Stacie Blake (Source: YWCA Lancaster)
Stacie Blake (Source: YWCA Lancaster)

Stacie Blake became CEO of YWCA Lancaster in September 2019, just half a year before Pennsylvania went under lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The YWCA's mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. Last fall, responding to Black Lives Matter protests and calls for social justice here and worldwide over the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, the organization launched the Center for Racial & Gender Equity. Later that year, YWCA Lancaster received a boost in the form of a major gift from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

Blake came to the organization from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, where she was director of government and community relations. She recently spoke with One United Lancaster about YWCA Lancaster's work over the past two years and its future goals.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

OUL: What are some of the current challenges that the YWCA is facing, specifically pandemic related?

Stacie Blake: The YWCA Lancaster building that we all know at the corner of Lime and Orange opened in 1918. What’s significant about that is this is our second pandemic.

From the beginning, we could see that this pandemic was going to hit women the hardest, and our organization early on saw how COVID-19 would impact marginalized communities. So, for us it meant that the whole first year-plus was closing the building to protect our vulnerable residents.

This was before there was a vaccine, and we were worried that the aging women who live with us, who have disabilities of different types would just be at such high risk. So then that changed into an opportunity [where] people could be vaccinated, and different programs could start to come back into the building because of the work we're doing now.

One of the programs most impacted has been childcare, both in Lancaster and nationally. It's on two sides: it's difficult to hire staff because they need childcare, and so many places have closed. But then it's also difficult to offer enough childcare, because we need more staff. That's something that we navigate every single day and are doing everything we can to keep our programs open to support working families.

(Source: YWCA Lancaster)

Another challenge for the YWCA amid the pandemic has been the provision of sexual assault prevention and counseling services. Pivoting to virtual and telehealth options have enabled the YWCA to continue providing information and support.

There were some cases where that was easy and comfortable, and other cases where, particularly with children, that's just a very challenging way for younger kids to connect and be talking about these really difficult topics. Just now we are starting to see folks face to face.

OUL: What's the bigger picture and why does this problem exist? What would make it better? What can people do to help the YWCA in its mission?

Blake: The mission of a nonprofit is usually, and ought to be, to fill the gap in the community — the piece that is not resolved either through individual capacity and opportunity, or government support and programs.

For us, our mission is to eliminate racism and empower women. I see that we've not met that mission because women across the board do not have equal pay, do not have full autonomy over their bodies, and are responsible for the bulk of childcare and eldercare in their families. These are all challenges that we need to come at from a couple of different ways.

For us, the problem of racism, though, is the overriding problem, and if we could solve for racism, that would solve also for the problems that women face.

So, what can people do to help? One, recognize that racism is real. Lancaster County is a wonderful, beautiful place, and like everywhere else in the country, we have a legacy and a current situation of racism that has to be addressed, and it's holding all of us back.

I think that's what sometimes people fail to recognize. They might feel bad for a particular group or think group should work harder, but they don't understand that, until all of us are able to achieve at our fullest potential, none of us will be able to. And that's really the thing.

So, what we want to be able to do in the community is speak the truth about what's happening; offer education for people who maybe didn't have enough information about these issues before. I'll be the first to say that my high school education did not adequately prepare me to understand the history and legacy of racism and discrimination in my country, and so I'm always trying to fill those gaps myself.

Then, advocacy. An example would be when we see health disparities in our community, and we don't have a health department to help us address this. That's a very clear step of advocacy that anyone can engage in — to ask for a health department.

We see inequities in educational funding, and then we see an opportunity which is currently playing out right now for the systems to ask for that equity, because it impacts our kids here in Lancaster County. Really what I want people to do is be brave enough to say ‘I don't know. I need to know more about this and I'm going to change my behavior.’

About YWCA Lancaster

(Source: YWCA.org)

From the day YWCA Lancaster opened more than 100 years ago, it has been providing housing to individuals and families, including emergency shelter, affordable long-term housing and shelter for survivors of trafficking and sexual violence.

Its Sexual Assault & Prevention Center is the county's designated rape crisis center. It offers a 24-hour hotline providing information, support and referrals. Its counseling center's services are offered at no cost.

