Billy Collins was first male E.D. in St. Paul, second in the nation
William “Billy” Collins soon will begin his next phase of life. The longtime YWCA of St. Paul executive director is set to step down in April after 20 years of service.
“I want to get away from working 50-60 hours a week,” admits Collins, promising that although he’s retiring from the Y, he isn’t retiring from being “a presence in the community. I am a participant — I’m a partner…in the community. That’s how I look at my role.”
The St. Paul native, during an MSR interview at his office, reflected back on his decades-long experience in both nonprofit, public and business sectors. Over the years Collins has worked with the Inner City Youth League, St. Paul Urban League and Hallie Q. Brown Community Center and served on several local organizations and foundations boards.
“I started in 1967 with Bill Wilson and Bobby Hickman at the Inner City Youth League” and worked there for four years, then with the city’s Model Cities program, he explains. He also worked with the State as a grant administrator for almost four years in community and individual public safety initiatives in the early ’90s.
Also around that time, Collins began working with the city’s YWCA in fundraising and committee work. “When the YWCA moved from downtown to here at the current location [at the corner of Selby and Western], they wanted to expand the services to young people, people of color and low-income people, and they wanted to develop programs and services that were relevant to the community,” he continues. “I had a long track record in developing programs, raising money, and had relationships with foundations and government entities.”
The then-executive director who was leaving “misled” him to submit his résumé, supposedly to serve on a committee, jokes Collins. This put him “in the pipeline for the interim position,” he remembers. He then took a leave of absence from his State position with the intention of returning after a permanent successor was hired.
“I had not intended on being here,” says Collins. During the interview process, he firmly stated that serving the community had to be paramount. “Without the community, we wouldn’t need a YWCA, a Hallie Q. Brown, a Boys and Girls Club — none of that. We have to figure out how we fit in the community verses how the community fits within our four walls.
“I was surprised that they hired me on an interim basis, because I was the first-ever male ED [executive director] in St. Paul, and only the second male ever in the nation for a YWCA. At the last minute, I submitted my résumé for the permanent position, and the rest is history,” he says.
Collins credits “having an excellent staff and the trust of my board members” for making him successful during his 20-year stint at the YWCA. “What I am most proud of is developing good partnerships with multiple individuals,” referring to an estimated 300 partners with the YWCA “[who] are really focused on improving our communities,” says Collins.
“We’re good at what we do, but we can’t be everything for everybody. We need those other partners to help fill those voids and services we don’t provide in the areas we are not experts in.”
Community engagement “is my passion,” admits Collins. “I have a long history of working in the community,” an expectation “embedded” in him and others he grew up with in St. Paul’s Summit-University area. “I’m born and raised in St. Paul and spent my whole life here.”
When asked why he and other Black St. Paulites have displayed a sense of commitment to community, he explains, “When we grew up…our elders communicated to us that they expected things from the young people and really challenged a lot of us to step up and hold ourselves accountable for advancing our community and our younger people who are coming behind us.”
He was mentored by his elders and others in this neighborhood. His contemporaries include Hickman and Wilson; Mary K. Boyd, a St. Paul educator; Debbie Montgomery, a former St. Paul police officer and city council member; former Minneapolis NAACP head Duane Reed; former St. Paul police chief Bill Finney; and current St. Paul Human Rights Deputy Director Readus Fletcher, among others.
Collins says, “We all were challenged as we progressed to really take a look at where we could…move things forward. We stayed connected and supported each other in various roles we have taken” over the years, he points out.
The only disappointment perhaps is that the commitment baton hasn’t been successfully passed down as he’d liked. “Most of our kids don’t have that same passion that we have for this kind of work,” but instead chose other paths to serve society, he adds.
“I don’t know if the word is disappointed. I’m proud of my children and my peers are proud of their children. Would I like them to [follow in his footsteps]? Yes. They chose a different path and not to be the one next in line to get the baton passed to — I can understand that.
“We still need to reach back and pass that baton to somebody,” he says. “We have the best intention in the world to reach back to bring people along, but we wind up being too busy. It’s neglected in our NAACPs, our Urban Leagues, whatever.
“We have to be more intentional… That’s the challenge, because we are working at things, but also we’re not necessarily gaining ground. I’m talking from the standpoint of people of color, and most specifically African Americans.”
Finally, before he steps down, Collins says he will be involved in the search and transitional efforts for his successor. Furthermore, “I always will be involved somehow, some way in the community. Maybe not as deeply involved as I have been, but still a resource.”
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