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There’s So Much I Want to See Change: Gaye Adams Massey 

In our series In Rest We Trust, we talk with three grantee-partner leaders about the origin stories that led to their life’s passions and organizational leadership, what they’re doing to ensure they and their teams rest, and why rest is necessary for sustaining the long game of a more gender-just world.

“I think it’s wonderful that you’re lifting up grantee-partner leaders. I love seeing women leaders being lifted up because it’s extremely challenging work. Leadership can often be lonely too and so looking at ways to support leadership is a really important thing.”   

-Gaye Adams Massey, Executive Leader & Former CEO, YWCA St. Paul

In Waco, Texas, Gaye Adams Massey grew up alongside the civil rights movement and was active in marches and protests with her mother, a teacher, and her father, a pastor. Before leading YWCA St. Paul as CEO for eight years, Gaye Adams Massey grew her justice roots in healthcare law, where she spent much of her career fighting for racial justice as an attorney. After attending a WFM event where she was impressed by the foundation’s mission, she saw the potential for building a meaningful partnership because of her commitment to eliminating racism and empowering women and girls. For the last seven years, YWCA St. Paul has had a close partnership with WFM, leading the leadership development of the Governor-appointed Young Women’s Cabinet. They have also led listening sessions and the working groups with youth that led to the development of the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota (YWI).

“The first year of the Cabinet, we were all at the Y and we were really trying to create a model that worked and did the most good to support young women. I got to know most of the young women in that inaugural year, and we’ve had such amazing young women every year. They joked they’d be working for the Y in 15 years because they knew they were going to go out and do great things in the world. Having the chance to work with that group was so deeply affirming. Moments like that give you the energy and fuel you need to continue. There’s so many challenges, there’s so much hard work and it can get tiring and exhausting. But moments like that when you see the returns and you see the value so concretely of what you’re doing, it really fills your cup. It helps you know you’re doing the right thing.” It’s this intense but worthy work that’s brought Gaye to her current chapter as a retiree, spending time abroad with her children, and supporting other organizations like the Y so they keep thriving. “I took a sabbatical after COVID started. I was the first one to raise that idea with my board and how it would work in my absence. COVID was very tough, and I broke a lot of rules to just get through it. There was just so much and a lot of workforce turnover. Setting the precedent of going on sabbatical was a good one for the organization, and I hope they continue supporting it.”  

Gaye Adams Massey

What does the world look like when gender justice is realized:

It looks like a place where everyone, women, girls, gender-expansive people, have the chance to pursue and achieve their dreams. What people want for themselves in their lives is different from person to person, but it’s a world where we’re not having barriers or lacking resources that prevent you from building on your own potential to achieve. It’s what I call artificial barriers, which have no business holding women or people of color back. We’re a rich nation, and among all the rich nations, we have some of the poorest supports for families anywhere. Whether it’s maternity leaves, childcare, early and young families. All the things that are covered in the Blueprint for Action are areas we need to really invest in to support our families. Especially girls who face, particularly in communities of color, the state of the schools in the country. Core things like having a home, support you need to take care of your family, opportunity to earn and have a career with growth opportunities, these are also the basics of where I’ve focused my life’s work.  

A story about creating impact in your life-changing work:

The programs that I feel are critical are focusing on homeless families and helping them achieve stability. Families that come to us are primarily single parent families. Usually, women are the head of households in these families, and with young children. We have about five sites for housing and work with community landlords to place them and adjust rent to their income level. We also ensured there are wraparound services from the Y. Whatever it is, they’re connected to resources to focus on healing. They position themselves for work and housing stability for their families and we help them take a second generational approach by working directly with children as well. The commitment and dedication of the staff in working with these folks, to really help them build the tools they need so they could maintain stability after the program.  

