Partial Transcript: During his career was actually the CEO in Atlanta for a number of
years and then was a field consultant for the national Y in the Philadelphia
area, and then of course I'm in the Y, and then my son Brian, my oldest son,
started and worked 10 years in Charlotte, and now he's in Greenville, South
Carolina as an Executive Director down there and doing great work. So our Y
blood runs pretty thick.
Keywords: Mission; Virginia; YMCA
Partial Transcript: So we used probably if not all of 2003 as an organization to really have
dialogue, and again, this was at a time where across the state of North
Carolina, YMCAs as a whole pretty much accepted the term or the definition of
membership as what's defined by the state of North Carolina. At that time it was
married, man and woman. And YMCAs and most organizations kind of leaned into
that and used that as the crutch for how they were defined a family, so to
speak. And I think for me it was, a couple things. One, it was an awareness that
as an organization we needed to deal with this, and it wasn't so much just what
... so anyway, we went into a process and our executive committee and eventually
Keywords: Ally; Christianity; Progressive; Spirituality; WNC; YMCA
Partial Transcript: I just, we would just have conversation and just have some empathy and
understanding of where people are in their lives and what they're going through,
and it's just not sometimes always hunky dory. We really get into some
situations where people just need to be held up and loved on and supported and
let them get through their journey and let us support that.
Keywords: Childhood; Diversity; LGBTQ+; YMCA
Partial Transcript: Probably not directly. I know Annette, our vice president of human
capital is actively involved in some of the diversity and inclusion work, it's
an effort within itself in the community to look at some of these issues, and I
know we've had a number of staff that have been a part of that. I've personally
just recently got involved with a group of business leaders that really are
talking about the racial divide right now that's going on in our community.
Again, I don't think you can just talk about these and that's the focus but I
think part of that focus then becomes the greater focus, when you start talking
about disparity and what's going on, health disparity and the challenges that
not only people of color are facing right now, but what about the LGBTQ
communities and some of the other communities that are kind of on the fringe.
Keywords: Athletics; Businesses; Gender Identity; LGBTQ+; Sexuality
Partial Transcript: Right. And I know we've done some, as part of our work, I know we've
got some grant dollars that help support the youth trans community here in
Asheville. I think they've been going through some transition, but just some
recreational aquatic activities and things that we were doing during the time
that the Y was closed to give them their privacy and opportunity-
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. That was great. I witnessed that.
Paul Vest:Oh good.
Keywords: Inclusivity; Non-Binary; Transgender; YMCA; Youth
Partial Transcript: I shared this story at our annual meeting that early on in the closure
of our Y's, this is where it really started dawning on us, and we know this as
staff, we know this in our hearts and souls, but the reality was I don't know
that our community understands this about us as an organization but you
mentioned the elders, we had an older gentleman who had lost his wife a number
of years ago and he had been in a situation where he had this routine about his
daily life since losing her and it was to go downtown and he'd meet up with his
buddies and they'd have breakfast and then he'd go to the Y and have coffee, and
who knows if he worked out, he may have sat in the lobby and just socialized,
but one of our property guys noticed this car out in the parking lot with a
gentleman sitting in it, and he went out and asked if he was okay and if there
was anything he needed, and he said, "No." He said, "This is my place. This is
where I need to come."
Keywords: Elders; Health; Independence; Mental Health
Partial Transcript: We've tried to do that as well with the multicultural side of this, with the
black and brown community, and it's been a little more challenging, partly
because of just the percentages of those employees that we are constantly
working to try and build those bridges. So in my mind, this is one of those
things that even with the ... this is not only the right thing to do from a
values and a mission statement of the YMCA and who we are culturally as an
organization, this is a good business decision, across the board. To see the
changing and the browing of America, we have got to be that organization that's
going to be welcoming to all people.
Keywords: Intersectionality; Minorities; Scholarships; Transgender; YMCA
Partial Transcript: And
sometimes the conversation may not go the way that the Y, the organization, or
the individual wants it to go, but at least if you're having that honest,
genuine conversation, I think there's some understanding there, and I think
people get afraid of that and I think there's some fear in there.
Rachel Muir, In...:I think it's right on topic. It seems to me that one of the
things we concluded that one of the best ways to make progress on these kind of
issues and on equality for example is to have conversations.
Keywords: Diversity; Employment; Equality; LGBTQ+; Organization; Staff; Support Staff; YMCA
Rachel Muir, In...:Okay. Good afternoon, Paul. My name is Rachel Muir, I'mone of the interviewers for the Western North Carolina Oral History Project, and today I'm meeting with Paul Vest, and I'll let Paul introduce himself.
