Then and now: 116 years of YWCA UtahMay 02, 2022 08:33PM ● By Rachel Aubrey
By Rachel Aubrey | [email protected]
The early years
Since 1906 the YWCA Utah has been an integral part of servicing women and children in the community by providing education and advocacy through its various programs aimed to “eliminate racism, empower women, promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.”
During those 116 years, some things have changed, and some things have remained the same. While the mission has remained consistent over the years, the circumstances by which services were needed or rendered has altered. In the early years of the YWCA Utah, one function of the organization was to feed those who were hungry. According to YWCA archives, one of the first public cafeterias was opened in the Brooks Arcade building in 1906 in Salt Lake City and meals were served by members of the YWCA.
Another function that the YWCA served was that of employment services for women in the Salt Lake Valley. As early as 1912, with jobs in telecommunications and manufacturing increasing, women came to the city to work. With the influx of residents came the need for housing. According to the Utah State Historical Society, the first boarding house of the YWCA was located at 200 East and 255 South and offered rooms, hot meals and social activities. The purchase of the Hammond Hall by the YWCA located at 300 South between 300 and 400 East became the official boarding house.
During the pre- and post-World War II years, the YWCA hosted a plethora of social events and activities for servicemen and servicewomen. Dances, game nights, dinners and other recreational activities were organized. In keeping with the times, the YWCA offered classes to women to teach them domestic skills such as sewing and cooking. For women at that time, it was expected that they would leave the jobs they had during the war to focus more on domestic responsibilities.
Beginning in the 1970s, the boarding house for the YWCA began to be used as a safe house for women who needed a supportive environment. According to archives, in 1976 the YWCA opened the first shelter in Utah, and the first in the country, for women and children fleeing family violence. It was also during this time period that classes began for parenting skills, financial management, dealing with divorce and English language skills.
The early 1980s saw the opening of the Teen Home on 800 East and 150 South which served pregnant or parenting teen girls and babies who are homeless, in the state’s custody or have nowhere else to go. This service was the first, and is today the only, of its kind in Utah. The continued work from the late 1970s into the 80s saw the YWCA reaching out to inner city schools to develop after school programs for kids which provided a model for future children services.
The recent years
At the helm of the YWCA Utah for the past two years is CEO Liz Owens, who brought valuable gender and equality experience to the YWCA with her career path spanning positions from the Pride Center, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, Planned Parenthood, and the Utah Coalition against Sexual Assault. Owens has learned over the years that gender, race and class are the three most significant predictors of social position.
Some of her learned experiences with gender differences stemmed from being the youngest of her family and the only sister. With two older brothers who had different curfews, different chores and all-around different expectations, she was aware at a fairly young age that she was treated differently.
Growing up biracial (half black and half Samoan), Owens recalled being one of a handful of minority kids in her community in Provo, Utah during the 1990s, where she was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I had great friends, so it was not as terrible as it [could’ve been],” Owens said. “There was a circle of support, I was already part of a community and I had a lot of love around me.”
After earning a sociology degree from Utah Valley University, Owens went on to earn her master’s degree abroad in one of the first human rights programs offered at the University of Essex in London, England. After living abroad for more than five years, she decided to return to Utah. She has witnessed since moving back how the culture and attitudes towards women are changing, but believes that there is still a long way to go and many things to continue to work on in terms of equity and advocacy on behalf of women’s rights. Her hope is that young girls, or anyone needing support, can find a space to be around other women, girls or individuals who support them.
“It’s important that everybody has a space where they belong, particularly for young girls,” Owens said. “I feel really grateful that I’ve always had circles of women and girls around me to support me.”
Owens believes the public may not be aware of the full scope of services offered by YWCA Utah to the community.. Located at 300 South and 300 East in downtown Salt Lake City, the six-building campus offers domestic violence services, transitional housing services, race and gender equity advocacy and childcare services, to name a few.
“The biggest misconception I encounter is that people just know a piece of our work and not the big picture,” Owens said.
Becoming CEO of YWCA Utah during the second week of the Covid-19 quarantine lockdown brought all sorts of challenges for her and her newly appointed executive board. Some tough decisions had to be made. The team had to find safe ways to remain open and active for the hundreds of community members who both live at and utilize walk-in services provided on-site. As a provider of emergency services such as transitional shelter, long-term housing, childcare and crisis services, it was a challenge to keep everyone safe from Covid and safe from the streets. The YWCA remained fully operational throughout the pandemic as the employees continued to show up to work despite feeling scared and unsure.
“We were just hustling, we stopped everything else just so we could handle the day-to-day Covid because it was so overwhelming,” Owens said. “We were committed to being there when people needed us the most.”
Owens said there have been a lot of successes and challenges during her first two years. She credits the successes to the staff. Prior to becoming CEO, one third of the staff made less than $15 an hour. Despite overtime hours and pandemic chaos, staff continued to come to work.
The YWCA is hosting the annual Leader Luncheon on May 20 with political activist, academic and author Angela Davis as the keynote speaker at the Grand America Hotel. All proceeds from Leader Luncheon support the YWCA's life-saving and life-changing services for Utah women and their families including comprehensive family violence services, women’s leadership development, race equity work and initiatives, and public policy advocacy. To register for the event visit www.ywcautah.org/get-involved/events/leader-luncheon/.
For more information about the services and programs offered and how to become involved or ways to volunteer and give back visit www.ywcautah.org/.