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Instagram account calls out racism, harassment at YMCA branches

The Black at the YMCA Instagram shares stories of racism, harassment, and exploitation, many of them set right here in Minnesota.

The Black at the YMCA Instagram shares stories of racism, harassment, and exploitation, many of them set right here in Minnesota. Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

The first YMCA ever was established in London, England in 1844.

The first YMCA dedicated to serving Black people wouldn’t come along until 1853, in Washington, D.C., after the advocacy and efforts of Anthony Bowen. He was a former slave who had become the first Black man to work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office.

Desegregation would begin later, on a national scale, in 1946 – at various speeds and degrees of cooperation.

Reckoning with racism is embedded into the YMCA’s history, just as it’s embedded into the history of this country. And according to a bevy of social media posts on an Instagram page called Black at the YMCA, it’s far from done.

The page has become a space for folks to post stories of racism, microaggression, exploitation, and mistreatment at the Y. The YMCA of the North (formerly the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities), has been specifically featured in many of the posts on the page.

Stories from this area include instances of outright harassment, being talked down to by white supervisors and coworkers, being passed over again and again in favor of white candidates, and looking on in frustration as resources are continually allocated to programs and facilities that predominantly serve white people.

The Y of the North’s Equity Innovation Center – a program designed to spark conversations around race and racism – is sometimes cited as a “front.”

“While they have plenty of internal racism and oppression they don’t want to admit and deal with, they are out here charging external organizations to teach them about institutional racism and how to dismantle these structures,” it said. “Did I mention pretty much everyone on that team is white…”

An Instagram message from the account calls Black at the YMCA a platform, a “space for current and former YMCA employees, volunteers, and members to share their truth and experiences of ‘working while Black’ at one of the world’s largest nonprofit and historically white institutions.”

“The YMCA is a goliath,” the message says. “And no one, absolutely no one would believe Black employees’ experiences of harm, racism, sexism, abuse, and sexual assault, because of these four letters, YMCA.”

So far, the message says, Black at the YMCA hasn’t received any kind of public message from the Y of the North’s administration, but it’s understood there have been some “internal conversations” happening on the subject of what's been shared.

Glen Gunderson, CEO of YMCA of the North, has even apparently commented on one of the posts, which told a story about him allegedly having jokingly said “Build the Wall” (referring to the Trumpian campaign promise to wall off the southern border) during a meeting a couple years ago.

“Thank you for sharing this reflection,” he wrote. “While I don’t recall the specific words I used in the 2018 meeting you reference, I am so sorry you felt the way you did. I’m guessing I tried to use sarcasm to mock the idea of a border wall that I object to fundamentally and wholeheartedly.”

The Black at the YMCA account responded with thanks, and advice to “take time to reflect on the countless number of posts that are tagged in the Twin Cities.”

“Leaders and programs are named and that’s a starting point to eradicate unjust systems and serve the team members that have and are being harmed under your leadership,” the comment said.

When asked for comment, the Y of the North sent a statement saying the organization “cannot comment on anonymous posts made on social media,” but that it takes the accusations “seriously.”

“We are actively developing an avenue for employees to safely bring concerns to a third-party professional so that any allegations of discrimination are vetted and appropriate responsive actions taken,” it said. “We are also using this opportunity as a call to action to thoroughly review all of our internal policies and procedures, to identify areas where we can and must make changes, and to take other positive action to ensure we are providing an equitable and inclusive environment.”

The statement also included a letter to employees from Gunderson, saying the Y was “listening,” and he welcomed the feedback.

“Based on the feedback I have received, it is clear that we have much work to do to make certain that everyone finds our Y a welcoming workplace where the voices of BIPOC team members and anti-racist allies are heard and open conversations are welcomed to address concerns. We are committed to doing this equity and inclusion work,” he said.

He listed a few specific actions the Y would take to address this, including “listening sessions,” the creation of a “CEO Equity Advisory Team,” expanding the Equity Innovation Center, and “support[ing] Black Lives Matter.” That included providing supportive pins for uniforms and participating in the Strike for Black Lives planned for today, July 20.

Black at the YMCA has already provided examples of that steps the people submitting to the page would like to see in the future -- they include training, but they also include dismantling all-white boards, overhauling the Equity Centers and the HR departments, firing the executives and managers named on the page.

"Do the work and don't broadcast every small victory as a big deal," a post from last week says. "This is a starting point."