Since opening on campus in 1884 as a women’s residence hall, the YWCA of the University of Illinois has served as an organization on a mission to promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. We recognize the powerful potential of young women to harness their skills and abilities to effect change in the community and beyond. Being on campus allows us to mobilize students and assist them in learning how to navigate the societal, political, and professional spheres.
Our goal is to develop the next generation of women leaders who will come to situations fully aware of their power to effect positive change. We take our history of being the oldest continuously operating, student-affiliated YWCA seriously. Everything we do reflects the responsibility and promise of that legacy. It is imperative that we realize how important it is to not only pass the baton to the next generation, but also to train them to run well. This is an active process, and we can all be a part in some way, but be a part we must to ensure that the struggle for social justice is always advancing.
The YWCA of the University of Illinois is excited to continue our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women this upcoming school year. Through various programs and events, we are inviting students and the community to engage in discussions and causes related to social justice.
As with past years, this year we are again implementing our Women in Leadership (WIL) program: an intensive, two-semester leadership and project management internship. Structured as a group consulting project, the internship allows undergraduate women to work directly with local human services agencies to learn about the nonprofit sector, identify organizational challenges, and research, propose and implement solutions over the course of a school year. The YWCA supplements interns’ work with additional training focusing on professional development, leadership skills and building a working team, all of which are applied to team projects.
Interns are guided through this process by mentors drawn from Urbana-Champaign’s excellent professional and graduate student pools. Past WIL teams have worked with the Champaign-Urbana Area Project, MakerGirl, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. We are proud that this program continues to grow with each passing year and provides students with beneficial leadership experience and the community with skillful individuals that are passionate to help.
October will see the kick-off of our annual Community Read, working with the Asian American Cultural Center around the powerful and insightful book When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka. The Community Read is a multi-week literature and arts program that invites University of Illinois students and the greater Urbana-Champaign community to learn about and explore the experiences of girls of color through reading, dialogue and creative expression. Participants come together weekly for conversations and arts and cultural events around the stories that resonate with them most. Through these, readers build relationships across social identity and a greater appreciation for the diverse individuals and groups living in Urbana-Champaign.
Throughout the series, the YWCA encourages participants to explore intersectional dialogue skills and social justice. This fall’s book choice details the experiences of a family with the Japanese internment camps set up by the U.S. government following Pearl Harbor. We chose this book because it challenges us to think more deeply about the lives of Japanese Americans, our own American history and today’s politically charged atmosphere of xenophobia and fear.
The events we will be holding in conjunction with the Big Read include one of the first screenings of Matthew Hashiguchi’s documentary Good Luck Soup. In this film, we join Matthew on a journey to discover his family’s experiences as Japanese Americans within the Black and White surroundings of the Midwest. Along the way, we will learn of his life and the lives of his grandmother and family members. For them, what does it mean to be Japanese American? And how has that identity and experience changed over time? We will also be hosting book discussions, a family-centered craft event, and closing the series with keynote speakers: author Karen Su and internment survivor Yuki Llewellyn. The Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library will serve as host spaces for this Read.
Along with these events, we will be continuously working on advocating for the causes closest to us – one of them being the abuse-to-prison pipeline. An issue that overwhelmingly affects girls of color, the proverbial pipeline reinforces punishing victims of abuse by criminalizing their behavioral reactions from the trauma they have experienced. This includes suspending students for truancy, arresting runaway youth, and punishing the sexually exploited instead of their abusers. Unfortunately, the trauma is inadequately – if at all – addressed in the criminal justice system, leading to a continuous cycle. As a local organization, we feel it necessary to confront this issue in our own community. We are hoping to shed light on this issue in order to improve the quality of our community response, and connect girls who have experienced trauma with the resources that they need.
As the year moves along, the YWCA will provide more opportunities to engage the community and address social justice issues. To stay updated on what we are doing, subscribe to our newsletters, take a look at our website at ywcauofi.org, or connect with us through social media. We welcome all men and women to join with us in any way you can, to pay it forward, to envision and work towards a world that values everyone’s contribution regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. We all have something to contribute.
Andrea Rundell is the Executive Director of the YWCA of the University of Illinois, and is unabashedly in love with the mission of “eliminating racism and empowering women.” She has been there for four years now, so she thinks she’s getting the hang of it.