Y The Difference

September 1, 2010       Lorraine Cole      

Just about the same time that YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) drew national attention by announcing it is re-branding themselves as “the Y,” an amazing event took place in Nashville that drew far less attention. Only 77 days from being executed for murder, domestic violence victim Gaile Owens was granted a reprieve by Tennessee’s Gov. Phil Bradesen. The eventual review of her case and reduced sentence was the result of the actions of another organization known as “the Y” — YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), along with other organizations committed to justice.

By way of background, YMCA and YWCA are separately incorporated, each established in the U.S. more than 150 years ago. Despite having similar acronyms (YMCA and YWCA), sharing the same abbreviated nickname (the Y), and the fact that several local YWCAs and YMCAs have merged, these are two distinct organizations with different origins and missions.

The case of Gaile Owens is a vivid illustration of the difference between YWCA and the organization formerly known as YMCA. As the first women’s organization in the U.S., YWCA always has stood for the empowerment of women. Established in 1858, YWCA initially helped women from rural areas navigate city life and take jobs during the industrial revolution. Since then, YWCA has been part of and has survived every wave of the women’s rights movement from the 1850s until today.

Pertinent to Gaile Owens, YWCA’s efforts include support for domestic violence victims. Owens had been convicted of the murder of her husband. A salient fact never brought up during her trial is that her husband physically and sexually brutalized her for years.

YWCA is one of the largest providers of services for domestic violence survivors, providing emergency shelters and other services. YWCA also offers childcare and youth programs, job training and employment services, financial literacy and economic self-sufficiency programs, basic education and tutoring, low-income and transitional housing, health, and fitness and aquatics programs.

In addition to these services, YWCA is one of the earliest social justice organizations and has been engaged in every phase of the civil rights movement. Formed five years before the abolition of slavery, YWCA has staunchly promoted anti-lynching efforts, racial integration, voting rights, and more recently, affirmative action, opposition to hate crimes and racial profiling, and comprehensive immigration reform.

In contrast, YMCA is not as strongly connected to civil rights and women’s issues as YWCA. YMCA’s core focus is on youth development, health and fitness, and social responsibility. According to YMCA research, YMCA’s re-branding embraces the name — the Y — used by most of the general public. However, YMCA is already the undisputed leader in brand recognition among nonprofit organizations according to the Cone Nonprofit Power Brand 100. It ranks number one on the Cone list.

When YWCA rebranded itself a few years ago, its research led to a different conclusion: Women’s organization needed to promote its mission. Today, YWCA’s logo incorporates the key words of its mission: eliminating racism, empowering women. To stress their importance, these words appear as part of the YWCA’s logo in bold type and in orange.

With their distinctions and similarities, the public has been confused about YMCA and YWCA for generations. Even with the YMCA rebranding, the public will continue to refer to both YMCA and YWCA as “the Y.” So, mistaken identity between the two Ys will undoubtedly continue .

But, the difference between the two Ys is an important one for Gaile Owens. Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, back down to the state Supreme Court, then finally to the governor. YWCA’s role as a staunch advocate on behalf of women spared Owens’ life from a vicious web that can re-victimize domestic violence survivors. So, for Gaile Owens and millions of other women, girls and families whose lives have been touched and changed by YWCA — vive la difference!  NPT

Lorraine Cole, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of the YWCA USA in Washington, D.C.