Paul Vest:Thank you, Rachel. My name is Paul Vest, I'm the President and CEO forthe YMCA Western North Carolina. I've been here in Asheville, actually a second go around, before I started working for the Y, fresh out of college I was a recreational therapist at what used to he Highland Hospital here in town, and left here to get into Y work up in Connecticut and started my career up there. I spent five years in Connecticut, five years in South Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then in 1996 I had the opportunity to transfer my roots back to Asheville. My wife Vicky and our two sons Brian and Kevin made the trip back to beautiful Asheville and we've been here ever since. Couldn't enjoy it any more, it's just 00:01:00a wonderful place to live.
Rachel Muir, In...:Paul, were your sons born here?
Paul Vest:One of them was. My oldest son, Brian, who also works for the Y, justa little backdrop, my dad worked for the YMCA.
Rachel Muir, In...:Wow.
Paul Vest:During his career was actually the CEO in Atlanta for a number ofyears and then was a field consultant for the national Y in the Philadelphia area, and then of course I'm in the Y, and then my son Brian, my oldest son, started and worked 10 years in Charlotte, and now he's in Greenville, South Carolina as an Executive Director down there and doing great work. So our Y blood runs pretty thick.
Rachel Muir, In...:I'd say you're a Y family.
Paul Vest:Yeah. But yeah, Brian was born at Mission Hospital here in Ashevilleand our youngest son, Kevin, was born up in Connecticut, and they have both blessed us now with grandchildren, two girls in South Carolina, and one year old 00:02:00boy here in Asheville. So we're excited about being here.
Rachel Muir, In...:Wow. So obviously work brought you to Asheville. Are thereother things that makes Asheville a special place for you?
Paul Vest:I think it was very much the quality of life, the environment. We werein Virginia Beach and my wife being a teacher, she loved the summers, and her time at the beach, but when this calling came about we couldn't have thought about being any place else. Fortunately the board selected me through an interview process. We can vacation at the beach but living in the mountains and living in Asheville certainly has been a wonderful blessing for us.
Rachel Muir, In...:I mentioned before we started recording our session thatyou're among the first allies that we've interviewed as part of this project. So could you tell us something about how you became an ally and who are your 00:03:00influences to become an ally?
Paul Vest:Yeah, I'd be happy to. It's funny, well it's not funny but I think forme it's been almost a lifelong journey to be an ally period, especially with folks who might be in those minority populations and disadvantaged populations that so often don't get treated respectfully and safely in a lot of cases. That's probably my upbringing in a YMCA family with my dad and mom both being very loving and accepting and just from a faith standpoint it's been just part of our DNA as a family. It's just kind of who I am.
I will say the journey here in Western North Carolina has been a journey of bothprofessional development, personal faith based development around this work, 00:04:00both with our diversity and our inclusion work, and it was probably, I came in 1996, the YMCA at that time was just a small little two million dollar operating Y downtown with our location at Beaver Dam. Huge potential. The board that hired me really was looking for somebody younger and who could come in and kind of bring the organization to another level, because we just knew, they knew that Western North Carolina was primed for a healthy, vibrant YMCA.
So I came in '96. A lot of little work, or big work actually ended up needing totake place, but it was probably, around this work, and I was sensitive to this knowing about Asheville and the culture of Asheville being a little bit more progressive as a community here in the mountains and it's history with health and wellness. 2003, and I remember this like it was yesterday, I will never 00:05:00forget, it's a big part of who I am and my career, but I got a call from an Episcopal Priest out of Marion, and I always knew that there was a tension with the LGBTQ community and where they fit in and where that place needed to be and knew that the Y, even with some national events and things that were going on, there were some challenges that were going on a little bit on membership. And I was aware of that and sensitive to that and knew it was something that we as an organization would eventually need to address and deal with, but I got a call one afternoon from a Priest of the Episcopal church down in Marion and she shared with me, she said, "Paul, I need to tell you ... " 00:06:00
Actually being of the same faith in that church here in Asheville, knew of herand had some connection to her. She said, "Paul, I need to let you know what is happening at your YMCA." So first of all, anytime somebody gives me the YMCA I realize that's kind of a ticking time bomb for a potential issue that I better wake up and be sensitive to, because being a community based organization it's certainly not my Y. But anyway, as the CEO I get those calls from time to time. She went on to share with me that she had, there was a lesbian couple in her parish that the church had supported and loved, was engaged with as parishioners of the church and they came into my Y in Marion and said that, and when they 00:07:00asked to join as a family, under a family membership, the staff person there, and not to her fault but really to I think some of the short sightedness of where we were as an organization, basically replied by saying, "We can't do that because we're a Christian organization."
