You were born into one of the most powerful and connected African American families. How did this privilege open doors for you in ways that have allowed you to open doors for others?
I was privileged to be born into a family that had access to education for multiple generations. My father and his sisters grew up on the campus of Lincoln Institute, a segregated black boarding high school in Shelby County, KY, that offered both vocational and standard high school classes with a goal that students would matriculate into Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). My paternal grandfather was the longtime principal and my sister and I spent many of our summers there. My paternal grandmother made sure that her three granddaughters got a clear message of the importance of education. My maternal grandmother was also a teacher in Aurora, IL.
My parents (Whitney M. Young, Jr., and Margaret Buckner Young) met as students at Kentucky State College (an HBCU). After returning from serving in segregated Army troops during WWII, my father decided to devote himself to race relations. He and my mother then attended University of Minnesota where my father received a master’s in social work and my mother a master’s in educational psychology. What was unique about the University of Minnesota in the 1940s was that they had a community of black graduate students who were to become national leaders, including the photographer Gordon Parks, Washington Post columnist Carl Rowan, and Roy Wilkins, leader of the NAACP.
After leaving Minnesota, my parents moved to Omaha, NE, where my father headed the Omaha Urban League. I was born there in 1953, but we moved immediately after my birth to Atlanta, where my father became dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. Atlanta University is now known as Clark Atlanta University and is a part of the HBCU cluster with Morehouse University and Spelman College. They each remain distinguished institutions advancing the legacy of educational excellence for black students. My mother taught at Spelman.
We lived in the neighborhood adjacent to these campuses. It was a dynamic segregated community made up of the full spectrum of black life. While our schools did not have access to the same quality of tools or materials as white schools, education remained a core value. Here I also observed philanthropy in action everyday as neighbors supported neighbors with time, talent, treasure, and testimony. Atlanta was also in the heart of the stirring of the civil rights movement and that sense of possibility permeated our lives.
This stirring of the civil rights movement drew attention to my father who was tapped to lead the National Urban League (NUL). In preparation for that opportunity, he received a fellowship to Harvard. We moved to Cambridge, MA, in 1960 where for one year I attended Buckingham School for Girls, an elite private school and far cry from Oglethorpe Elementary in Atlanta. I was the only black student. However, the only black teacher was also the second-grade teacher. Betty Rawlins promised my parents to make my transition successful. I will always be grateful for her care and competence as she instilled in me a passion for reading and learning.
Third grade was another transition, when my father took the helm of NUL we moved to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New Rochelle, NY, which was facing a de facto segregation case at the same time it was noted for being one of the top public school systems in the country. For two years, I was again the sole black student in my elementary school. However, my parents worked hard to keep me grounded through family, friends, and community-based networks to the heart of our culture.
In the midst of all this change, I developed a skill for observation. One of my observations, by the time I got to the integrated New Rochelle High School, was that my educational access and that of my parents had propelled my achievements forward. It wasn’t being an exceptional student; it was the extraordinary access my sister and I had that gave us choices and opportunities. That access included not only education, but also exposure to the arts, political and business leaders, travel, and community activists. Equally important were values. It was made clear that while our basic needs were not vulnerable, others’ needs were not always met through no fault of their own. We were pushed to both care and think deeply about others. I heard countless times, “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” Acting entitled was grounds for a clear course-correcting lecture. While I gained adaptive skills, I was never to lose my sense of history. We also learned that even in isolated spaces unlikely allies could appear. I developed powerful diverse friendships that have stayed with me throughout the years. My sister later received her doctorate and became a dean at Princeton University.
What was your biggest setback?
My personal potential, however, became vulnerable and poised to be lost as a result of a series of traumas that began my senior year of high school and into my freshman year at Swarthmore College. I’ve spoken of those events many times, including a violent rape attempt in Yugoslavia when I was 16. That event taught me compassion and empathy for those without advocates or voice. That was followed by the back-to-back deaths of my grandfather and father when I was 17 and the death of my first love when I was 18. I didn’t know the word trauma and I didn’t know how to ask for help in a meaningful way. I became immobilized by the weight of it all and flunked out of school at 20. Soon after I dragged my wounded soul to Colorado for a new beginning. It took me years, but I found a loving community here that opened doors, urged me to finish my degree, and believed in my ability to explore new career frontiers beginning in television and finding a home in philanthropy.
What have you learned?
I learned there is no perfect path to success and that the greatest gift we can offer anyone is to see them fully and meet them with respect for where they are. I am driven by all of these lessons of access to education, a legacy of black community, unlikely allies, the traumas of violence and powerlessness for any reason, the pain of loss and silence and commitment to the possibility that comes with hope. Doors opened for me simply because of the privilege of my birth family. As a result, I could heal and find resiliency. Everyone is born with that right regardless of circumstance. No family regardless of zip code or background or identity should live in fear that an unexpected medical or car repair bill will jeopardize their ability to have housing or nutritious food. My privilege protected me from those fears. It is imperative for me to now use that privilege to protect others.
Today, as I look upon my career, there are certainly aspects that bring me joy for having been a small part of providing access and advocacy, especially for other women and girls of all backgrounds and identities whose potential may be poised to be lost. At the same time, I am impatient that systems of change move slowly just as bridges of understanding are slow to be built. I also recognize that even at this stage of my life, it is important to ask for help. I have done nothing alone. I also have disappointments.
I serve as the CEO and President of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado
. It has experienced a dynamic transformation, but we still have a lot work to do to fulfill our promises. I urge the community to both challenge me and to join us. I am still learning.
My greatest joys are the people who have been and are a part of my journey. From interns and former staff members and colleagues throughout my career as well as young men and women who were a part of the Nonprofit Internship Program, I am inspired by those, whether I know them personally or not, who are making “a way out of no way” every day, building equitable leadership and making positive differences in community.