McGaw YMCA employees aim to empower marginalized communities through leadership networks


Photo courtesy of the McGaw YMCA

Franada (left) and Dennison (right) were selected for two of the YMCA’s 2022-23 national leadership networks. Franada currently serves as the marketing director at McGaw, while Dennison serves as the executive assistant to the CEO and president.

Lily Carey, Senior Staffer

Alicya Dennison remembers visiting McGaw YMCA as a child growing up in Evanston. Now, Dennison, the executive assistant to McGaw’s CEO and president, feels a “familial” connection to the branch.

Finding community in the workplace hasn’t always been easy, said Dennison, who faced racial discrimination at previous places of work. At McGaw, she said she’s been able to fully claim her identity as an Afro-Latino woman.

“I think that’s part of your leadership too, knowing who you are, having that confidence and having the courage to show up as who you are, every time,” Dennison said.

She is one of two McGaw employees participating in YMCA’s 2022-23 national leadership networks, which aim to train employees of marginalized identities for higher leadership positions. Melissa Franada, McGaw’s marketing director, is one of eight members of YMCA’s Asian and Pacific Islander Leadership Network-International Leadership Institute, and Dennison is one of 28 in the association’s Hispanic Latino Leadership Network.

For Franada and Dennison, the impact of identity-based leadership networks goes beyond their curricula. Women of color often face institutional barriers to advancement in the workplace, which the pair said they’ve both experienced firsthand.

Creating a space for multicultural leadership development helps women of color escape the “exhausting” scrutiny they face while in positions of power, Franada said.

“With more women of marginalized communities represented in leadership, you have less of that extra energy going (toward) fending off all these other microaggressions to just be yourself,” she said. “You create more people that are self-aware, that are able to find the joy in what they want to be doing.”

The HLLN’s goal is to equip Latine employees with tools they need to reach executive positions at their YMCA branches, Dennison said. The six-month program focuses specifically on professional development.

According to Franada, through the APILN-IL, members participate in a yearlong program that centers Asian-American culture, identity and leadership. In March, the group traveled to South Korea and the Philippines on a 10-day trip to learn about the YMCA’s international work. The Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs oversees regional work and local Y communities, which Franada saw firsthand during the trip.

Franada will also begin implementing a capstone project next month as part of her work for APILN-IL. Her project focuses on understanding relations between the Asian communities in the city of Evanston and at McGaw.

“I know that there is an Asian community in Evanston, but there’s not a lot of connections within that with the McGaw YMCA,” Franada said. “Part of what I wanted to be able to do in joining the leadership network and taking on the work that I’m doing with the cohort is to strengthen those relationships.”

Similar anti-racism initiatives are taking shape at McGaw, Franada and Dennison said. As part of an ongoing effort to achieve equity in the workplace, the branch recently reevaluated its payroll to ensure all of its employees are receiving equitable pay, Franada said.

As the executive assistant to Monique Parsons, CEO and president of McGaw, Dennison added she’s been particularly uplifted by seeing her boss, who is also Black, leading the branch. 

“At McGaw YMCA, we believe that everyone has the potential to be a leader,” Parsons said in an April news release. “We are committed to providing our employees with the resources they need to grow and develop as multicultural changemakers.”

Though they said there’s still work to be done to boost inclusivity at McGaw and in Evanston, Franada and Dennison added they’re excited to bring leadership skills they learn at the national event back to the branch.

Encouraging YMCA leaders to start conversations about equity and representation, Franada said, is a crucial step toward fighting racism in the workplace and in the broader Evanston community.

“I think the fact that we found people within these spaces, where you can be honest, vulnerable, and ask really tough questions, has been so welcome,” she said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @lilylcarey

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