Outrage over closing of YWCA in Raleigh | Citizen | Indy Week
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Outrage over closing of YWCA in Raleigh 

The YWCA has been in Raleigh 110 years and has deep roots in the black community.

Photo by Bob Geary

The YWCA has been in Raleigh 110 years and has deep roots in the black community.

In the two weeks since the YWCA in Southeast Raleigh abruptly closed after 110 years, there has been an outpouring of anger, sadness and memories, as well as determination that the decision must be reversed.

Rukiya Dillahunt recalled, for example, that she and her husband, Ajamu Dillahunt, adopted their first names at a Kwanzaa celebration held at the YW a few months after moving to Raleigh in 1979. A retired school vice principal who, with her husband, is a longtime activist and leader of Black Workers for Justice, Rukiya Dillahunt extolled the importance of the YW's mission to empower women and eradicate racism.

"We must have that building open so it can continue to do the work," she told a community gathering of about 200 last week at Martin Street Baptist Church. Then Dillahunt led them in a civil rights chant: "The people united will never be defeated."

The Rev. Henry Pickett, a former NAACP leader who was part of the YW's Golden Oaks program for seniors, went back even further. A friend of his who's now in her 90s, Pickett told the group, remembers going door-to-door as a young woman in Southeast Raleigh collecting donations so the YW could construct its "new" building on East Hargett Street.

At the time, the woman worked as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital, the shell of which still stands at the front of St. Augustine's College, when it was the city's only hospital for blacks, Pickett said.

"That is the kind of legacy we're standing on," Pickett declared.

The black community had its own hospital and it had its own YWCA, just as West Raleigh had a YWCA for whites only.

Eventually, the two YWs merged and became the YWCA of the Greater Triangle, with a modern facility on Oberlin Road near Cameron Village and the older, but still solid East Hargett Street building. But in recent years, both were losing money. Five years ago, the board of directors sold the Oberlin Road facility to Interact, a nonprofit serving the victims of domestic violence, and redoubled its work for women and against racism at its Southeast Raleigh home.

But the red ink continued to bleed, and, with the economy in a downslide, donations and grants were harder to come by. The YWCA's 2009 tax return showed expenses for the prior fiscal year of $1.6 million and revenues of just $1.2 million. In 2010, according to its most recent report, its expenses were nearly $1.7 million, but revenues were down to $841,000.

The organization served 12,000 people last year and included after-school programs for children, and job training and health programs for adults. Yet the programs weren't self-sustaining. And according to some staffers who were terminated on a day's notice—and without back pay—board members seemed to be in denial until they were told by a lawyer that they could be liable for criminal penalties if they continued to employ people with no prospect of being able to pay them.

Thus, the YW ceased operations Feb. 29, though some of the 14 terminated staffers, still possessing their keys, worked in the building for a few days helping parents find other after-school and day-care programs and looking for a place the Golden Oaks members could go.

The workers were outraged, and they said so in an open letter and at a vigil they conducted in the YWCA building. The following day, March 5, they called a public meeting in the building and virtually dared the board to show up and discuss how to revive the organization.

But the board headed them off, calling the police and threatening to have them arrested if they tried to enter the building again. So the 200 were sent instead to Martin Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. Earl Johnson is pastor and the newly elected president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, Southeast Raleigh's 75-year-old political club.

No board members showed up, but several of them had just left the church after meeting privately with Johnson and other community leaders. "We're looking for a direction we can take to the board," Johnson said as he began the public meeting. "We want to be respectful of them." He added that there's "a strong chance" the YW—the building and the organization—can be resurrected with a stronger board.

Ex-YWCA staffers were in no mood for it, however. Irate, several rose to say they deserve to be represented in any meeting involving the future of the YW. Former staffer Crystal Hayes called the board members "cowards" for refusing to consult with staffers, who, she pointed out, were employed for their expertise and commitment to social justice.

Hayes used a bitter expression to underline that the board's failures can't be the last word: "No one monkey is gonna stop this show."

How much does the YWCA owe? Until yesterday, board members weren't saying, though some were telling community leaders privately that the figure is about $500,000. "That's in the ballpark," said Maria Spaulding, the board's past president and spokesperson, in a telephone interview with the Indy.

Spaulding is a former head of social services for Wake County and now deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. She and Craig Chancellor, executive director of the United Way of the Greater Triangle, have called an invitation-only meeting Thursday morning in West Raleigh "to discuss the future of the [YWCA]." Invitations went to Raleigh's political and business elites and a few Southeast Raleigh leaders, including the Rev. Johnson.

Ex-YWCA staffers weren't invited. Neither was the public or press.

When I asked if I could attend, Spaulding said, "We're really just trying to meet with the invited people." She said guests will get a financial status report and be solicited for their advice and support. They'll also hear an apology from the board. "We want to express our sorrow for causing all of this disruption," she said.

Spaulding said the YW's board is trying to sell two small parcels of land near the YW, but not the YWCA building itself or the tract it's on. The latter, she said, "are major assets for the organization and the community" as they go about trying to retool the YW's operations.

She added that the board's highest priorities are paying the workers what they're owed and clearing debts to vendors. A meeting with the workers will happen soon, she said. "I know they want to help."

Spaulding responded after we published an online report about the meeting Monday night and quoted an email written by Bruce Lightner, a Southeast Raleigh leader who was invited, decrying the "mountain of distrust and animosity" the YW's board has engendered. Lightner wrote that the YMCA of the Triangle was calling the meeting along with the YW and the United Way.

This prompted rumors that the YMCA, an organization with an annual budget of almost $60 million, was planning to grab some of the YW's programs, though not its historic role in Southeast Raleigh or its mission to empower women and eradicate racism.

Doug McMillan, CEO of the YMCA, said Lightner's email was incorrect and the rumors were unfounded. The YMCA wants to help the YW if it can, but it has no intention of taking over. "We are coming to listen," McMillan said. "We are not leading."

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