A Legacy of Women Helping Women

In 1883, eleven empowering women saw a need to provide housing for young women moving into the city for the first time to find work.  They founded a women’s association that years later would vote to become a member of the national organization known as the YWCA and opened a small boarding house.  Employment services were offered, as well as classes in arithmetic and English since educational opportunities for women were extremely limited.

As the YWCA’s programs expanded, so did the need for additional space.  In 1888, the YWCA opened the first gymnasium classes for women in Rochester, including the first public swimming pool for women.  Around this time, rooms could be rented for $1 a week. Meals were not provided but could be purchased on site; a full meal cost 11 cents.

In the early 1900s, programs for girls became a central part of the YWCA’s mission.  The Girl Reserves, later to be called Y-Teens, would give girls a place to gather, offer a wide range of classes, and provide opportunities for community service.  It was also around this time that the YWCA opened the first camp for girls in the area, Camp Wacona, near what is now Seabreeze.  Camp Onanda would soon follow.

In 1922 the organization established a race relations committee and created the Caladonia Street Branch of the YWCA for African American women, later called the Clarissa Street Branch. By 1951, all of the YWCA’s programs and services were fully integrated at its new facility on North Clinton Avenue.

As the agency continued to grow and serve even greater numbers of women, the YWCA’s programs and activities flourished. Clubs and programs were formed for nearly every purpose imaginable. From the organization’s earliest days, groups of area women who supported the association and its mission had begun forming into what were called “Chapters,” or groups that gathered to spend time together for leadership and service opportunities.  One of these chapters, the Sibley Chapter, continues today, generously contributing to the programs of the YWCA.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the YWCA served as a place for the community to come together to discuss social issues.  The leadership of the YWCA at the time, which included Mrs. Ermine Byas and Mrs. Betty Jane Altier, became a strong voice for racial justice.  Eliminating racism in all its forms became a hallmark program of the YWCA at the national and level.  Focusing on offering services that fostered social justice and economic empowerment became critical to the agency’s mission.

At this time, several programs still offered today were founded, including the School-age Parents Program in 1969. This program was the first in the community to help teen mothers stay in high school.  The YWCA also opened the first substance abuse treatment center exclusively for women.  Once health and fitness centers became readily open to women, the YWCA decided to concentrate its attention on programs benefiting women in need.  The pool and gym facility were converted to more housing units and space for the Women’s Resource Center.

As we continue to focus on empowering women whose needs are not being met elsewhere in the community, our programs today address two critical needs – providing affordable housing for women and their children, including emergency housing for the homeless, and improving the graduation rate of our young people.

For over 125 years, the YWCA has been a powerful resource in our community.  Through strong leadership and careful strategic planning, the agency has continued to grow and adapt to meet the changing needs of women and girls.

We at YWCA of Rochester & Monroe County feel the shockwaves following the death of George Floyd, a black man suffocated by a white police officer earlier this week. We send our condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd, and of Ahmed Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor – to all victims of hate crimes and communities of color. We are also thinking of our sisters and brothers at YWCA Minneapolis and the whole Minneapolis-St. Paul community through this difficult and frightening time.

As an organization with a mission of eliminating racism, we believe we must all do our part to promote and achieve racial equality. We MUST take a stand. We must unite in our vision of a community with peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.

We believe that addressing this specific incident alone won’t be enough to prevent future incidents of police violence against Black people, and people of color in America. Our country’s failure to address institutional racism is costing lives. Racism is why coronavirus is killing more people of color than white people. Racism is why police shootings are a leading cause of death for young Black men. Racism is why Black mothers die more frequently in childbirth. Racism has no place in the America we all deserve.

At YWCA, we demand a world of equity and human decency. We envision a world of opportunity. We commit ourselves to the work of racial justice. We will get up and continue to do the work until injustice is rooted out, until institutions are transformed, until the world sees women, girls, and people of color the way we do: Equal. Powerful. Unstoppable.

Please join us in our mission to eliminate racism and empower women by speaking up and speaking out against racism in our world.  Learn more through the YWCA Toolkit for Change at https://www.ywcarochester.org/toolkit-for-change/