New YWCA Tulsa Head is Excited About Future
We speak with Vanessa Finley
In 1914 a group of Tulsa women gathered in a home and voted to begin the first Young Women’s Christian Association in Tulsa for the purposes of empowering women and assisting the community. In July, 2014, Vanessa Finley began her tenure as the new CEO of the YWCA of Tulsa.
Vanessa Finley is a graduate of Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington High School, as is her husband. Despite having left Tulsa during college, she has strong family ties to the area. As she and her family were deciding about returning to Tulsa, the fact that she would be coming home was definitely a factor. Finley had been working as the Director of Development for Planned Parenthood in Kansas City.
“In Kansas City,” Finley said, “we had no family other than what we created.”
Finley said she is amazed at how different the city is now than 26 years ago. Finley’s husband, a stay-at-home dad, and their daughters were taking full advantage of all the city’s offerings.
While her family explored the town, she was entrenched in her new job, tasked with overseeing an organization with the broad mission “to empower women and eliminate racism.”
In today’s political and cultural climate, it can be easy to wonder if the mission is out of reach. Finley takes the long view. “With a mission as bold as that,” she said, “I see it as a horizon we continue to walk towards.”
She appreciates the role of race in Tulsa and the impact the YWCA has had in that regard.
“One of the first things that hit my heart about the Tulsa YWCA was their involvement in responding to needs after the Tulsa race riot.” In the aftermath of the 1921 riot, the YWCA set up care centers in Greenwood to provide food and shelter.
Over 40 years later, the YWCA is still on the front lines in the on-going battle for equality for all. And the YWCA’s involvement is not merely philosophical. The organization offers a variety of practical programs for children and adults that propel and support their goal of eliminating racism, such as providing swimming lessons to Spanish-speaking children, and English language classes and services for refugees.
Asked about her approach to the mission of empowering women, Finley said, “Everything starts at the micro.” Once each small component is working effectively, the organization can then get all of the small areas “working together. We work with girls, young women, professional women…on a local level, and we count on our fellow citizens [to be part of the process].” She sees the role of the local community as a powerful cog in a larger machine that works to empower women on a local, state and even national level. The United States is at a “critical time for women’s rights,” Finley added.
The local YWCA programs for women meet them where they are in life, providing strength, education and support. Whether women need to improve their health through fitness classes or need practical guidance on moving forward after a divorce, the YWCA finds a way to meet their needs. The YWCA also houses Girls on the Run, a national program that gives young girls tools and strategies to lead strong, healthy, confident lives, both physically and emotionally.
Finley is aware that an organization focused on eradicating inequity will see some pushback. “It’s a tough mission and can be controversial,” she said. Her approach to this pushback is peaceful. “If someone behaves in a way that’s rude, I can’t echo that back. Organizations have to behave in the same way. We always have to be the bigger person.”
As the YWCA celebrates its centennial year, Finley looks to its long legacy of compassion and service. That legacy was central in Finley’s decision to relocate to Tulsa.
“The reputation and credibility of this organization is superior,” she said.
The YWCA is on solid ground, and Finley believes this strength will make it possible for growth.
“We’re going to be here in 100 years.”