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Updated: March 2, 2020 WBJ Hall of Fame

Cavaioli has built hope and fought racism

Photo | Matt Wright Linda Cavaioli

For 38 years, Executive Director Linda Cavaioli has helped put the YWCA of Central Massachusetts at the center of the solutions to entrenched difficulties facing Greater Worcester. At 65, she’s now in the middle of one of the biggest challenges – a $24-million renovation of the organization’s building in Worcester’s Theatre District.

“It’s a monumental task,” Cavaioli said. “It’s a full-scale renovation of the entire five-story system.”

The building is a hive of activity, serving 300 to 400 people a day with programs ranging from childcare and youth programs to domestic violence services and temporary housing for women facing life transitions. During the renovation, all activities will continue.

Cavaioli said plans for the renovation began five years ago when the YWCA started taking a close look at its programs. Given the less-than-ideal space, leaders wondered if they should consider moving elsewhere.

“We went to the community to see if we should stay or leave,” Cavaioli said. “It was overwhelming: ‘Stay, your services are vital where they are.’”

After that came hard work: Planning the project and bringing together financing, including a locally supported capital campaign. Cavaioli said that process wasn’t easy, but had its benefits.

“I had to learn to delegate more,” she said. “I used to sit at so many tables. The face of the YWCA had to change so that it wasn’t just Linda.”

Senior staff and board members took on new responsibilities, and the organization created new senior positions, which enhanced the YWCA’s stability and created new avenues for growth.

Cavaioli’s career has always revolved around making institutional changes. At the University of New Hampshire, she considered going into direct service but soon decided her skills fit better in social service administration.

“It’s not enough just to do really good programs,” she said. “It’s really important to understand human resources and finance and fundraising and marketing.”

Cavaioli leveraged her institutional understanding to make the YWCA a leader in fighting for racial justice.

“It started with internal introspection and understanding that our mission wasn’t just gender justice, but it was gender and race,” she said. “Our constituents we were serving were more ... diverse.”

So the organization set goals to diversify itself, all the way from its direct service staff to its senior staff and board. It created the new position of race and gender equity director. It opened facilities for the use of diverse organizations and built partnerships. And it integrated the theme of anti-racism into its trainings, programming, and recruitment.

After years doing this work, she said, the YWCA is now in a position to offer workshops and support to other groups addressing their own diversity issues.

“When an organization has learned that its staff doesn’t reflect its customers, that has to change,” she said. “It’s no longer acceptable to say, ‘We don’t have any good candidates.’ It’s targeted outreach. It’s creating an environment that’s open and welcoming.”

Stacey Luster, assistant vice president for human resources at Worcester State University, has worked on community projects with Cavaioli for decades. Luster said she’s always been impressed with her friend’s ability to quietly bring nonprofits, businesses, local governments, and religious groups together.

“She is a true convener of people around issues, and the city is truly better because of her,” Luster said.

Cavaioli has always balanced her work with her family responsibilities. She and her husband, John Medbury, have five children, 10 grandkids, and one great-grandchild. Medbury is now disabled, and Cavaioli said she’s lucky to have support in caring for him.

“Early in my career, I was balancing family and work and education, and now ... I’m still balancing family and work and caregiving,” she said.

Cavaioli said part of her work today is preparing the YWCA for her retirement, but she has no plans to leave until the loose ends of the renovation are tied up.

That project, like everything she does, is organized to serve the community. The firms YWCA partnered with are mostly women-owned or led by women, and the project leadership team from Milford contractor Consigli Construction is female. The renovation project includes a commitment to hire union workers, women, people of color, local residents, and apprentices in training.

“The YWCA is really mission-driven,” Cavaioli said. “We did the project with our mission guiding us.”

WBJ Hall of Fame: Class of 2020

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