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Linda Cavaioli from the YWCA is set to retire next year after nearly three decades leading the Worcester nonprofit. Barbara Fields, a former Obama Administration official and past CEO of the Rhode Island housing assistance program, is comparatively new to the region, having taken over leadership of the Greater Worcester Community Foundation in mid-2019. In this feature where leading Central Massachusetts business leaders interview each other, Cavaioli and Fields discussed the issues impacting the community, as well as the GWCF’s establishment of the Worcester Together Fund to help organizations survive the coronavirus.
Fields: Today is your anniversary since you started: 29 years, congratulations! As a nonprofit leader and a woman, what advice can you offer me as you step down next year? You are leaving some big shoes to fill.
Cavaioli: The landscape is in some way so different today than it was 29 years ago, and in other ways, unfortunately, it is not so different. Women leaders are much more visible in the nonprofit sector, but I’m not sure we’ve made a lot of headway in the other sectors, both with women and people of color. The main thing that has really changed is the makeup of the broader community has become more diverse. It is up to us as nonprofit leaders to make room for that diverse group of people for all the tables in the community, arounding funding, around service provision, and around decision making.
When you started, you were very gracious to come see me right away. Your organization is an important funder to the YWCA, and I see it as a partnership of looking at issues in the community.
Fields: That is key. It is about partnership, and we can only accomplish things together. I’m a believer in partnering the nonprofit community with the business community, as well as our elected officials and government. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the response in this community really come together, both with our Worcester Together Fund with the United Way of Central Massachusetts and with the Worcester Together working groups, which have had everyone represented.
We are seeing a whole host of challenges, and particularly around the problems with child care and schooling, because of the pandemic. Many people have to work, and they are faced with tough decisions around what to do with their children. Now that school has started and you are seeing remote learning, that presents new challenges.
Cavaioli: We are in a more difficult situation right now than we were at the start of the pandemic.
Fields: The workers at our businesses, even if they were privileged enough to work at home, are now tasked with being teachers to their own children. Trying to get the business community on board as the government and nonprofits try to solve this is really important.
I’m relatively new to the community, but the generosity that has been shown across the board from the Worcester community has been remarkable so far. That, along with the Massachusetts COVID-19 Relief Fund, has enabled us to do more.
Fields: I’m particularly intrigued to talk with you about diversity because you have all women on your board, and you are trying to bring their voices up. I’m proud of the fact we have our second woman – and first African American – in Carolyn Stempler leading our board and achieving 43% people of color on our board.
This country is now at a pivot point in our reckoning around racial inequality and our failures as a country in this area. Both of our organizations have made racial equity a priority, but it is embedded in the mission of the YWCA. How do you see the issue currently, given the years of work you have done on this issue? That is one of the things I always admired about the YW.
Cavaioli: We have been doing this for a long time. We first worked on it internally before we took it out to the community. One of the proudest achievements I will leave here with is the YW has now become a go-to agency for racial justice work. But it really does start internally with business and nonprofits to do the work to begin addressing the issue for themselves.
One of the roles I see for the YWCA is to be a community gathering space for these grassroots organizations seeking to help the Black and Latino communities. We then need to work with them to help clarify their agendas and priorities to determine what roles we all play in amplifying that agenda.
It is not like black lives didn’t always matter, or that George Floyd was the first lynching, but everything this summer – along with COVID – has shown the haves and have-nots in our community. It shows in health care, education, housing and police.
We can’t go and splinter into all these separate groups fighting for racial justice, as we should come together to speak with one voice, but we need to honor most the thoughts, opinions and priorities of those who are impacted most by racial inequity. Then, our organizations can figure out how to best proceed as allies. We need to share power, and we need to listen.
The YWCA is coming close to having 50% of our board, our staff and our leadership representing communities of color. That is my goal before I leave.
Fields: It is short-term work and long-term work, and we are doing the internal and external work to help address these issues. On the short-term work, we did put out racial equity grants. We got such an incredible response, just for these mini grants, up to $2,000. We ended up engaging with 11 new organizations we had never interacted with before, in very, very original ways.
We’ve asked them all to come together this fall so we can learn from each other.
Cavaioli: The community foundation used to do that, and it was awesome! Every cycle they used to bring the grant recipients together to learn from each other, and maybe brag a little bit. That is creating a learning network. That is a great thing you are doing.
Fields: Thank you. I’m inspired by your passion and your energy for this work. The community here really owes you a debt of gratitude.
Fields: One last thing before we go, is looking at the problem with housing in Worcester right now. We simply need more housing production for people on the low end of the income spectrum; but also for those in the middle who want to be in Worcester.
Cavaioli: The vacancy rate is low. A one-bedroom apartment is around $1,000 per month.
Fields: The vacancy rate in a healthy environment should be around 7%, and we are well below 2% in Worcester.
Cavaioli: I have two grandchildren living with me right now, who would love to have an apartment, but there is no housing for them.
Fields: We have all these great institutions of higher learning and businesses to offer good jobs; but we need places for people to live.