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A Nonprofit Leader Doubles Down on Grace During Crisis

An interview with Loria Yeadon, CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle
August 2021

As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March of 2020, Loria Yeadon, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, saw her purpose-driven organization move immediately into action. As the world was still assessing the extent of the crisis, the Seattle Y quickly established community programs to serve not only first responders and healthcare workers on the front lines, but also people from traditionally underrepresented communities that in many cases were bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“We had people who ran towards the proverbial fire,” Yeadon said. “You talk about purpose-driven, and you find out what that really means in a moment like that.”

The first woman and the first person of color to serve as CEO of the Seattle Y, Yeadon’s first two years have perhaps been unlike any others in the organization’s 145 years: a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic during which Washington State was one of the early hotspots, as well as a year of racial and political tension in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Spencer Stuart’s Jason Baumgarten recently sat down with Yeadon to reflect on her leadership journey this past year and a half and discuss how the Seattle Y persevered through disruption. In the interview below, edited for brevity, Yeadon shares her learnings and advice as she led her organization amid pandemic, and how the Y made a renewed commitment to equity and justice.

Take us back to the beginning of this pandemic. How did you and your organization respond?

A truly purpose-driven organization remains on purpose even in the midst of significant challenge. I saw the Y do that in a big way — lifting diverse communities, addressing short-term and long-term need, and coming together as a Y team to empower each other every day. We all saw the real meaning of “purpose-driven” during this time.

Over a two-week period at the start of the pandemic, we had to make the difficult decision to put 78 percent of our staff on standby as our gyms were forced to close. However, community needs were escalating rapidly. The people who remained working at the Y found a way to pivot our operations to meet those needs. That meant setting up emergency childcare at all of our facilities for healthcare workers, essential workers, and first responders, all while not knowing what the crisis was going to be and not even knowing how we were going to pay for it. We just made the decision that we needed to move really fast at the speed of need.

At the same time, we had an opportunity to reflect on the inequities, the health disparities, that were laid bare for us by the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism. Black and Brown communities were dying at a disproportionately higher rate from COVID-19. When we pulled back the layers to see why, we realized it was because of all the reasons marginalized communities were typically vulnerable at times like these — lack of access and resources, lack of trust, and comorbidities such as diabetes, obesity and other factors.

And what was a wake-up call for us was that we knew about these comorbidities pre-pandemic, and we even had the programming that can help people improve their health. But we had not yet brought those programs to those communities to the extent that we could have. It was a sad moment of realization for us: We knew we had been purposeful in serving, but we believed we had not gone far enough before the pandemic. It led us to say that never again would we look away or normalize those types of issues in community. From now on, we're going to go straight at it.

As you reflect on your own journey of the course of the year, what have you changed about your leadership style or about how you lead?

I like to say that “grace to everyone” was part of my leadership style before, but I think I've doubled down on it. I want to reassure people that wherever they are, they can make progress from here without judgment. It’s about meeting people where they are, and in this moment, that is so critical. You don't know what people are dealing with, so it's important to show them grace right where they are and have a belief that they can make progress.

The George Floyd incident was one of many incidents that I've seen over the course of my life, and I’ve heard stories from my parents and my grandparents of similar atrocities. For those in the Black community, this was not new, but for the rest of the world to see it as a pivotal moment, I saw it as an opportunity for all of us to make progress — never forgetting what's happened in the past, but seizing the moment to make progress for all of our sakes, for my daughter's sake.

This moment gave me an opportunity to pull together everything I've learned over my career as a leader. In those past moments in my corporate career when I didn't quite understand why I was getting certain lessons, it's all crystalized now. It's clearer to me now why I’m here in in this community leadership role, and I think it's going to take many more of us bringing to bear everything we've learned to this moment to make progress for our community.

I like your idea of “doubling down on grace.” Could you expand on that a little bit? What does that mean to you as a leader?

It means expect that someone’s going to say something that may not be right in that moment, or that someone does something, perhaps unknowingly or unintentionally, that may make the problem worse, but still being willing to hang in the conversation with them to get to an understanding, and maybe to show them a different perspective. I think that's critical in this moment.

As a leader of color, that can be hard because many of us are really exhausted. We feel like we've been hanging in these conversations for a long time. But now is when it is more critical than ever to stay in the conversation and believe that progress can happen. We need to teach more. When you can, seize the moment. Expect that people are going to screw it up, but hang in there and commit with them to their learning and to your own learning.

You need a community of support to really move the rock. This is a big rock. The Y made a big leap last year when we doubled down on our equity statement and proclaimed that we would become an anti-racist organization, weaving the threads of equity and justice into everything we do as a model, as a role model for community.

If you had one piece of advice for your future self about your experiences from this crisis, what would it be?

Always seize the opportunity to teach and learn. I miss that opportunity sometimes when I'm wrapped up in my own feelings or emotion. And it's really not about me, it's about the opportunity that I have to teach someone something — and in the process learn something myself. Just hang in the conversation long enough to understand what it is and get the lesson.

Sometimes the situation is not what it appears. Because of our instant reaction, which is often wrapped in emotion, we miss the opportunity to unpack it and to learn something and to teach something. I would say that rather than responding based on emotion, you should aim to respond based upon our role to teach and to learn. If you come at it from that angle, the universe will reveal a lot to us that will lead us forward — stronger and better together.