New YWCA leader a force, not a figurehead

Preschoolers at the recent YWCA Black History Festival recited an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. (Lou Michaels/MSR News)

Luz María Frias, president-CEO of YWCA Minneapolis, employs inclusion and empowerment as critical watchwords, not a p.c. catch-phrase. This, it goes without saying, is vital versus Minnesota Nice’s manner of affording social progress perfunctory lip service while resolutely sustaining the status quo.

Within six months of Frias’ arrival at the YW in December 2016, among operational upgrades was promoting Jacqueline Lloyd Cunningham from directing marketing to vice president of marketing and communications. “Given her experience, it was imperative to ensure our leadership team reflected [diversity],” Cunningham states.

“I’m honored to work for an organization whose mission is so aligned with who I am as a person and the contributions I hope to make. Every day, I experience mission moments that further connect me to our work. Partnering with my team to share the stories of the lives we impact, and inspiring the community to support our mission, is some of the most rewarding work I’ve done.”

The team includes Annie Porbeni, Ph. D, vice president of human resources, hailing from Nigeria; from Sri Lanka, Ramya Rauf, chief financial officer, named 2017 CFO of the Year by Mpls St. Paul Business Journal; and Rubén Vázquez, vice president of racial justice and public policy, who is from Mexico.

Frias underscores, “It is about seeing and recognizing talent, not being limited by what has been done in the past.” Currently, 50 percent of the YWCA senior leadership team is of color, as is 45 percent of all staff and 41 percent of professional staff. The obvious impetus behind this is that multi-cultural Minneapolis must be authentically represented and genuinely served.

“That is what makes it important to be here,” says Frias. “You think, ‘We’re making a difference.’ Every day.”

She had the credentials to effect actual evolution at the organization instead of merely passing off a cosmetic facelift. For openers, her history of commitment to the community includes, among other accomplishments, chair of LatinoLEAD, co-founder and chair of Unidos Votamos, Governor’s Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations, and advisory committee for Minnesota Women Lawyers.

Frias discusses race, identity, social justice and culture on Counter-Stories (Minnesota Public Radio). Among a long list of honors, she received the Ohtli Award from Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, distinguishing individuals in a foreign country for service to communities of Mexican origin.

Luz Maria Frias and Jacqueline Lloyd Cunningham (Dwight Hobbes/MSR News)

At the YWCA, Frias is more than simply sitting atop the food chain – she’s head strategist for public policy, racial justice, and early childhood education. For good measure, she is a frequent lecturer on implicit bias, structural racism, and immigration public policy. At the vanguard of thought for change over 20-plus years, Frias is a force, not a figurehead.

“Our lens,” she states, “as women of color, as people of color, through experience informs us, informs our decisions every single day. How we execute on anything.”

Frias adds she is also informed by “how I grew up in inner-city Chicago, in the barrio.” She graduated from the University of Iowa with master’s and juris doctorate degrees, eventually landing here, where at the Minnesota House of Representatives she helped draft the legislature’s sexual harassment policy and handbook.

Before taking the reins at the YW, Frias was vice president of community impact at The Minneapolis Foundation. Her track record speaks for itself. Any questions?

For Luz María Frias, it’s about the YWCA putting an annual $23 million budget where its mouth is. “At YWCA of Minneapolis,” she says, “we are concerned about the racial disparities that continue to intensify in severity and scope. This is not the Minnesota that we are accustomed to or the Minnesota we want for our children. The racial disparities are symptoms of the systemic barriers faced by our communities of color and indigenous people.

“In order to eliminate these disparities, we need to dismantle the systemic barriers through systemic change. [This] change can occur at the state, county or city level in addition to companies across our community.”

When the YWCA Board brought her in, she reflects, “They perceived the organization historically empowered women but, [regarding] racism, was not balanced. The search committee was intentional in recruiting someone who’d bring parity.”

The YW’s Black History Festival departed from the spirit of such duplicitous observances as previously seen in downtown Minneapolis, where 11 months out of the year department store security guards blatantly shadow African Americans as suspected shoplifters, and, in February hang Martin Luther King banners to bring in Black dollars — while still keeping a close eye on Black women and men.

This empowering event, which the organization has held these past two decades, focused on encouraging kids to learn about, and thereby honor, heroes of their culture. Culled from the YWCA Minneapolis Early Childhood Education anti-bias curriculum, each classroom had featured, in-depth, one iconic figure through art, music and books all month.

The February 26 festival at the YW featured children’s work from the classes, some of them sharing what they learned about from their heroes, and preschoolers reciting an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless “I Have a Dream.”

“We always want what’s best for the next generation,” says Luz Maria Frias. For her that means advancing equity as an ongoing imperative.


Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to PO Box 50357, Minneapolis, MN 55403