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May 18, 2022
Kevin Washington Turns Love of YMCA into Lifetime Career
Kevin Washington
Kevin Washington: I know our best days are ahead of us.
When I was 10 years old I started going to the YMCA in my south Philadelphia neighborhood. It was a working class part of the city, and the YMCA was our community center, our after school provider and a safe place. My father worked in a factory and my mother raised their six children.

The Y taught me how to swim. I was terrified. The lifeguard was huge and I remember thinking, “I’m going down and I’m not coming back up.” The Y also introduced me to athletics and to basketball.

All throughout high school I went to the Y. I volunteered, I played ball, I hung out. I was always a good student and I was a decent basketball player. Temple University offered me a full scholarship to play on their basketball team.

After graduation, my childhood Y hired me as youth director. After about three years, I became the executive director of the Columbia/North Branch YMCA in a neighborhood about three blocks away from Temple. It was a tough community and we utilized connections with Temple. We’d hold Friday night dances and Will Smith and Jazzy Jeff would DJ and perform – before they were famous rappers.

My first job at the Y reinforced to me how much impact YMCAs have on communities. I loved the work. Like most young managers, I made mistakes. I thought I had to be there all the time, 12 or 18 hours a day. You learn that you become a good leader through the people around you: bringing in good people, trusting them and empowering them.

The Y fit me. It became part of my DNA. I am a Y kid through and through. Little did I know that first job with the Y would lead to a lifetime career. Working at the Y has been the only job I’ve ever had.

I was asked to serve as the executive director at the Y in Chicago. Through this role, I saw how the YMCA can operate at a much higher level. The infant mortality rate in the city was high, and statistics could pinpoint the areas most at risk. We went in to the most dangerous housing projects and found the pregnant young women and got them help. We tried to find them early in their pregnancy so they could receive effective prenatal care and deliver healthy babies. We were on the streets, forging peace among gangs. These experiences really deepened my perception of what a Y could do.

In Chicago, we had a huge, diverse staff – the Y was all things to all different kinds of people. That was a challenge to manage. But, it was dynamic, vibrant, and we were making a difference in the community.

We also did transformative work in Hartford, where I served as president and CEO for 10 years before coming to Boston. In Harford, we wanted to link the urban and suburban Ys, similar to what we are doing here in Boston.

Coming to Boston offered an exciting opportunity to work in the oldest YMCA in the country and be part of an organization that has affected history.

Boston has a reputation that isn’t really fitting. When I told friends and colleagues I was coming to Boston, they were surprised. The perception is that this is not the best place for people of my color to come. But I didn’t feel any of that when I got here.

I am, however, somewhat surprised at the lack of diverse leadership in this city. We have some of the best medical and higher learning institutions in the country. Boston is a hot bed for young thinkers; hopefully diversity in leadership will catch up.

The Y plays a vital role in this city – we’re filling the achievement gaps through our summer and after school programs, we’re teaching healthy living through our obesity and diabetes prevention programs, and we’re creating young leaders. We’re giving young men and women the skill set they need to deal with conflict resolution in a different way – teaching them that violence is not the answer.

When you bring young people into a safe, nurturing and caring environment, you enrich their lives and improve the entire community. That is what the Y is doing and I know our best days are ahead of us.

The Y institution is the one of the few shared American experiences. Everyone has a YMCA story. Regardless of your economic circumstance, your ethnicity, you have a connection through this institution. That is rare. We can build upon that to be even more successful.

Learn more about the YMCA of Greater Boston by clicking here.
December 2011
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