The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago launched a nationwide search to replace outgoing CEO Dorri McWhorter, now president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. Nicole Robinson, 52, who grew up in Englewood and Washington Heights, started as CEO in January. She’s only the second Black woman to lead the 145-year-old organization.
A DePaul alumna with a background in finance, Robinson most recently was chief partnership and programs officer for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. The Bronzeville resident has a knack for combining her financial acumen with grassroots work — in 2017, she created Queenmakers, a nonprofit which provides microgrants to Chicago organizations led by Black women. At the YWCA, she’ll oversee the Small Business Development Center, aimed at assisting women and minority entrepreneurs, as well as the Child Care Assistance Program and Rape Crisis Hotline.
Robinson spoke with Chicago about her new role and how, during a pandemic while the nation struggles with the racial reckoning of 2020, she’ll tackle the YWCA’s mission of empowering women and eliminating racism.
What does stepping into this role mean to you at this time?
When I think about my career and who I am as a person, the mission of the YWCA speaks directly to that: empowering women and eliminating racism, two things that have always been a part of my work, professionally and personally. When I saw the opportunity, I was like, Why not me? It’s the oldest women-and girl-centered organization in our service area, so it comes with a lot of responsibility.
What are the organization’s biggest challenges right now?
This is a mission-defining moment. Throughout the pandemic, women and girls have been disempowered: the vulnerable place women and girls are in, the convergence of work, home, and school, the idea that women had to be everything at home. They had to be the teacher, the provider; they had to figure out work, and some people either needed to reduce their hours of work or step out of it altogether. They had to make a choice — there was no “having it all.” That put an undue burden on women, disproportionately Black and brown women. We hear a lot about the housing issues, the food insecurity issues, all the challenges that families face, but at the root of it, it’s impacting single-parent households led by women, predominantly Black and brown women.
How do we navigate this moment when we’re still in it?
Collectively, we’re still dealing with trauma. We have not reckoned with what the pandemic has done to all of us mentally and physically. We’re still dealing with the racial reckoning the world experienced in May 2020. The rates of violence and sexual assaults [against women] have increased during the pandemic. People had to shelter in place in circumstances that weren’t necessarily good for them. But women are going to be the key to the recovery.
How does your background growing up in Chicago with limited resources inform your work and what you hope to bring to the YWCA?
I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools [Gillespie Elementary and Carver High School]. Public parks are where my summer camp and after-school programs were; actually, the public library was really my after-school program. I understand the system. We were on [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] when I was growing up. It was called food stamps then, but I know what it is to go into a grocery store and use food stamps and feel that stigma. I also know what it’s like to be on a waiting list for a housing voucher. I live on the South Side, I walk the block, I know community organizers. I know who the leaders are in different communities. So I want to make sure that the YWCA has strong relationships with community organizers on the ground, and that they are connecting into YWCA programs related to economic justice, financial literacy, childcare programs, programs for young girls and teens, as well as our Racial Justice League, which works on addressing and dismantling systemic racism.
The YWCA has a formidable history in Chicago and nationwide. What are the most important things it needs to do to stay relevant now?
Early on in its history, the YWCA brought in and served Black women. It was among the first institutions in Chicago to integrate housing. YWCAs integrated swimming pools. YWCAs were at the forefront of many defining moments in history. Over 145 years, an institution can become race silent; it can become less radical. The YW was largely built on community organizing, advocating for policies that made the quality of life better for women and girls. I want to know that we have a quality-of-life plan for women and girls. Most of those plans today do not center themselves on women and girls. So I want to have conversations in communities where women are experiencing the highest need. How do we leverage the YWCA and its programming, its supporters and investors, to rally around these issues to change lives for women and girls across Chicagoland?
Chicago has an extraordinary number of women of color – more than 20 – leading philanthropic and nonprofit organizations. What has enabled Black women’s voices and leadership to be amplified in Chicago?
It brings me joy and reminds me that Black Girl Magic is real. I think about all the Black women mayors and other elected officials. I think of Black women leading in the corporate sector. The truth is, Black women have been preparing for this moment. There’s been genius, leadership, intellectual fierceness, and great, hard work happening for a long time. Black women have been going to college at higher rates and matriculating. Also, I think it’s important to uplift that Chicago had been doing the work long before George Floyd and before the pandemic. So philanthropic and nonprofit sectors’ conversations around race and equity had been happening already in Chicago, and a lot of that work has been led by Black women and women of color. I’m very proud of that and proud to be part of it.