Why intersectionality is critical to the work: 

There are so many aspects to each individual and intersectionality is a good lens for understanding someone’s identity because all those different identities are coming together in one person. I think it’s critical to have that lens in order to understand the challenges any person is facing. In housing work, to effectively serve moms and dads who are trying to build stability for their families, you have to look at things from an intersectional lens. You have to look at all that they are dealing with and all of who they are. For example, that broader view helps you think through the services, supports, and resources we need to bring together to help each parent and each family that we’re assisting. Many of them have had experiences of domestic abuse or domestic violence in the past, for example. Maybe design things so they can interact with a former partner in a safer way. In racial justice work, it’s helping people understand the experiences of their neighbors or other community members. If you haven’t grown up in a community of color, it’s much less likely you’ve ever spent much time thinking about any of this. So trying to understand how race, gender, income, all the million different ways things affect somebody, and what their experience is, and how all of that comes together. 

A story you want to see changed:

The world is in a constant state of change and people are always going to have differences and conflicts they need to resolve. An area of real focus has been the struggle of African Americans in this country. If you look at one of the things we focused on, that I think is really important in racial justice work, is understanding history and understanding the policies that have led to why we are where we are today. If you just look at what’s happening in the world right now, you can draw all kinds of conclusions about the why. Those policies and structural racism have led to really devastating results. We’re in a time now where people don’t even want to acknowledge or teach that history or address the harm that’s been systematically done. When I think about racial justice, this is a hard one for me. There’s so much I want to see change, but if I had to choose one thing to be changed, it’s the anti-Blackness that pervades so much of our culture.  

A leadership lesson:

How important your team is. Valuing them and recognizing what you do well and what you don’t so well, so you can fill the gaps and fill your own. It’s about always working on ways to improve oneself. Coming from a for-profit to a nonprofit, you don’t have the same financial resources to fund the work towards your goals, so you have to find other ways to get there. I learned to be really creative about how I get the help I needed and the importance of taking advantage of that help.  

Why rest is necessary for nonprofit leaders:

It’s critical to our success, and our success is critical to the success of the organizations we lead, so it’s a worthy investment. It struck me the way that so many investments are restricted and focused on programs. It’s understandable the people wanting to see those programs thrive, but there wasn’t significant investment in organizational health and that means money that supports operations, IT, and all those things that make an organization well run. So leaders were really expected to scrounge and work hard to get the money to support those other parts. It’s necessary for your organization to be effective and be successful in the long term, and the rest and wellness of leaders is one of those things that is important to invest in. They will do it well if they are healthy and well.  

How you spent your sabbatical?

I rested. I walked, read, and slept a lot. I did things that were rejuvenating, so that I could feel better physically and that helped me feel better, mentally and emotionally. Once I began to feel better, I spent more time connecting with people. It wasn’t a long sabbatical, so I felt I needed to maximize the time I had. We had done a lot of planning about how things would work when I wasn’t there and the plan worked well. My senior team did a great job pulling it together and being leaders. When I came back, I was careful not to assume everything was just like it had been when I left. Folks are in a different place, so I was trying to be respectful to let them continue to grow and lead in their own ways.  

Why invest in rest? 

Leading a nonprofit is an intense world. The way nonprofits sustain themselves in our society is really tough. You’re constantly fundraising. You never have all the resources you need or want to advance your mission. You’re trying to be good stewards of the gifts you’ve received and have the highest and biggest impact for the people you serve. You can end up working around the clock if you’re not careful. In any job that’s demanding, you have to have strategies for your own health. I tried to get good sleep and learned how to say no to a lot of things. Your time in a day is limited and trying to align with priorities is being set on what you value the most. You have to find ways to manage your stress, because you will have stress. Either through work or life, you have to find little ways. I’d call them my little snatches of joy. You need to continue to be in a good place to be the kind of leader you want for other people looking up to you.  

On the legacy you’re leaving: 

I came to an organization that already had a strong history of providing services in the community. We really began to focus our racial justice work through education and advocacy. It was developed through this partnership with YWI, broadening housing programs to include young women who are aging out of foster care, expanding career pathways, jobs with career paths, and supporting housing stability.  

By Chanida Phaengdara Potter, former Vice President of Strategic Communications & Narrative Change

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