And that just hit every fiber of my being from a faith standpoint, from anorganizational standpoint, from an awareness and just a trigger that went through my body, and it was really at that point in time, and I remember immediately being horrified, but at the same time recognizing that this was basically the awakening or the calling for me as the CEO to take this issue upon ourselves and address it, that we take control of addressing this and having a conversation about this. 00:08:00
So we used probably if not all of 2003 as an organization to really havedialogue, and again, this was at a time where across the state of North Carolina, YMCAs as a whole pretty much accepted the term or the definition of membership as what's defined by the state of North Carolina. At that time it was married, man and woman. And YMCAs and most organizations kind of leaned into that and used that as the crutch for how they were defined a family, so to speak. And I think for me it was, a couple things. One, it was an awareness that as an organization we needed to deal with this, and it wasn't so much just what ... so anyway, we went into a process and our executive committee and eventually board of directors really had some incredible conversations around this, and we 00:09:00spent about six months to a year doing this, and throughout that process we had folks both in support, and my whole agenda was really not to, it was to revisit what our membership categories were.
So at that point in time we started talking about well what defines family, whatdefines a family membership, and we recognized very quickly that as an organization, our interest was to serve all people, and our mission statement is to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all. And those last two words in some ways are the most important words of that mission statement. So we started a conversation about how does that fit for us as an organization, and if we exclude by a definition of family, we are excluding people from our organization. And what 00:10:00was interesting is that the tendency was to go towards talking about gay and lesbian families and or couples in some of those scenarios, but we also started talking about the reality that heterosexual individuals lived together in a household and shared gas expenses and water and rent and everything else, why not have that same opportunity at the Y? And we started seeing more and more families and adults that were now having a spouse come in and live with them, so why exclude those?
But ultimately we did come back to that conversation about the LGBTQ communityand what that meant for us as an organization. And I will tell you that it wasn't 100% support, but I think the realization was that we needed to be that inclusive organization. And in order to do that, we needed to be open and loving 00:11:00and create a safe environment for all people that want to come in and be part of our organization. And I will tell you, I think that, Rachel, there was a lot of conversation for me, and I say this was one of my highlights or one of my biggest endeavors as a CEO both personally, professionally, from a faith standpoint, spiritually, and I had volunteers most importantly tell me after meeting, say it is so important and so valuable that the YMCA is having these kinds of conversations.
And I want to tell you that I would not say that our workforce, that I knew ofat the time, that we had a lot of LGBTQ employees, but as this conversation started evolving, people felt safer maybe to project their opinions and their thoughts around this, especially from that community. But I had board members 00:12:00that were just applauding the fact that we were having the conversation, even to the point where they would mention that this is a conversation they couldn't even have with their own church. So for me, again from that spiritual standpoint where I just am a firm believer that you just love everybody, that this was just a critical step in the history of our organization as the YMCA. I would also share that it wasn't rosy. We had situations where we had members, volunteers, that were not necessarily excited about this new opening or awareness, and I actually had a volunteer who told me this became the topic of conversation at 00:13:00one of their bible study groups.
For me I was like oh great, I said hopefully there's something that comes out ofthat. I don't think he was saying it in a supportive way, but I think the one thing that to this day that really just does fill my heart with joy and love is that that same volunteer came back to me years later, two to three years later, and said, "Paul, you know we used to have those conversations about the Y and the Y's acceptance of the gay and lesbian community and what that meant." And he said, "Just recently one of our members, older members who's been with this group for years, came to our group and pointed to that discussion and that topic that the Y was giving leadership into, and then shared with the group that his son had recently come out, has been gay." And it changed the, for me it was a 00:14:00great place for the Y to be the table center, and I say this quite often, but for an organization it's our job to set the table. Invite everybody to come to the table and eat, and what happens in those environments, relationships get built and understanding and clarity gets developed and that's what I believe the Y is for in our community, that we can create those environments where people can have candid conversations and start learning to accept and understand each other.
And fast forward years of the Y just embracing this work, and I will say thatthe board moved forward in that process, they voted to change and create what we now call our family slash household membership, really as a way not to define what family is but to recognize that everybody can define what their family looks like, and we qualify it by any two adults in a household with children or 00:15:00whatever the case is. Not necessarily needing to be married. So we broaden that scope. From time to time I just run into members of the gay and lesbian community who I wouldn't even know and maybe wouldn't even know that they were gay and lesbian, who came back and would make comments about that was a critical step in who they were and what they were understanding the Y's acceptance of all people and again, for me, being spiritually based and having my journey and faith, this is part of that journey of understanding acceptance.
