Expanding Ys’ contributions to a more inclusive and equitable community

In 2019, Community Science partnered with the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to implement a study of the roles Ys play as community partners and the extent to which these collaborations contribute to strengthening their communities. This study explored whether, and how Ys accelerate local strategies that foster fair and just opportunity and contribute to building and sustaining community strength.

As described in another blog by Jasmine Williams-Washington, findings from the study show the multiple roles Ys play in their communities, beyond “gym and swim,” and how these roles make them a trusted community institution. Findings also showed how the Ys in the study leveraged their assets and reputation to mobilize other organizations to address community needs, particularly among underserved or marginalized residents. These connections and relationships facilitated response and relief efforts during the pandemic. Beyond providing resources and services, Ys also play a role in ensuring fairness and justice, and to do this, they have to address the root causes of inequities and change systems. Based on findings from the study, here are some areas of opportunity for Ys to expand their contribution to a more equitable community where all residents have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Develop and strengthen capacity to engage in internal and external dialogues about equity as a goal.

Ys and partners across the ten sites that participated in our study reported varying degrees of engagement in conversations about equity issues in their communities and their roles to address the issues. They described current and potential challenges talking about inequities and developing shared understandings of the roots causes. Addressing these challenges will require Ys to develop and strengthen their capacity to communicate about the importance of advancing equity in the community to multiple audiences, including staff, members, partners, local leaders, and the general public. This could include developing a common language to talk about equity as a collective goal, engaging with different audiences about the types of interventions needed to advance this goal, and navigating potential conflicts that could emerge when making the case for these efforts.

Define the roles that Ys can play to contribute to social justice and systems change.

Our study showed that most of the Ys’ collaborations focused on providing resources and services. The impact of the pandemic and responses to racial inequity in the last two years motivated Ys and partners in four sites to increase their attention to inequities, engage more intentionally with the root causes, and/or integrate equity goals into their collaborative efforts. As well-regarded institutions with a long history of community presence, Ys can draw from this experience during the pandemic as well as their reputation and visibility to support social justice and system reform efforts that address the root causes of inequities. Ys can also contribute to systemic change by collaborating more closely with grassroots, advocacy, or community-based organizations that have experience addressing policies that affect underserved or marginalized residents.

Develop, implement, and refine community engagement strategies.

Involving those most affected by the issues to come up with solutions is key. Among the ten Y collaborations studied, only two had developed strategies to engage residents most affected by the issues (e.g., limited access to nutritious food, housing insecurity). Their community engagement efforts helped them develop systemic solutions to address the issues that community residents face on a daily basis. As a first step to engaging the community to design effective solutions to inequity and injustice, Ys can work to understand their role in local power dynamics, identify factors that might facilitate or limit the engagement of residents affected by the issues of focus, and learn about best practices to involve them in planning and decisionmaking.