s coming soon. Deb, thank you so much for being on the show.
It’s my pleasure. Thanks for asking me.