So fast forward over the years, what has been really wonderful for me to kind ofstep back and observe in our organization has been our staff who have really taken this on and has embraced it. I would say we were probably, if not the 00:16:00first, certainly the second of the YMCAs across the state of North Carolina back in 2004 that adopted this new membership category, and I would say that most Ys probably have moved in that direction. The national Y has taken on a real effort to be supportive of this work and our diversity and inclusion work across the board, in this day in age we need that more than ever. So YMCAs are really beginning to connect with this work, and I will say that I do think, and I've always been a firm believer that this is just part of a personal journey for people. If the Y can help people move along that spectrum in ways that they feel safe and can embrace and understand and work and struggle through some of this stuff on their own, then that's just human growth.
And I will say, so in that work, and I don't know that this points to this00:17:00uptick, but over the years we have seen our employment base become more diversified with the LGBTQ community. It has brought an incredible strength of talent and assets to our organization. I can think of a handful of senior level leadership staff in different capacities who have helped us as an organization be more deeply engaged in this work in the community through some of the resources in the community, and our staff have gotten involved in that work. Whether it be here locally or even at the national level.
So it has enriched our organization in a lot of ways, and I will, for mepersonally, it just continues to be opportunities like this that give me an opportunity to reflect and be part of conversations that help me recognize that 00:18:00we are growing as an organization, that we are continuing to support all of our community and create that safe environment. I've always been a firm believer that the Y should be that place of inclusiveness and connecting and community, it has to be safe. We have to hold it and keep it as a safe institution, and when there's inappropriate behaviors, and we have a historical perspective of that as an organization, that is so falsely lifted up in so many cases, but sometimes when those behaviors come out, and not just from the gay and lesbian community, this is heterosexual individuals as well, we have to create that environment of safety for all people, especially children. It has been, again, it has been a blessing in my now 25 years here in Asheville to recognize that this has been a part of our fabric as growth as an organization. 00:19:00
I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in the staff that havecarried those buckets of water, especially from that community. They have been there to help support and understand all of us in this journey, which has been a really rich experience for us.
Rachel Muir, In...:Prior to your role at the YMCA, did you have friends orfamily members who were members of the community that had some influence on you personally and gave you some inspiration to look at that community in a different way?
Paul Vest:You know, not really. I will say that part of the richness of the Yhas been to be able to associate with people of all different walks of life. As I mentioned, I grew up in a Y, I do remember as a child when I was younger and 00:20:00my dad in leadership roles in the YMCA, he had a dear friend in California that late in his life, and I remember this just faintly, I don't even recall the gentleman's name, but that was in a marriage and came to light in his sexuality and recognized that he was a gay man, and I do remember as a child that hearing the story, or hearing the experience of that awareness that he was experiencing, and his wife experienced with him, that they had this mutual understanding of what that meant for their marriage and the separation of that marriage. I remember my dad who has always been, was a very welcoming and kind of a 00:21:00counselor of counselors almost, really being torn by that because of the relationship that my dad and my mom had with this couple.
But also then recognizing that my dad still loved this guy and supported him andsupported her through their divorce, and I was probably, I don't even know if I was in high school yet, but I remember that, a little of that. That was probably my first experience of seeing what happens when people come to their acceptance of who they are and understanding that, and that there's pain and difficulty with that and that always sat with me, but I don't, there's really nothing outside of that. And then I will say, and this is both even on the racial diversity side, I have probably grown as a human being in my personal connections and relationships with people of color in hearing their walk in life and hearing their stories as well as others from the LGBTQ community, and I've 00:22:00got some very dear staff that I owe a lot of my own growth and awareness to that I just, we would just have conversation and just have some empathy and understanding of where people are in their lives and what they're going through, and it's just not sometimes always hunky dory. We really get into some situations where people just need to be held up and loved on and supported and let them get through their journey and let us support that.
Rachel Muir, In...:I'll tell you a brief story. I've been a volunteer at ourbooth at Blue Ridge Pride for I think four years, and I remember the first time I went there maybe 2015 and folks would come up to our booth and go, "What are you guys doing here?" And of course that would start the conversation and it 00:23:00would be good conversation, and then three years later it was like, "Oh, glad to see you're back. Of course you're here." Even over that relatively short period of time, the role of the YMCA in our community I think there's become a greater understanding of the role of the Y and the organization and being a welcoming organization. I just remember how that dynamic has changed over a relatively short period of time and it makes me smile.