“This is for an individual survivor and-or partners, family members or other folks who are just wondering how to best support a person that they care about," CEO Stacie Blake said.

More than 40 years ago, YWCA Lancaster opened one of the city's first childcare programs. Today YWonderful Kids offers a broad range of early childhood education programming.

New Choices is a life-skills, career guidance and training program. A longtime YWCA program, it returned to the organization this year after some time under the umbrella of another agency.

“It’s available for anyone in transition," Blake said. "Transition means ‘I'm looking for a job. I'd like a new job. I'm reentering the community’, et cetera.”

Other programs include Parent Empowerment, a parenting skills program for parents under Children & Youth Agency supervision; and the Center for Racial & Gender Equity, launched in 2020, which provides training, holds public forums and advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion.

OUL: From your perspective and through the work you do, have you seen any positive changes?

Blake: I'm an optimist and I have seen changes. One point of reference that many of us can see is when George Floyd was murdered. That really got the attention of so many individuals, and there were protests here in Lancaster.

So, what has changed since then? Two local elementary schools have had name changes to recognize unsung heroes, "sheroes," of communities here in Lancaster. I know a couple of businesses that changed their name because they came to realized, ‘Oh my gosh, he's a slave owner.’ So, greater awareness by businesses in Lancaster.

We've seen some additional roles in larger companies and nonprofits of a chief equity officer. One position isn't going to change everything, but a position like that can help focus on what does need to change.

I'm going to say that the coalition of leaders who are moving forward on a racial equity profile of the county are serious about getting the data, to understand what it is costing this county to continue this inequity. And again, I think that's something that helps. Some people need more information before they’re willing to make change. Some people need a story.

I think we've also seen change in the number of groups who recognized Juneteenth last summer. We have seen changes in the city of Lancaster in their focus on and conversation about equity. I think that's probably one of the biggest changes — that people are more familiar with this language and more willing to engage in the conversation.

OUL: What are some of the future plans and goals for the YWCA?

Blake: We have a100-year-old historic building that, while fantastic, is also not perfectly meeting the current needs of the community. So, we are embarking on a project to add affordable housing units in that building.

I'm really looking forward to a more focused education and advocacy agenda in the new year. I was very surprised when I moved here to learn how low voter registration is. YWCA has a history since women first got the right to vote of helping register folks to vote, and we want to continue to do that. We do that with lots of partners in a nonpartisan way, and I would love to see every eligible voter in this county registered prior to the next election.

We've increasingly been partnering with other like-minded entities, either corporations or other nonprofits, and that's really the way forward. We know that there are hundreds of nonprofits in the county and sometimes our best strength is when we stand together. This year we had two mergers at YWCA — one with Safe House and one with New Choices, and that's going to bring focus and strength to that work.

OUL: How did you get interested in this kind of work, and what motivates you to keep doing it?

Blake: I have always worked in the social sector. I have worked with survivors of domestic violence and then survivors of torture, refugees, and immigrants. And so what I know to be true is, harm is caused by any kind of individual, can come from any background, from any race, from any country, and that encourages me to see people's humanity and really want to protect that for everyone.

When I was working in D.C., it was a time when there were a lot of rallies and large gatherings and protests and so forth, and I kept seeing YWCA show up on issues that I cared about, even though I didn't have a personal history with YWCA — I didn't attend one when I was a child or anything like that. So, when I was ready for a career change, I kept thinking about that mission—to eliminate racism and empower women: that is just so central to who I am, and that makes it easy to come to work every day.

OUL: Tell us more about yourself and your life outside of the YWCA.

Blake: I am married to Tony Collins. He’s a business consultant here in town. I have three grown sons, he has three grown daughters. ...

Blake said she is a voracious reader and avid amateur quilter. She enjoys taking the couple's 10-year-old hound, adopted from a shelter, on daily walks.

That is such a wonderful opportunity to see the sunrise, to see the sunset. It really does make me appreciate the area and my privilege to get to take a deep breath and see some beautiful scenery, like we have here, and be in a peaceful setting. I know that that's not the reality for everyone, so I really do cherish that every day.

Heather Hutsell