YWCA is on a Mission: Empowering Women by Promoting Dignity for All

In Community, Jarrett Warren, Kate Pedrottyby Lola Magazine

A new store opened in Mall St. Vincent in November 2018, just in time for the holiday shopping season. The cozy boutique near Dillard’s immediately stood out, its modern, upscale décor enhanced by twinkling lights, gold and silver bows, and window displays featuring festive party dresses and sparkling jewelry. At a grand opening fashion show, volunteer models walked the runway in outfits they had carefully curated from the store. Evening gowns mixed with business casual wear, vintage dresses and hats, and designer jeans – every unique ensemble a vivid expression of the model’s personal style, but also a gesture toward something more meaningful.

These models were strutting their stuff for a purpose, supporting work that directly served over 5,000 women, girls, and other community members in 2018. Their one-of-a-kind clothing came from Fab Finds, an upscale resale boutique created by the YWCA of Northwest Louisiana as a source of continuing, unrestricted support for its programs serving the survivors of sex trafficking, senior women, teen girls affected by trauma, and many other community members. Fab Finds is stocked entirely by donations, and all proceeds are directly reinvested into these local programs and others administered by the YWCA.

The national mission of the YWCA – an organization more than 160 years old, and active in Shreveport-Bossier for nearly 100 years – is simple, yet profound: “Eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, and dignity for all.” The YWCA of Northwest Louisiana, led by executive director Dr. Belinda Roberson, has translated this sweeping organizational mandate into a cohesive set of programs addressing critical issues in our local community. Building on a rich history of providing assistance, shelter, and training for women working to overcome domestic violence, racism, and economic discrimination, the YWCA of Northwest Louisiana has proved itself ready and willing to adapt its resources and expertise to address 21st century challenges.

A prime example is the YWCA’s leadership in the FREE Coalition, an alliance dedicated to ending human trafficking in Northwest Louisiana. In 2018, the FREE Coalition educated nearly 4,000 people in sex-trafficking prevention, including every employee in the Bossier Parish school system from bus drivers to principals. In September 2018, the coalition hosted a free anti-trafficking workshop geared toward teen girls at the YWCA office on Olive Street. The workshop featured an interactive presentation on human trafficking awareness, risk factors, signs, prevention, and reporting skills for teen girls. Human trafficking statistics in Louisiana are alarming, especially among children and youth. In 2017, there were more than 350 child sex trafficking victims identified in Louisiana, including 16 from Bossier Parish and 74 from Caddo.

The YWCA serves young women in northwest Louisiana through two additional programs, the LEAD program and a brand-new initiative, Young Women Choosing Action. Young Women Choosing Action is a national program funded by the Centene Foundation, and the YWCA of Northwest Louisiana was one of four YWCA affiliates chosen to launch the new program in 2018. Young Women Choosing Action, a leadership program targeting young women ages 13-19, gives participants the opportunity to work collaboratively on a social action project aimed at addressing a community injustice while also learning skills and strategies that strengthen their personal well-being. The program is “trauma-informed,” an approach that explicitly recognizes the trauma and hardship that many participants have already experienced in their young lives but also reinforces the conviction that these young women can be empowered to create positive change for themselves and their communities. Young Women Choosing Action operates on a small group model and follows a 12 week curriculum that incorporates the planning and execution of the social action project (this group created an anti-bullying campaign) along with sessions on activities such as yoga, mindfulness, and goal-setting. The participants in the inaugural Young Women Choosing Action cohort were asked to write a reflection on their experiences in the program. One participant noted that she joined “…to better my standards as a person and have a positive attitude as a young lady.”

A second young woman shared that, after completing the social action project on bullying and learning about positive communication while in the program, she plans to “be around positive people [who] don’t have negative thoughts.” Another participant reported that the program had helped her make a significant change in her relationships with her peers: “This program truly helped me be a better person. I came in so shy. I never wanted to talk and interact with the other girls. Now, I’m so bold and social. I really enjoy making new friends now.”

The LEAD (Leadership Empowerment and Development) program, which has been sponsored by the YWCA for several years, was developed for girls ages 12 to 18 and offers an ongoing series of regular meetings and workshops addressing topics such as self-respect, healthy relationships, drug and alcohol abuse awareness, social media and online safety, effective communication skills, and college readiness. In 2018, the LEAD program served over 400 young women in our community.

Other key YWCA initiatives include education and support programs that serve parents in Caddo Parish Head Start and public housing, a free trauma counseling program geared toward women and girls who have been the victim of a crime, and the Senior Women Advocacy Program providing assistance to women 65 or older who have experienced crime or trauma, either in their past or ongoing in the present. The organization also organizes free financial empowerment and legal education workshops throughout the year to help women of all ages gain the skills and knowledge necessary to provide and advocate for themselves and their families.

The YWCA’s Racial Justice Committee has also spearheaded critical community conversations about race and racism through its Dialogue on Race (DOR) program, a six-week discussion series guided by trained facilitators who are themselves alumni of the program. The YWCA of Northwest Louisiana helps further the national mission of “eliminating racism” through both DOR and a series of public forums, reaching more than 120 community members in 2018.

“The YWCA of Northwest Louisiana has been active in our community since 1925, and we are very proud of what the organization has accomplished, especially on behalf of vulnerable women and girls,” says executive director Belinda Roberson. “We know that we have the capacity to empower women to make significant changes in their lives, so it is so important that we have the resources necessary to sustain and grow these vital programs.”

Some YWCA programs are supported by local, state, and federal grants from both public and private entities, but grant funds are not guaranteed from year to year and cannot cover all of the expenses associated with every program. The idea for Fab Finds as a consistent source of unrestricted operating dollars for the YWCA was born after several years of brainstorming, research, and even one “field trip” to East Texas to observe operations at a similar resale shop. Former board president Rachel Scott led the committee that secured a location and oversaw the creation of an eye-catching logo for the store, and Roberson wrote a successful grant to the Beaird Foundation to provide the start-up funds necessary to prepare Fab Finds for its grand opening in November 2018.

Fab Finds specializes in quality gently used women’s clothing, shoes, jewelry, and accessories, and shoppers can also find a small selection of children’s clothing and housewares. Because the boutique is stocked entirely by donations, the inventory is constantly changing and there are always surprises. Fab Finds contributes to the local economy by employing a store manager, with volunteers doing much of the behind-the-scenes work of receiving, examining, and sorting donations. The YWCA is also participating in a clothing recycling program that pays the organization for donated items in poor condition that cannot be used in the shop.

Nearly six months after its opening, Fab Finds has given the Shreveport-Bossier City community a new way to directly connect with and support the YWCA’s critical work. For the high school girls participating in Young Women Choosing Action and the thousands of community members, primarily women, who have found counseling, comfort, and other assistance through the YWCA’s programs addressing domestic violence, racism, and economic discrimination, Fab Finds has indeed made a fabulous difference.