Paul Vest:Yeah. Both from our staff who have been part of the LGBTQ community,and some staff, incredible leadership staff who have left us and who have left the community to go on to bigger Y jobs across the country, one in particular that I know is carrying that banner, that torch very strongly in her Y. That just feels good, it just feels like it's something that kind of got started and 00:24:00incubated here in Asheville, but it took people like her and several others and many allies in our organization to support that. I remember that, I remember the conversation, "Paul we'd like to have a booth at the Pride event." And it was one of those, okay, I just trust that this is going to be okay and we negotiated, we said okay we're going to do this, then let's also make sure we're going to be at the Hispanic events, and African American, we wanted to make sure that diversity was just not related to one bucket or another.
Rachel Muir, In...:Sure.
Paul Vest:It was that we were going to be consistent with our diversity andinclusion work. But I do remember in asking, "Well how was it?" A lot of people were like, "People were surprised that we were here." And I was offended by it, because the Y can do no wrong. But after two, three, four years, the same thing. 00:25:00It was, "Good do see y'all back. Good to see you."
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. We had a lot of visitors of note at the booth. Wasthere an organization since your journey as an ally has involved personal revelations, but was there an organization that you look to that was welcoming that was a mentor or a model for the Y? The answer may be no, but I'm curious, particularly if there's somebody in Asheville or Western North Carolina who's done a little bit of pioneering that might have been helpful for the Y?
Paul Vest:It's interesting, if you go down this kind of journey, you becomeaware and sensitive to like-minded thinking, and the counter to that, not like-minded thinking. And I've mentioned my faith a couple of times, and it is 00:26:00important to me and I do think that one of the things in the Episcopal church that has been for me just continues to be that reassurance. I've not had much pushback. Candidly I think maybe I've gotten off easy to be an ally because I have not had a lot of social pushback. I would say All Souls downtown, the church, I think has been a big proponent of that. Our church on Merrimon Avenue has followed step in some of that, certainly being welcoming, accepting to all. So those kind of conversations and those kinds of values oriented discussions and beliefs have always been true to me. My wife shares in it, my family shares 00:27:00in it, so there's enough there that I think really does support the foundation of this effort and this work as an ally.
I tend to get more frustrated with business and or organizations that justaren't even willing, and churches, candidly, that aren't willing to accept the onus that we're here to love everybody, and that it's just so critically important. So I think that there's, as a matter of fact, my dad of all people that my wife is just a saint and she, I remember my dad one time saying that, this was when my mom was sick and she was in the hospital and Vicky was working to kind of support him and kind of give him a positive shoulder to be part of and I remember my dad said, "Well you just love everybody." My wife was like, 00:28:00"Oh yeah, I kind of do." And here's a guy that does, for the most part, he's fairly tolerant, or was. But anyway.
So I would say, I have learned to probably surround myself with like-mindedsupporters of this effort. Like I said, maybe I've had it too easy to be an ally.
Rachel Muir, In...:The communities that I've looked to as example include theEpiscopal church, Eucharistic minister and Liturgical minister for the church, and I'm a member of All Souls, that's a very proactive community. So that is one mentor I can think of in town that I've personally, and I guess you are saying the same thing, have seen it as perhaps mentors or provided leadership on these issues. 00:29:00
Paul Vest:I was the chair of our discernment committee recently that just hiredMillie Morrow.
Rachel Muir, In...:Oh.
Paul Vest:Away from All Souls to Grace.
Rachel Muir, In...:Wow. She's one of my favorite folks.
Rachel Muir, In...:So she's at Grace now?
Rachel Muir, In...:Okay. Cool. I know she left, but over the past year whenwe've been isolated I haven't had a chance to catch up where she went off to.
Paul Vest:I will say this, I'm a firm believer that this conversation and thisdialog crosses all boundaries, so to speak, of what we're dealing with as a country as it relates to diversity and acceptance. See what's going on right now with the Asian American population and the hatred, and of course the African American that's been going on for years, and of course Floyd's court case is 00:30:00going on now, and it's just, I just think that we have to be in conversation. We just have to figure out, and again, I'm tooting the Y's horn, but I just think the Y is an opportunity for that, and I think we have to almost as a sacred space recognize that it's critically important for us to keep that environment whole. We've made some really challenging decisions from time to time based on what's going on socially in our community, and we've been crucified for it in some ways, but when there's so much hatred going on on national media, we turned our national news off on our TVs at the Y, and we got beat up on that because people didn't want to watch the cooking show or whatever the case was. But we really wanted to create these environments where people could come and calm down and relax and square up a little bit. 00:31:00
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. That was a little bit of a battle at [inaudible]. Ifyou got in at 5:30, folks want to come in and they want to hear their variety of the news.
