by Erin Okuno, Idil Danan, Heather Hart
This coming summer southeast Seattle will have fewer summer school options for elementary school students partially due to the closure and withdrawal of the YMCA of Greater Seattle’s Powerful Schools programs. In 2014, the YMCA took over the local Powerful Schools organization and merged it into the Y’s slate of education programs. At the time they signaled they were interested in supporting and expanding into the Rainier Valley and South Seattle. Yet, less than four years later the Y has abruptly decided to close Powerful Schools, leaving hundreds of elementary school students and families without summer school and next school year without afterschool programs.
When the Y took over the Powerful Schools program it was heralded as a great merger for the Y and the region. Former Seattle Times columnist Jerry Large wrote: “The joining of the YMCA and Powerful Schools is the kind a community can celebrate. Both organizations have evolved since their beginnings and gotten much better at addressing social needs, particularly helping families and children thrive.” The celebration was short-lived. In early 2018 the YMCA abruptly decided the financial cost of keeping Powerful Schools running was too much for the organization to bear. The YMCA states they are losing $1.3-million every year running the program. CEO Bob Gilbertson said at a parent meeting that philanthropic and government funding has shifted away from funding the program.
While we empathize with the Y for these financial losses rarely do youth-serving programs fully cover their own cost, especially when serving communities with lower socio-economic status, which the Y knew when they took over Powerful Schools. We also question the Y’s priorities since they are currently fundraising millions of dollars for capital campaigns in the University District, Auburn, and Kent. If staff energy and time can be given to these campaigns why wasn’t the same level of attention and priority given to sustaining programs serving more diverse communities through Powerful Schools? This is contrary to their mission to “embrace diversity, reflecting the people and needs of our communities.”
After the announcement of Powerful School’s closure fifty-seven concerned parents and community members signed a letter expressing our concerns about the closure and to ask for explanations. CEO Bob Gilbertson, VP Jeff Rainy, and Board Chair Tom Hull agreed to meet with us. At the meeting we had several asks of the YMCA in light of the closure:
- $20,000 per school site in mitigation funding to ease the transition for schools and families.
- Follow up at individual school sites.
- The YMCA Association board commit to adding two-community embedded representatives to their board to foster a greater connection between who the Y is serving and the board.
It took almost two-weeks for CEO Gilbertson to reply and only after a reminder email. In his terse response, Mr. Gilbertson said: “The Y will not provide $20k per school that is operating Powerful Schools programs. It has already provided in excess of that amount to operate the programs this year,” and the burden of follow-up communication fell to parents and principals. These answers are not surprising and still disappointing. The Y still hasn’t replied to a March 30 follow-up email asking for details about next steps.
The YMCA is showing its privilege as a white-led organization with little connection to the South Seattle Community. The merger between Powerful Schools and the Y was heralded as a way to help families thrive but has instead harmed communities of color. The Y is choosing to leave when things are hard rather than fight to stay and support children they said they wanted to help. Now families and schools are forced to figure what we will do for summer and after-school care. We’ve done this dance before and in the long run, our community will figure out how to support our kids because we are resilient and we take care of our own.
We are sharing this information so the YMCA’s leaders and other mainstream organizations who operate in our community understand their roles and responsibilities and are held accountable. Coming into a community and believing you are helping and doing good, but then leaving when financial resources dry up is not helping. Transparency, communication, and staying true to community driven missions and visions is what is needed. We are holding the Y accountable because they have a responsibility to serve without being a savior. While our community is strong we shouldn’t have to fight for scraps from large outside organizations who leave after a few years.
The Y has a chance to make-right by our community by honoring our reasonable requests. $20,000 in mitigation funds per school is a small percentage of the $1.3-million they will save next school year by shuttering Powerful Schools. That $20,000 will help schools bridge the gap in services. This isn’t about money, it is about respect for our families, our school communities, and being of service to communities they chose to serve. The Y also needs to diversify their board and reach deeper into the community to find board members who are rooted in the communities they serve to keep their programs and organization truly mission-driven.
The YMCA needs to make right by our SE community and honors our asks. Our children and families deserve better than being left to scramble to rebuild programs after YMCA leaders made decisions without community input. They should do what is right and respect our community by diversifying their board and leadership and providing mitigation funding.
Idil Danan, Heather Hart, and Erin Okuno are parents of children in two different public schools in SE Seattle.