Preparing for retirement, Karen Singer reflects on 18 years of leadership, expansion at YWCA Evanston/North Shore


Photo Courtesy of YWCA Evanston/North Shore

Karen Singer. After 18 years as YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s CEO, she announced her retirement earlier this month.

Jorja Siemons, City Editor

Content warning: This article contains mention of domestic abuse and anti-Black hate crimes. 

When Karen Singer started working as YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s interim executive director in August 2004, she didn’t anticipate applying for the permanent position. 

“I had known very little about YWCA — it was kind of a quiet organization in town (that) kind of flew under the radar,” she said. “Once I got there, what struck me so immediately and profoundly was what an amazing mission this organization had.” 

The social justice organization’s mission, to eliminate racism and empower women, kept Singer around for executive applications that fall, and for the next 18 years as chief executive officer. She announced her intention to retire from YWCA earlier this month.

Operating in Evanston for more than 90 years, YWCA Evanston/North Shore provides emergency shelter and longer-term housing for survivors of domestic violence and their children, as well as other services like counseling and employment assistance. The organization is a part of YWCA USA, the largest provider of domestic violence survivor support programs in the country. 

“It has been the journey of a lifetime for me, personally and professionally,” Singer said.

With a background working with unhoused women and families, Singer said she considered herself rooted in gender and racial equity work when she started at YWCA. The only area of YWCA services she really didn’t know anything about was swimming, she said. 

Evanston’s YWCA also includes a robust aquatics program that hosts Flying Fish Swim School and a collaboration with Evanston Swims! to provide free swim instruction to every second grader in Evanston public schools. 

Singer said working with the organization to open a second pool in 2006 showed her its connection to equity. 

“Aquatics opportunity and access, really, for the YWCA came out of a place of equity,” she said. “Women and people of color did not have equal access or opportunity to learn a life-saving skill.” 

Under Singer’s leadership, the Evanston branch has also expanded on YWCA’s founding principles to implement a unique initiative: the Equity Institute. 

The Institute hosts business equity consulting, racial healing circles, community engagement sessions and events — like April’s Stand Against Racism rally. 

A row of people stand in front of a YWCA building holding a red ribbon after it was cut with a large pair of scissors.
The new YWCA campus opening in October 2021. The renovation was part of an $18.5 million capital project sparked by CEO Karen Singer and the organization’s leadership. (Photo Courtesy of YWCA Evanston/North Shore)

According to director Tiffany McDowell, the institute is also providing facilitators for student affinity groups within Evanston/Skokie School District 65 to support the District 65 community following the racist anti-Black hate crimes that occurred at Haven Middle School last Friday.

McDowell said Singer has been a “great mentor” since she came on almost four years ago to launch the Institute, and that Singer has helped her create community connections. 

Kathy Slaughter, the organization’s chief development officer, agreed. As the director tasked with overseeing the YWCA branch’s private giving revenue, Slaughter said she has collaborated with Singer — who has prioritized organization expansion. 

“We’ve always been focused on diversity as an organization, but what could we be doing more in terms of our mission of eliminating racism?” Slaughter said. “That was Karen’s vision that we expand from just saying, ‘oh, we have a racial equity program’ to saying, ‘no, we really want to be the leader in equity.’” 

During Singer’s term as chief executive officer, the organization’s private funding has increased tenfold, according to the Evanston/North Shore YWCA board. 

The organization completed its $18.5 million capital project in October 2021 that renovated and expanded YWCA’s footprint in Evanston. 

Included in this project was the expansion of Mary Lou’s Place, YWCA’s safe, trauma-informed emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence. According to Singer, the space went from having 11 rooms to 23 — doubling capacity to host survivors and their children. 

“In the new shelter, everybody has their own room,” Singer said. “It’s a safer, more independent kind of environment that could accommodate even being in a pandemic.” 

According to the organization, YWCA board members and advisors have formed a transition committee to oversee a search for the new CEO with a final selection anticipated at the end of this year. 

Reflecting on her retirement, Singer said she is most proud of the organization’s ability to establish its physical footprint in the community, which is emblematic of the mission. To her, while expanded physical spaces are important, the real assets are the training, education and development happening within.

“As hard as it is to think about not being at the helm — because it’s been a joy and a privilege for so long — I think this organization is ready to take its next leap into the future,” she said. 

Email: @JorjaSiemons

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