Rachel Muir, In...:Were upset when we substituted with sports. Well we are afitness organization, I don't think you'd object to having the basketball game on.
Rachel Muir, In...:But anyways, I can relate to that. So are there anyorganizations in town that are either non profits or business organizations like a business round table or chamber of commerce where the Y's had a chance, or you've had a chance personally to make connections and try to promote this idea of acceptance?
Paul Vest:Probably not directly. I know Annette, our vice president of human00:32:00capital is actively involved in some of the diversity and inclusion work, it's an effort within itself in the community to look at some of these issues, and I know we've had a number of staff that have been a part of that. I've personally just recently got involved with a group of business leaders that really are talking about the racial divide right now that's going on in our community. Again, I don't think you can just talk about these and that's the focus but I think part of that focus then becomes the greater focus, when you start talking about disparity and what's going on, health disparity and the challenges that not only people of color are facing right now, but what about the LGBTQ communities and some of the other communities that are kind of on the fringe.
There's a lot of that going on right now. So my involvement has been more fromthis business leaders kind of group that's recently having some conversations. 00:33:00But I've also been involved at the national level with the national Y on supporting a number of efforts around our dig work and during this past year, as a national movement have spent a lot of time around diversity and inclusion and getting some grips around understanding that as local Y leaders and what does that mean for our local communities. Because what we do here in Western North Carolina, which candidly is a very diverse service area, if you think about it. We have Asheville and Buncombe County, and there's a level politically of liberalness or progressiveness that is the standard torchbearer, so to speak, and you get into some of our Henderson County or even McDowell County where it might be a little more conservative and so we find ourselves really trying to be 00:34:00that middle of the road kind of let us, candidly, like my initial comments about McDowell County, most people that I tell that story to say, "Gosh, I would have never thought that would have come out of McDowell County, that effort. It definitely would have been an Asheville thing."
No, it came out of McDowell County. That's probably even what made it a littlemore richer for us as an organization to be able to talk about that, that Asheville may just be a little more open about it, but we have people in these outlying communities who may not even feel safe to be able to talk about it.
Rachel Muir, In...:Right.
Paul Vest:That you had an ally come to the table for them that brought this tofruition for us as an organization. So yeah, it's an interesting daily process when it becomes something that you stay focused on.
Rachel Muir, In...:It's an issue that I just thought of and has come to the fore00:35:00recently both nationally and also beginning to rear it's head in North Carolina again, and that's about the transgender youth and athletics. Obviously athletics is part of the Y, what we encourage. Is there a way that we can indicate that trans youth and trans adults are welcome at the YMCA sort of specifically as this issue for some reason has come to the fore in recent months?
Paul Vest:Yeah. That's an interesting point, Rachel, and I think as staff we'reconstantly having conversation about what happens when that trans child comes to our day camp program, or our over night camp program, what does that look like 00:36:00and how do you handle that? And candidly, I'm not sure that we have the answer to that right now. I think it's part of this growth and journey work. I think it's part of the conversation that as staff and certainly with our volunteers even it's worth having conversation and being, and that's what I appreciate so much about the organization as a whole, and maybe it's just some of my own leadership style and thinking, but when these opportunities come to the table, I appreciate the opportunity to have dialogue on it and see where we stand on it, so there's more understanding.
I heard this discussion on the radio this week because it is really kind offleshed out pretty openly right now with some news, but I heard somebody explain the fact that these children who are now identifying one way or the other don't 00:37:00see themselves in that body of a boy or a girl and they're not ... so that's just a really interesting psychological awareness piece that I think is so important to have some conversation around, because I don't understand it. I think it is important that we just not dismiss it and do a knee jerk reaction and say no, this is what we're going to do.
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. Yeah, I think part of it is the challenge of thinkingof gender and sexuality as two different things.
Rachel Muir, In...:And the fact that children understand gender before there'seven any sort of awareness of sexuality, points it out that yeah gender is distinct and the fact that young people, sometimes very young people are 00:38:00addressing these issues make it maybe important for us to address it as a society, as a community. It seems there is a very large and active transgender community in Asheville, so I'm sure the issue will show up in one fashion or the other.
Paul Vest:Right. And I know we've done some, as part of our work, I know we'vegot some grant dollars that help support the youth trans community here in Asheville. I think they've been going through some transition, but just some recreational aquatic activities and things that we were doing during the time that the Y was closed to give them their privacy and opportunity-
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. That was great. I witnessed that.
