Since joining the local YWCA four years ago, CEO Tara Peterson has emphasized the “community” in community organization.
The institution’s bread and butter has long been its domestic violence emergency shelter and services, but Peterson said she knew upon joining that there were other areas to target in that unsavory but too-real issue. In asking herself “What else?” Peterson said she was motivated to bridge the relationships with faith leaders, civic groups and educational institutions, relationships that helped propel the YWCA Glendale to the forefront of the city’s varied looks-in-the-mirror this year with regard to racism.
When she left a Sacramento-based domestic violence organization to journey south and take over this YWCA, Peterson said she strove to “keep the legacy but also move us forward into the 21st century.” The sum of those efforts since then recently arrived at the landmark of being named Assemblywoman Laura Friedman’s Nonprofit of the Year for the Assembly district.
“Through that work, I realized we weren’t” reaching their potential, Peterson said. “We weren’t engaging with the community at large, we weren’t reaching out to the Armenian community, and we were talking with the faith communities. A lot of folks didn’t even know we were a domestic violence organization. That was key when I came in, not being from the community, so I had to find out who our local stakeholders were.”
From a culture point of view, Peterson took aim at two themes she wished to emphasize: advocacy and direct service.
“There were a lot of infrastructure changes,” she explained. “We didn’t have the right technology in place, and once we really started shifting and focusing on improving our internal capacity, it opened up opportunities to leverage funding from other organizations, and that put us in a position to create more programming.”
A window into that advocacy opened up two years ago, Peterson explained, when Glendale Unified School District became embroiled in a scandal involving a large brawl that broke out among Hoover High School students that ultimately unearthed long-simmering racial issues among Glendale residents and students.
“We couldn’t start doing advocacy work right away at a local level because we didn’t have the capacity for it but also because we weren’t really sure of our agenda. That was the catalyst,” Peterson said, adding that she then adopted the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism campaign. “That kind of opened the door for us as a YWCA that has never talked about racism issues to bring people together and start to have those tough conversations.”
Thus, it was natural to step forward and be among the leaders in the community to help residents and city officials navigate the hard conversations that arose in the summer, when nationwide protests broke out in response to the in-custody death of George Floyd after being arrested by Minneapolis police. The YWCA, in conjunction with faith leaders and the group Black in Glendale, organized a candlelight vigil for victims of police brutality and continued to work with the city while it researched its own ugly past as a sundown town.
“At that time,” Peterson said, “we realized that we have a network of people that we all know are sharing advocacy and policy goals, so why not bring them all together to address these concerns? So that’s how we formed this Anti-Racist Coalition.”
The YWCA has remained laser-focused on its domestic violence cause. Through a new Domestic Violence Housing First Program, the YWCA has been able to help women and their children out of the organization’s 16-bed emergency shelter into transitional or even permanent housing. All too often, women experiencing domestic violence must flee their homes spontaneously, even in the middle of the night, without many if any possessions in tow.
“We’re going into our third year with funding for that program, and we’ve been able to provide more than $100,000 in support to domestic violence survivors transitioning to their new homes. That’s been a really big component to expanding the work that we do,” Peterson said. “We’re not just an emergency shelter. We’re not just providing support groups, but we’re also having conversations about how to prevent domestic violence and partnering with Glendale Unified School District and having conversations about teen dating violence. Things like that.”
Of course, it isn’t all emergency services, she said. The organization has continued to expand less urgent services that provide women education and outlets to talk about their issues, which are often red flags to the future. Domestic violence itself has seen an uptick during the coronavirus pandemic, which has left many families essentially confined to homes with limited social outings.
YWCA Glendale, by the way, services all of Los Angeles County, and plans on adding additional staffers to help deal with a backlog of women needing some level of service.
“We definitely have seen an increase especially in our hotline calls of people just needing more information,” Petersen said, adding abuse often starts as emotional, mental or financial. “Oftentimes, that can lead to physical abuse, so our goal is really to have people reach out to us before it gets there. We take a lot of calls from people who will never set foot in our shelter but need to speak with somebody for emotional support and safety planning. We are that first line of contact sometimes before a major incident happens and our goal is that that doesn’t happen.”
Additionally, outreach to schools adds an important element to awareness of the behavior and habits likely to lead to domestic violence down the line.
“The intervention is important,” Peterson said. “The work we do is lifesaving, no doubt, but if we don’t start swimming up the river to find out why these things are happening, what are the things we can do to create protective factors that young girls and boys need.… A lot of times, young people don’t know what to do when they see their peers or friends say something disrespectful to another.”
Friedman, a former City Council member who still lives in Glendale, said the work the YWCA has done this year has been “deeply personal to me” because her daughter is Black. She added that her husband was on the organization’s board when Peterson was hired.
“He felt very strongly that she was the person to take the Y into the new century, and she hasn’t disappointed us,” Friedman said in a phone interview. “I’m very proud of the work they’ve been doing in the last year, particularly with Black Lives Matter. They’ve been doing a great service to the community for a long time, and ever since Tara arrived, they’ve really stepped up doing their work more publicly.”
Since relocating to Glendale, Peterson, who is Black, said she has felt nothing but warmth from the community, an indication to her that locals were ready to face down the past practices of racial prejudice and redlining that largely excluded Black men and women from living in the city through 1968.
“I feel like for me, this has been one of the most welcoming places I’ve ever been in,” she said. “As a woman of color, an African American woman not from this community, one of the first things I did was Google the city. I had some reservations. Will I be accepted in this community? Will I be able to build bridges with other people who don’t look like me?
“It’s been just a great, great experience, and I want everyone who comes to Glendale to feel this way,” Peterson added, acknowledging that others have not always shared it. “I’ve always felt that way, but I know that that hasn’t been the case with other people I’ve been in contact with.”