Q+A with Nonprofit CEO Danielle Moss Lee '90
Danielle Moss Lee ['90], CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, could wallpaper her office with all of the diplomas and educational certificates she's received. She has a B.A. in English literature and history with a concentration in Black studies from Swarthmore College and holds M.A. and Ed.M. degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University, where she completed her doctorate in organization and leadership. Moss Lee is also a graduate of the Institute for Not-for-Profit Management's Executive Level Program at Columbia Business School and completed the Harvard Business School SPNM program for nonprofit executives.
Having served on numerous boards and as president and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, she understands what it takes to be an effective leader and what it means to have a vision. The war she fights nowadays focuses on eliminating racism and empowering women. She won't stop until she wins.
MadameNoire: You have such an extensive background in education and nonprofits. How did you get started?
Danielle Moss Lee: I think I kind of got started accidentally. When I graduated from undergrad, I had plans to just get whatever job and wait a couple of years and go to graduate school and get a Ph.D. in English or history. But I started teaching at a parochial school in the Bronx and I had a really wonderful principal that I had the opportunity to work with. So that was really where I found my passion.
I didn't just engage with the young people and their families, but also this idea of putting systems in place that could increase the likelihood of student's success. I think that was also what attracted me to the nonprofit sector as opposed to going into formal public education because there was an opportunity to just be more creative, I felt. A little bit more control over the process you use to get to certain outcomes and just always something new, something different.
MN: As the CEO of the YWCA of the City of New York, can you discuss the Y's effort to eliminate racism and to empower women?
Moss Lee: They adopted the first interracial charter for a national organization back in the '50s owing in larger part to Dr. Dorothy Height, who got her first job with the YWCA of the City of New York. And I think that if you look at where women were in the '50s, white women were having an experience, yes, but black women were having a very different experience based on the color of their skin that had an impact socially, politically, and economically. So the mission really evolved to eliminating racism and empowering women because we understood as an organization that you couldn't empower all women without paying attention to race and realizing how that impacts our experience, our opportunities, and our access.
We think that it's really important for the YWCA to serve underserved communities, but we also exist to create important and meaningful conversations among women across the board. There are women in the boardroom, black or white, who are catching hell and there are women who are law partners who are catching hell; women in media trying to get their voices heard in a way that is not stereotypical who are catching hell. So how can we be a convener of a community of women and girls to really shape an agenda going forward? I feel like that first generation of women coming out of the Women's Movement, coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, they got a seat at the table. Now we need to change the rules because getting a seat at the table means we have the opportunity to play by rules that we had no role in creating. And I think this next generation of women is going to bold in terms of saying we need workplace flexibility, my contribution is just as valuable.
MN: How important is leadership and community involvement?
Moss-Lee: I think that we can't sit back and complain about the way the world is if we won't dedicate part of our life to adding our perspective and voice to how decisions get made. I think board service has given me the opportunity to not only lend my perspective, but also to give back to institutions that have had a huge impact on me. I think that leadership and service go hand-in-hand. Cornell West has a saying: "You cannot lead the people if you do not love the people." You have to serve the people in order to really have the credibility to lead people when you're called to do so. And people need to see you rolling up your sleeves in not just ways that are self-serving, but that really kind of put the ego aside and put the needs of the community or the institutions that you're working at ahead of all of that.
Danielle Moss Lee '90 is chief executive officer for the YWCA of the City of New York. Prior to her appointment, she was the president and chief executive officer of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which became a leading youth leadership organization during her 10-year tenure. She is currently president of Black Agency Executives' Board of Directors, a member of Columbia University's Teachers College 125th Anniversary Steering Committee, a blogger at Edutopia of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, and a member of Swarthmore's Board of Managers.