Every year on April 24, YWCAs around the world celebrate World YWCA Day. Each year, we pay tribute to YWCA’s 160-year history, as well as our common vision, legacy, and future.
For World YWCA Day 2021, we are celebrating the individual leaders that make up our powerful and longstanding global mission – and to mark the occasion, we’re thrilled to share an interview with our very own CEO here at YWCA Hamilton, Denise Christopherson.
Denise has been CEO for the past ten years and is a known in our community as a champion of women and a strong voice advocating for change. We asked her to share her history, her vision for the future, and how the YWCA has affected her life.
Tell us a little bit about your career path.
I would have never imagined that this is where I would end up. I actually trained in textile engineering. I started my career at a place in Oakville that did silkscreen painting for the airline industry, and I used to do all the artwork and mix the colours that would be printed on the fabric. I did colour-matching before we could do that on computers – that was my job.
I did that for a number of years, and then most of the industry started leaving and moving to other countries. I applied for a job at the workers’ compensation board as a fluke, and they hired me. That was an interesting job and I worked there on contract for several years.
Then, one day, a consultant happened to call my colleague that was sitting beside me and said, “I’m looking for a consultant.” And this job was for a company that went out and consulted industry about the rates that they paid in workers’ compensation and taxes. So ended up becoming an expert in workers’ compensation. I worked in that field for about eight to ten years – and as a result, there really isn’t an industry in Ontario that I haven’t toured.
After a number of years, I decided to teach this program (Internet Working), which essentially taught people how to use the Internet effectively. I ended up evolving that career – I worked for Mohawk College for awhile in employment readiness, and then developed my own consulting company in the non-profit sector. I was really good at fund developing and capacity building in the non-profit sector, and I did a lot of work in the arts and with women’s organizations. I used to do that in my spare time, and it kind of evolved to paid work.
I continued to run my consulting business until 2010, and I helped organizations with strategic planning, fund development, with diversity assessments – so I had a really good picture of how to build a thriving social profit sector. I also continued to do a lot of volunteer work. I was on the board of YWCA Hamilton, I became the president of the board, and I also was nominated to the National Board of YWCA Canada. My only regret in taking this job is that I had to step down from the YWCA Canada board.
I became the interim director of YWCA Canada in June of 2010, and it was while I was interim going to apply for CEO of YWCA Hamilton. I was appointed on December 1, 2010.
I think about my ongoing commitment to social justice and to equity over the years, and I think what drives me, and causes me to demand more, is this whole sense of injustice. Whenever there’s injustice, we need to demand that we do better. If we keep doing things the way we’ve done them, nothing will ever shift. That’s kind of what I think about when I think about the work that I do.
What would you say is the biggest strength of the YWCA movement?
I think it’s the power of so many voices that continue to advocate, continue to uplift us, especially when times are hard. One thing I’ll always remember was the first time I attended a world council – it was in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2007. I remember standing in the room when there was over 125 countries of women, all advocating for the same thing. We may all go about it in a different way, but at the end of the day, we were all there to empower women and girls. I’ll never forget that moment. It was very emotional. I was so privileged to have met so many women from so many countries who are focused on equity and inclusion for all. It was a very powerful moment for me.
How do you see the YWCA movement progressing into the future?
As a movement, our mission and vision has been very focused on women and girls. I think what we’re working towards as a movement is making our overall mission more inclusive to gender diversity, to ensure that we’re able to provide programs and services that aren’t necessarily offered anywhere else. I see YWCAs continuing to move in that direction. We’re already doing great work, and I think that we’re very focused on how we can do more to ensure that all of our gender-diverse communities are receiving services.
What I also see our organizations doing is supporting other organizations in any way we can, by providing resources and lifting them up to ensure they can do what they need to do in our communities. We need to be a good partner, and we need to look at what we could be doing as organizations as our communities continue to change, and as we work to a more equitable world.
What has it meant for you to be part of the YWCA?
It kind of came full circle for me in my life, as my mom, as a single mom, accessed programs and services at our Ottawa Street branch. I wish she was alive today to see what we’ve created, in terms of this new home for families. I think about the difference that the YWCA makes in so many people’s lives, and the difference that it made in my life. And I just feel so grateful that I’ve been able to be part of that change, and make a contribution.
Every day, I’m privileged to work with the people I do, both at our YWCA and my colleagues across the country and the world. We talk about needing supports in our life, and I feel very supported in our leadership, both through the team that I work with every day, but also through my colleagues in Canada and throughout the world. That’s what helps us get through the tough days, and also helps us celebrate the great accomplishments and the work we do every day. The YWCA has meant a lot to me my entire life, and I’m just so glad I have had the opportunity to lend my skills and abilities to taking this organization forward.
Thank you for your leadership, Denise!