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Photo Credit: The Wakeman Agency 

By: Dr. Danielle Moss Lee

One of the things you’re expected to do when you assume executive leadership in the social sector is to create, define, and promote an individual platform that aligns with the organization’s mission and your unique leadership assets. As only the second Black woman to head one of the nation’s oldest women’s organizations, I immediately came to understand the need for balancing the time honored perspectives of long-time supporters of our 157 year old legacy, and giving way to the emerging voices of today’s girls and younger women whose views are decidedly more feminist-centered and politically sophisticated than I was at their age. If we weren’t clear about who we were, I saw the potential of alienating legacy YW friends and to making us irrelevant to a new generation of young woman who hold the YW’s commitment to eliminating racism and empowering women equally dear.

I articulated the much-needed balance as an exercise in “intergenerational generosity”. I even came up with a formal definition:

“Intergenerational generosity is defined as the process of courageously making room for multi-generational, multi-dimensional points of view as demonstrated by a commitment to a co-created and mutually beneficial agenda rooted in values of empathy and kindness, and the releasing of privilege. It means I have to give something and risk something.

Intergenerational generosity allows us to glance at the rearview mirror of our past, but requires us to face forward and keep moving in the direction of possibility and future impact. It means the conversation is most valuable when everyone has an authentic seat at the table; when folks are holding themselves accountable for making sure that everyone is heard; when young folks leave their tendency to be patronizing and resistant at the door; and, when sages let go of their tendency toward condescension and proselytizing.”

The more I lived in this definition, and the more I turned the words over in my head, the more I wondered if I’d just described an unattainable feminist utopia. I’ve taken enough communications classes to know that most of us listen to respond, and without intention toward inviting multi-dimensional points of view that could influence how we understand the world around us. I considered how much most of us hate change, and that our human inclination is to reside in the past where we had the most influence and power. And, I also understood how frustrating it can be when a past that legitimizes elders is used to silence those of us in the “now”.

When most people in my network heard that I was taking the helm of the YWCA of the City of New York, they wondered why. I was immediately bombarded with comments about the catty, competitive nature of women. I was cautioned that a historically “old girls” organization that was governed and led by women would be challenged to align itself with my fresh perspectives, and possibilitarian ideologies. I pressed on, propelled by my endless sense of optimism and my “foolish” belief in the power of women. I remembered all the amazing women who’d crossed my path. I remembered the women who had disanointed and hurt me. I remembered their humanity, and our collective strength and vulnerability. I came anyway, because I knew I could make a difference.

Intergenerational generosity isn’t free. It means that sometimes I have to release the stories of my past about how people and systems operate, and give people the benefit of the doubt. It means opening doors for other women, and making opportunities available even when I don’t know what the outcome is going to be. It means filtering out gossip long enough to gain my own sense of who people are, and what they have to offer. It means understanding that the “return on investment” isn’t always immediately apparent – sometimes you give of yourself, share contacts, share information, offer advice, make job referrals, pass on opportunities you can’t use in the moment, and provide services, all without agenda and without attachment to payback. Intergenerational generosity means that I have to be available to follow as much as I am committed to leading. It means I have to risk something – and some of those risks will reap dividends tenfold, and some risks will blow up in my face.

As an organization committed to intergenerational generosity, the YWCA of the City of New York has launched its unique Potential to Power Symposium, where established women come to hear from teen speakers and discussants. We’ve launched our YWNYC Fire Council, to create a vehicle that supports the economic, educational, and political advancement of young women. And, we’re continuing our outreach to traditional communities of women with longstanding relationships with the YWCA of the City of New York via our YWCEO Salon Series.

We believe a generous culture is possible, because we believe in women. We believe that women are capable of nurturing meaningful mentorships in the workplace. We believe that girls can support each other and do away with girl-on-girl shaming. We believe that the next generation of women will advance a feminist agenda that challenges race-based privilege and uplifts an intersectional agenda that frees all women. We are inviting all women to share their generosity stories on social media with us @ywcanyc and via the hashtag #YWWomanKind. We understand that intergenerational generosity needs to be conscious and intentional, and we are determined to get it right to ensure our future.