Leaders of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities are taking a harder look at diversity and inclusion as the organization with a long history of outreach to communities of color suddenly faces scrutiny of its own practices from within.

The board at the Douglas Dayton YMCA in downtown Minneapolis sent a note to the general board last week urging the Y, one of Minnesota’s largest nonprofits, to address “what appears to be deep seated and systemic racism in our organization.”

The YMCA joins a growing number of nonprofits, businesses and universities taking a fresh look at improving diversity and inclusion. The Twin Cities YMCA is the third-largest YMCA in the U.S., with 30 locations in the metro, southeastern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, and $168 million in annual revenue.

“I am committing the Y to respond with real, sustainable action that carries into the future, and to create a space that employees, members, and the community can be proud of,” CEO Glen Gunderson said in a statement this week.

The note on behalf of 25 board members at the Douglas Dayton YMCA, which was obtained by the Star Tribune, was sent to the larger board of the Y, made up of more than 50 prominent Twin Cities leaders — from HealthPartners CEO Andrea Walsh to Summit Orthopedics CEO Adam Berry. Michael Klingensmith, publisher of the Star Tribune, is also on the board and wasn’t contacted for this article.

Board chairman Ravi Norman of Norman Global Enterprises, the former CEO of Thor Construction, said in a statement that organizations and industries across the country are re-examining their role in fighting systemic racism.

The YMCA is no different, he added, saying that “we are welcoming this opportunity to rise to the occasion of the moment and ensure that we are creating an environment rooted in equity, inclusion and universal human dignity.”

The YMCA touts its racial equity work, opening its Equity Innovation Center in Minneapolis last year.

But the note from the Douglas Dayton YMCA board pointed to an anonymous Instagram account called “Black at the YMCA,” which launched June 24 to share anonymous stories of discrimination at YMCAs across the U.S. — from Seattle to Boston. Many posts, though, zero in on the Twin Cities’ Y.

The Douglas Dayton YMCA board said in its letter that conversations with staff show that the social media concerns aren’t isolated incidents, and they asked the general board to hire a third-party investigator to look into racism and discrimination toward YMCA staff and better diversify the board to reflect the community, among other actions.

An interview request with the person or people behind the “Black at the YMCA” Instagram account was declined before they blocked a reporter. The account has published more than 200 posts since the end of June — a month after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police set off a renewed nationwide discussion of racism and inequity.

The anonymous allegations about the Twin Cities YMCA ranged from the staff, leadership and membership being majority white to inappropriate comments by leaders.

The YMCA declined an interview request on the allegations, saying that the organization can’t comment on anonymous posts that haven’t been vetted.

The YMCA declined to release membership or staffing demographics but added that “the demographics of our staff are consistent with the demographic makeup of the communities we serve.” The nonprofit also declined to say if any formal discrimination complaints had been filed internally.

In the past two years, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights has closed one case alleging racial discrimination against the YMCA, but the department didn’t find probable cause in that case.

The department can’t disclose if any other complaints have been filed that are still open.

Next steps

In an e-mail to employees last Thursday, Gunderson said that the Y will conduct listening sessions and a survey, review all policies and create a “CEO Equity Advisory Team” with Black and American Indian employees, and other people of color, to provide an “unfiltered communication channel” to identify and eliminate barriers to equity and inclusion.

He said in the staff note that the organization is committed to increasing diversity in recruiting and hiring, will expand resources at its Equity Innovation Center to its own employees and add training on how to better address concerns.

He said that the Y supports Black Lives Matter, posting signs at each facility, and will provide Black Lives Matter and PRIDE pins for employees to wear.

“Frankly, I am encouraged by the powerful sense of reckoning that is emerging, with calls for racial justice in our communities and in our nation,” Gunderson wrote.

On June 26, an employee at the Maplewood YMCA anonymously posted on Instagram that Gunderson had made a joke referencing “build the wall.”

Gunderson commented on the post, which was verified by the YMCA, saying that he doesn’t recall the specific words in the conversation, but he made a mistake and objects to the U.S. border wall.

“I have hope that this is our time to build an anti-racism culture where all can thrive, once and for all,” he wrote. “I am committed to see it through at our Y.”

Budget woes

The scrutiny comes at a difficult time financially for the Y during the COVID-19 pandemic because it, like many nonprofits, relies on in-person programs or events for revenue.

Closures of camps, fitness centers and child care programs have led to a 30% drop in revenue this year for the Y. Some of its 82,000 members canceled or paused memberships, or stopped child care, during the closures. The Y furloughed 90% of its more than 6,000 employees.

On Wednesday, 146 part-time and full-time staff were laid off. Another 3,428 employees remain on furlough.

“All of us must break down old paradigms and eradicate systematic racism to advance human dignity for all,” Gunderson said in a video, announcing the cuts, adding that the Y is “reimagining” its sites and not reopening some as fitness centers. “This is painful,” he said.