Paul Vest:Oh good.
Rachel Muir, In...:Some more detail is just that the Y would open up just fornon binary young people or trans young people to come to the pool to wear whatever attire they thought was appropriate for them and to have some time to 00:39:00themselves, and that's the Y I spend most of my time at and I witnessed that and that was a great success.
Paul Vest:Well and I will tell you, I think if more people, and again, this ispart of my work, this is part of my understanding of the way I need to lead as a CEO, but I think the awareness piece is so important and I don't know that we as a society take the time to be empathetic, to understanding the nuances to all of this. We just want to put our foot down and say, "No, this is the way it is." And some of my greatest growth has been sitting in my office during 8 o'clock at night and doing just some educational awareness stuff, and as we look at Camp 00:40:00[inaudible] for example, an overnight camp for kids, there's been some real questions, what do you do when you have a trans child who's gone through this transition who's identifying as a girl but is still functionally has body parts as a boy, and that's a whole piece of conversation that is programmatic but what really caught my attention in my awareness around this to be somewhat empathetic to this is recognizing the impact that that's having on parents and siblings and everybody around that child, not only the child themselves, but it's a community impact kind of situation.
And I remember looking at a video of a camp for trans children and the childrenwere just being children and having the greatest time of their life and being who they were and playing and doing all the things that children should really be able to do. The other side of this was the work that the parents were doing 00:41:00during their time that their child was at this camp on their own awareness and acceptance and recovery and everything else that goes on from a parent's perspective. And these parents just couldn't love those children any more than anybody would love their child.
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah. I've hear the phrase that individuals don't transition,families transition.
Rachel Muir, In...:That seems to be true.
Rachel Muir, In...:Paul, are there some other questions on the list that weshared that you would like to go to, that you'd like to focus on? We've sort of gone through the first half of those questions, generally.
Paul Vest:Yeah, one thing that caught my eye because I think it's a consistentacross all communities, there was some questions about health and mental health 00:42:00needs. You mentioned the whole challenge right now, what's going on with the current state of Asheville and the cost of living and everything else, certainly as a large employer, pre pandemic we had 1200 employees, so we were a very large non profit, hiring a lot of people to do a lot of different work. I get really nervous and concerned when I start recognizing that we're trying to hire staff that can't even live in this immediate area, so people are expanding out of the city of Asheville, and certainly even out of Buncombe County, but now going to outside counties and commuting in, which adds to more expenses for folks, but they can find housing out there, and I get nervous and worried sometimes about the work that needs to be done in this area to help people understand how to 00:43:00accept people that may not be like them moving into their community that they would never have thought, whether it be racial or it be sexual orientation or whatever, and I just think there's some awareness there that we've got to be working on as a society and as a community.
I think there's, I get fearful of the safety of people sometimes when they'refacing folks who don't look, think, act like they do and what that means for our community as a whole. Health disparity is a big issue right now as well, with the pandemic and everything else that's going on and making sure that certainly people on the fringe, so to speak, are being taken care of, or at least the awareness is there that they have needs that need to be addressed. Whatever that might look like in this group, this business group I was telling you about, 00:44:00there was some real efforts to work with the homeless population, like the J&J shots, vaccines that were out there because it's kind of a one and done, and recognizing that a lot of these folks would be transient and you may not get but one chance. And I do, I am concerned more and more about what we're getting a sense of the suicide issues and what's going on with especially young people in the gay and lesbian communities that just, they should not be in those situations to feel like they're not being accepted.
When we see our children taking their lives because of some of these things, ifthat's not a wake up call for people, I don't know what is. So I think there's ... and we're going to see more of that. It's not just LGBTQ, I've talked with our staff that our whole efforts as we move forward as an organization, I think 00:45:00we're going to have to be aware of the need for good mental health services. We know nutrition, we know exercise, we know social community connections help with some of this, and that's where we're at our best, but do we need to start recognizing that the organization needs to be supporting counseling groups. That's not our wheelhouse, but does that mean somebody from another provider can come in and do that work in an environment at the YMCA that is perceived to be safe and is there for everybody.
Early on in my career, when I was in Connecticut, we had a youth services bureauand it was a counseling service for young people. That whole business model has changed these days, but the whole value of that was that it was in the YMCA. It was in the YMCA because when you walked through those doors, people didn't know 00:46:00if you were going there to play basketball or workout or to go to counseling or just to hang out with your buddies. It was a safe community place that people felt comfortable going to, and I often start wondering if that's not going to be back in our future to be that kind of outlet for young people and kids in general.
