Resilient is the word that comes to mind when Angie Reese-Hawkins, president and CEO of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, reflects on her career at the Y.
Reese-Hawkins joined the National Capital branch of the YMCA in 1986 as the executive director of membership. In 2000, she became president and CEO of the YMCA Metropolitan Washington and made history as the first black woman to hold that position.
We spoke with Reese-Hawkins about the 35 years she has spent with the organization and the transitions that have occurred.
“The Y has impacted and helped transform communities in the Washington area for over 170 years. I have had the pleasure of serving as the first female African American CEO to lead this incredible organization of talented people. It’s remarkable how resilient the Y has been throughout history. The work we do at the Y is meaningful because we make a difference every day, and that makes the work satisfying,” Reese-Hawkins said.
Reese-Hawkins is most proud of being at the forefront of the multimillion-dollar effort to renovate the Anthony Bowen YMCA, the first African American YMCA in the United States.
“YMCA Anthony Bowen has been a staple in the Shaw community. To continue its legacy is an accomplishment that will go on long beyond me and many others. It was a lot of hard work and took the support of Y volunteers and partners to bring the renovation of YMCA Anthony Bowen to fruition. Our goal is to continue to lift up his story so that children today will know about the history of Anthony Bowen, a Black slave who bought his own freedom and accomplished so many other great things.”
Born a slave in Prince George’s County, Bowen was a resident of Washington, D.C. from 1826 until his death. He became the first African American employee of the U.S. Patent Office after earning his freedom. Bowen founded the first YMCA chapter for African Americans in 1953.
Reese-Hawkins said the organization is already moving forward with the next phase.
“The YMCA has always demonstrated a history of resilience. I mean it’s been around since 1844,” she said, adding that the organization withstood the Spanish Flu, other years of depression and slavery. “It’s been through it all. What’s amazing is the ability for this organization to be nimble and flexible and pivot, and when I say pivot, I mean rise to the occasion for what the current needs are in our community. We’ve been persevering with the greatest resilience you could imagine in this pandemic.”
In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Y pivoted its services to distribute food, provide hot meals, provided emergency childcare for essential works, held virtual learning labs for children, provided senior wellness checks, hosted virtual fitness classes, held blood drives and other charitable services to support the communities across Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia. In 2021, the Y added more outdoor programs such as pickleball.
“We’ve changed tremendously over the years,” Reese-Hawkins said, adding that more change will come. “I am looking forward to reimagining the Y for the future. I think it will be different. I think because it’s valuable and flexible and we’ll be evidence and researched based, but we’ll be relevant. I think we’ve got great possibility.”
Reese-Hawkins said the Y is not a cookie cutter organization and is different in every community it serves based on the needs.
“In the African American community”, Reese-Hawkins said “the Y offers an opportunity for individuals to fulfill their greatest potential as citizens of the community.”
“I think it offers a variety of programs and services that are built upon diversity, equity and inclusion. I think it’s an opportunity for African Americans to advance however they feel. I think they see it as a multicultural institution and there is a multicultural staff there with programs based on the needs of many in the community,” she said, adding that she thinks they see it as an organization that seeks to remove barriers and will continue to do so.
The communities served by the Y have changed tremendously. However, Reese-Hawkins said “gentrification poses many challenges. We are serving a more diverse community; however, we make it our mission to reach out and intentionally strive to be inclusive to those who may be displaced by gentrification.”
Reese-Hawkins is convinced that even after the many years with the organization, she still has more work to do.
“I think I’ll be here as long as I’m motivated, and I know I can make a difference.”