Inside Track: YWCA leader ‘moved by survivors’
In first six months of CEO role, Charisse Mitchell puts passion for human development at the forefront.
Charisse Mitchell is driven by service. Her passion for helping those affected by domestic and sexual violence stems from her strong belief in the dignity of all human beings.
After graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public administration, Mitchell decided politics wasn’t her path.
“My first job when I finished (grad school) was with the American Public Human Services Association,” she said. “I started in their organization’s professional development department. Our role was to do training and capacity building with state and public human services.
“I got to see from Raleigh; Durham, North Carolina, to programs in Idaho, California and Michigan — basically all over the country. I got to see what they were accomplishing at state and local levels … and finding innovative ways to serve the most vulnerable populations.
“I saw what Medicaid directors, public welfare attorneys, food stamp directors, child welfare directors — basically anybody in public human services — was doing, and I loved it.”
For the next eight years, Mitchell spent her days absorbing everything she could about human development. Often, she didn’t realize she was learning.
Two years into her project management role at APHSA, the organization hired a new executive director, the late Jerry Friedman.
“My department director encouraged me to be his executive assistant,” Mitchell said. “It felt like a step backward, but she said, ‘Trust me, you’ll learn a lot.’
“She was absolutely right. … He had been a human services director in Pennsylvania and Texas. I learned a lot from him about human services and nonprofits. His mantra was, he was compelled to help the community see how valuable human services was. It was a profession. I learned to appreciate it so much more.”
Friedman took then-28-year-old Mitchell seriously and eschewed hierarchy and titles.
“Nine times out of 10, if he had an appointment, he’d say, ‘This is somebody you need to meet. It’s a project you’d need to be on.’ Then, he’d pick my brain and say, ‘What did you hear from that city commissioner; what did you learn?’ He valued my opinion. He fueled my enthusiasm.
“He was one of those people you don’t realize you’re learning from until after you’ve learned it.”
Mitchell scaled the ladder at APHSA, becoming chief operating officer overseeing HR, finance and IT, then stepping in as director of administrative services.
Near the end of her tenure, she and her husband moved to Baltimore, and she became pregnant.
“Both of our families were still in Michigan, and it was important for us to raise our son there. We said, ‘We’re ready to move back.’ We moved to Kentwood, so we could be close enough to raise our son near to them but far enough for healthy boundaries,” Mitchell said.
After a month in West Michigan, opportunity knocked.
“The Center for Women in Transition job (in Holland) came up,” she said. “Empowering women is a natural passion of mine. … It was a dream job.
“I always say, ‘Thank you, (former board member) Jane Armstrong, for picking me.’ I was there for nine years.”
After developing her talents through Friedman and Armstrong, Mitchell grew dogged about paying it forward.
“I think one of the things I’m most energized and inspired by is people tapping into their own potential wherever they find it,” she said. “I love people finding out they’re much more capable of even what they realize.”
As CEO of the YWCA of West Central Michigan since March, Mitchell applies her skills in human development with her employees and the vulnerable clients she serves.
“I’m so moved by the survivor who has found safety and confidence in herself and knowing I’m part of the organization that makes that happen,” Mitchell said. “Or a staff person who gets their licensure in counseling (who) can do the work they’ve been studying about. Or seeing young girls come into our programs being inspired to change the world at 14 years old.”
The YWCA serves men, women and children of all ages with a special focus on eliminating racism and helping people heal from domestic violence and sexual assault.
Last year, the organization served 4,000 people through its emergency hotlines, crisis and intervention services, and prevention and community education.
“(We reach) children with counseling from a therapist … young women in the Young Women for Change program, maybe 14, 17 years old; adults in our Men Choosing Alternatives to Violence program or in our transitional housing or shelter; or women in their 30s, 40s and 50s,” Mitchell said.
“It’s a challenge and a gift to work for an organization that can serve people in all parts of their lifespan.”
Last year, the YWCA finished a $7.2-million renovation of its headquarters at 25 Sheldon Blvd. SE, where the organization has been since 1922.
As part of the 15-month project, the nonprofit remodeled its off-site domestic violence shelter — at a nondisclosed location for safety — and converted its basement gym and swimming pool into space for a Nurse Examiner Program that allows health providers to examine victims of rape and child sexual abuse.
Mitchell came on board six months after the renovations, replacing now-retired CEO Carla Blinkhorn.
With the project done and the YWCA’s endowment fund going strong, Mitchell said she is free to focus on improving and expanding programs and building partnerships in the business environment. She said the community is primed for both.
“Whether it’s policymakers, funders or community partners, the common theme (in West Michigan) is a belief in what we do, a trust in our expertise and ability to do it with a high level of excitement, and a desire to be a real part of what we do,” she said.
“People want to be engaged and part of an organization that is about peace, justice and dignity.”
Mitchell said she is focused on networking with other nonprofits.
“Who you’re partnering with is as important as your core competencies,” she said. “Finding ways to leverage that is key to any business success.
“If housing is a concern, let’s connect with those who already have established understandings of markets, development and accessibility. We could provide housing for each person who comes in here, or we could network with those who already have that capacity. It’s beyond referrals. There are some amazing things Guiding Light and Dwelling Place are doing.”
She said survivors and abusers often face several barriers to recovery.
“If you’re struggling with food insecurity, it impacts your ability to parent your children. If you don’t know where you can find a safe place to sleep at night because you’re being stalked or harassed or abused, your employment will be impacted. If you have to move around, it means your education will be impacted.
“It means working with schools and housing and nonprofits.”
The proliferation of socially conscious businesses is an asset Mitchell wants to leverage.
“I am learning about tech startups, food and beverage, developers — all of them have fascinating business models and products,” she said. “They all have a sense of place and space in the community. I am intrigued by the possibility of public-private partnerships. … It’s great if you sponsor an event for us, but there may be ways we can educate your employees about domestic violence in the workplace.
“There’s a financial impact domestic violence has in the business community — whether it’s the amount of medical expenses, the loss in work time, productivity, safety concerns, if there are people injured and working.
“Aside from the human impact, there’s a business case to be made for paying attention to issues of domestic violence and sexual violence. We have a way to educate them and address that. Philanthropy is great; partnership is even better.”