By Shelley Hill Young
LaVanda Brown’s first paying job was at the YWCA in Savannah, Georgia. Now, she’s the executive director of the YWCA of Greater Charleston.
Before moving to Charleston about two years ago, she ran programs for homeless families in Savannah. She saw that race and gender often created barriers to success for people. When she was approached about the YWCA director position, she thought, “Wow, I could really get on the front of this.”
LaVanda grew up in a family that was active in efforts to promote social justice and civil rights. Her father helped integrate public schools in Savannah. She attended an all-women’s college — Wesleyan, in Macon, Georgia — which she said was empowering because women filled all the roles, even those traditionally seen as men’s jobs. “We did everything,” she says. “We never had the sense that we couldn’t.”
Reflecting on her experiences that brought her to her current position, LaVanda says, “I think I was built for this. I have to work where my passion is.”
“I was brought here to honor this history and the foundation (of the YWCA of Greater Charleston) and then to develop programs that are mission-focused and relevant to what the community needs today.”
The YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. The organization works to improve the health and safety of women, to promote the economic advancement of women, and to advocate for social justice and equality.
LaVanda has helped introduce new programs in the past year, including the Racial Equity Institute, a two-day conference for community and faith leaders who want to better understand and address racism in the community. “It’s an unlearning and a relearning of history from the lens of race,” LaVanda says. The institute is offered six times a year, and the next session is March 19-20 at the College of Charleston’s North Charleston campus.
The YWCA offers YGirlsCode to encourage girls to learn computer coding and tech skills as part of an effort to address the wage gap between genders. “It’s a club. They get empowerment and self-esteem and a sense of sisterhood,” LaVanda says. The program is offered at two schools and Morris Brown AME Church, and there are plans to expand.
The YWCA also offers Backpacks to Briefcases, a monthly personal and career development program for women under 40. And in May, the YWCA will host its first #WhatWomenBring event to honor 10 women from across the state who embody the YWCA mission.
LaVanda’s office has a “The future is female” sign on her desk and a framed photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., which she was awarded by Rep. Wendell Gilliard of Charleston County for her “outstanding community service and keeping the dream alive.” There’s also a framed poster featuring images of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth and a poem by Patricia Hacker-Harber that concludes, “My heritage has been the shield that kept me strong and free, The woman that I am today now walks victoriously.”
LaVanda still has the sense learned at Wesleyan that there’s nothing women can’t accomplish. She cites recents events in Charleston – including the Mother Emanuel AME Church shootings and the death of black motorist Walter Scott – as well as worldwide events such as the #MeToo movement, saying they have created a renewed sense of urgency to try to better address racism and women’s equality.
“Shining the light on an issue makes us have to fix it,” she says. “You can’t ignore the dirt on your floor once the light comes on. Then, you have to sweep it up. You just got to.”