September is Women of Achievement Month. Excelsior College recognizes personal achievements. Today, Cathy Kushner, vice president for institutional advancement, shares her story.
Excelsior Life: What was your greatest personal achievement?
Kushner: One of the attractions for me in becoming involved with the YWCA of Lincoln, Nebraska was its culture and history of social action and inclusion. Although I had been involved as a teen and young adult, my passion for social action deepened. I learned that nationally the YWCA coupled its purpose statement with the One Imperative to form its mission. The One Imperative calls for the elimination of racism by any means necessary. It was adopted in 1970 and remains a vital focus throughout the U.S.
When I became the executive director of the YWCA in Lincoln in 1988, I was immediately put on a national committee with the President of our Board of Directors. It was tremendously exciting. The top women in leadership were sitting around the table with me as we heard from women whose names I knew and whom I admired from afar. Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist whose work frequently appeared in the popular press, joined us to talk about her involvement with the YWCA as a college student. She had been there when the One Imperative was adopted. There were others who were impressive as well, but the real star was Dorothy Height, the most visible woman in the Civil Rights Movement and a former national staff member of the YWCA. I couldn’t believe that I was serving on a committee with her!
Excelsior Life: How did this achievement impact your life?
Kushner: One perk of committee membership involved our attendance at all national conferences and conventions during the three years of our tenure. The most moving experience had to be a 1990 conference on fighting racism. It included representatives from all the major social advocacy groups – the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, and the NAACP, among others. I heard incredible speakers and learned about successful initiatives around the country.
A coincidence of timing made the content of the conference highly relevant and useful. When I returned home, I found that a classified ad had been placed in the Lincoln papers, asking for volunteers to join a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. There was no doubt or hesitation in my mind or in the minds of the leaders of the YWCA that we had to oppose this effort.
We immediately convened a planning group of community and faith leaders to organize a rally to oppose the Klan. Our gathering point was the City-County Building where speakers including elected representatives and major community spokespeople who addressed a group of several hundred. The momentum we built generated a desire for additional work on racism and inclusion, leading us to convene a group of likeminded people at the YWCA. News articles and networking spread our plans, and phone calls of support and offers of help began to pour in.
Not all the calls were positive. Some were actually threatening. That evening became a starting point for what we called “Citizens against Racism and Prejudice.” With an agenda of positive initiatives, it became a permanent part of the landscape and home for Lincoln community members to strategize around the institutional racism in our midst and the specific and singular racist behaviors that held us all back.
I’m very proud to have had a role in forming this organization and pleased that it continues today to work on issues of racism and inclusion. I’d like to think that I’ve made a difference in an area that is so meaningful and important to me. While I might not be as directly involved in social change today, the values that motivated my work remain central to my sense of self, and I hope that in the years ahead I can find new outlets for expressing them.