Next week, April 19-22, the YWCA of University of Illinois will be recognizing YWCA USA’s 15th annual Stand Against Racism week. According to the organization’s website, this is “an opportunity for communities across the United States to find an issue or cause that inspires them to take a #StandAgainstRacism and to unite their voices to educate, advocate, and promote racial justice.”


I spoke with Andrea Rundell, Executive Director of the YWCA of the University of Illinois about the history of the organization, the origins of Stand Against Racism week, and how the local affiliate is participating in the event. As the only full time employee, she leads a small office of part timers in facilitating programming focused on their dual mission of “eliminating racism and empowering women” While our local YWCA bears the University of Illinois moniker, it has more to do with the organization’s history than it’s current work. They were the first women's residence hall on campus in 1884.

Both YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) and YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) affiliates began to appear in the late 1800s as safe places for young men and women to stay, but their histories soon diverged, and the mission of the YWCA began to evolve. Women needed more than just a place to stay and a curfew, as they were often away from their homes and communities, finding themselves in exploitative work environments and exposed to domestic violence and sexual assault. The YWCA turned their attention to those needs and became involved in the labor rights movement. Says Rundell, “we’ve been in every social justice movement in the United States starting from the late 1800s.”

It became clear that the organization needed to move beyond a focus on white, Christian women, and they opened up to women of other religions and races, and continued to work within social movements from civil rights to women’s rights to gay rights. “But race has been for decades, and continues to be, the primary concern. You'll notice ‘eliminating racism empowering women’ is the formal mission, and so intersectionality is built in. Women of color are at the nexus of all of those oppressions, in so many ways.”

Stand Against Racism week began with a YWCA on the east coast about 20 years ago, then was adopted by the national YWCA USA. Says Rundell, “they felt that this was a great opportunity for all YWCAs to focus once a year on this issue together. So each year a different theme is picked, and all of us are invited to have events of whatever type that works best in our communities.” Last year’s theme was built around the Census and getting out the vote, and this year focuses on racism as a public health crisis.

This theme obviously gathers two major issues that our nation is grappling with, as the pandemic continues and we reckon with white supremacy playing out in bold fashion. 

“There's a real groundswell happening right now, that's been sort of building since Ferguson that really kind of somehow hit the right nerve, finally…Over the course of the last year, with the pandemic, one of the things that has become really clear is the extent to which racism impacts people's health and the public’s health. If you don't have clean water, if you don't have access to appropriate medical care, if you don't have access to nutrition, if you're living in an environmentally toxic hotspot because your community of color, these are all things that have been going on, but are being thrown into high relief by COVID.”

Rundell and her team are working with Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, since they passed a resolution earlier this year declaring racism a public health crisis. “We’re doing pre-recorded presentations from primarily local Black women who are experts in their field around public health and racism, maternal health and racism, nutrition and access to food and racism, communicable diseases like HIV as well as COVID and the impact of racism on all of those things.” 

The presentations will be short, just 15 minutes, and there will be open question sessions afterward. Rundell hopes it will further the conversation about structural racism and its implications.

“White people especially are absolutely convinced that racism means somebody hates somebody and that it's a moral flaw in their character. It's really hard to understand that it doesn’t matter if you hate somebody or love somebody, it doesn’t matter if you’re intentionally trying to hurt somebody. It’s structural. It’s the way we live. It's how we set up our lives. It's how the legislation sets up our lives, it’s how public policy sets up our lives, it’s how our social and cultural norms set up our lives, and it works to the advantage of white people and to the disadvantage of people of color.”

The speakers for the week include: Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at Carle College of Medicine, Dr. Chelsea Singleton, Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the U of I, Derrius Carter, Prevention Specialist and Lead COVID Investigator for C-U Public Health District, and Dr. Karen Tabb Dina, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at the U of I. Poet Ashanti Files will be writing and creating video recordings of poems related to the topics of the week. Files is a registered nurse and community organizer around health and medical care, and Rundell hopes that she will be able to “wrap up these huge ideas and be able to tell them in ways that will have an impact.”

The YWCA will be releasing video presentations on their Facebook page at noon each day from April 19-22, and the videos will be available for viewing at any time. You can learn more about the events of the week, and the work that YWCA of University of Illinois is involved with throughout the year, by going to their website or following them on Facebook.

Top photo by Anna Longworth.