Rachel Muir, In...:And one of the concerns I've seen is that our elders inparticular have been isolated, elders in the LGBTQ community in particular, because they get a lot of their support through their social networks, but those social networks have been cut off because of the pandemic and I worry about people I haven't seen at the Y for a while, are they okay? Are they still with us? So yeah, that's a subset, a generational difference. I also feel like a lot of elders are less likely to step forward and ask for help. 00:47:00
Rachel Muir, In...:Their independence, even if they have nothing else left,their independence is often what they hold onto the longest.
Paul Vest:I shared this story at our annual meeting that early on in the closureof our Y's, this is where it really started dawning on us, and we know this as staff, we know this in our hearts and souls, but the reality was I don't know that our community understands this about us as an organization but you mentioned the elders, we had an older gentleman who had lost his wife a number of years ago and he had been in a situation where he had this routine about his daily life since losing her and it was to go downtown and he'd meet up with his buddies and they'd have breakfast and then he'd go to the Y and have coffee, and who knows if he worked out, he may have sat in the lobby and just socialized, but one of our property guys noticed this car out in the parking lot with a 00:48:00gentleman sitting in it, and he went out and asked if he was okay and if there was anything he needed, and he said, "No." He said, "This is my place. This is where I need to come."
And he had his breakfast, he picked up breakfast in the way in because he wasn'tmeeting with his buddies, and he sat in the Y parking lot and had his breakfast, and it was just that familiarity and that comfort of knowing that this was a place where he belonged and he needed to be. So to your point on the older population, we've been making a lot of these calls throughout the year to our older population, just checking on folks and seeing how they're doing. The staff who have done those calls so often talk about what a gift that has been for them to be able to talk to some of these folks. So our world is changing and we need to make sure that we're certainly thinking about and caring for those who are 00:49:00already on the fringe and being isolated more so than ever, we need to make sure we're connected with those folks.
Rachel Muir, In...:While we've mentioned a number of minorities, I know ourfocus at the moment is on the LGBTQ community, but which one of those communities, and because they overlap too, so as I mentioned before, you may have a black woman who identifies as lesbian, you may have a Hispanic trans kid, all these things overlap, or intersectionality I think is the word that is commonly used, but where are-
Paul Vest:[crosstalk] understand Rachel, it's those communities where you havethat overlap where there's generally a higher percentage of suicide and really some major issues because of the cultural issues and differences.
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah.
Paul Vest:Is that correct?
Rachel Muir, In...:That's correct. The stunning figure is that if you are a00:50:00transgendered black woman, your expected lifespan is about 35 years.
Rachel Muir, In...:So if you're a black trans woman in the United States, youhave the same longevity, less of the longevity in the poorest country in the world, Niger. You're more likely to have your life shortened in the good ole US of A than you are any place else in the world if you have that intersectionality between blackness and transness.
Rachel Muir, In...:So I was going to ask what you thought may be among theminority communities, what's the greatest challenge that you see for trying to address their needs, and it may be that intersectionality may be the answer, but what are your thoughts?
Paul Vest:Yeah, I would say as a historically, predominantly white YMCA, andeven in the start up of our Y 160 years ago London, England, we were basically a 00:51:00young men's Christian association, we're nothing like that now. We're not young, we're not men, and we're not all Christian. So I would say that part of our challenge, candidly, as an organization is to rebuild trust, awareness, relationships and community with the black and brown communities. We haven't had a history necessarily of the Hispanic population, but some of the community health work that we're doing right now out of [inaudible] that you may be familiar with and some of our staff that are openly speaking Spanish to individuals, and teaching diabetes prevention and some of these things, we are building bridges in a much more attentive and thoughtful process than we ever have. And I really applaud our staff for doing that, most of which are Hispanic. 00:52:00So they love carrying that banner and doing that for their people under the umbrella of the Y.
The black community history here in Asheville, there was a separation ofbasically the YMI which was the Market Street Y for years and served the African American community, and then the current Central Avenue Whitman Street Y, even the old [inaudible] was predominantly the white. When Market street was closed and the downtown Y was opened, the whole intent was to be the Y for all people. But interestingly enough, we've done vaccines for the predominantly older, black population of Asheville at the downtown Y and to hear people walking in those doors talking about, "Oh I never thought I'd come into this Y." And we're talking about people who are 65, 70, 85 years old and up, and feeling then 00:53:00joyful about it because they were coming and getting something that was taking care of them.
We did that purposefully, number one it was the right thing to do, but secondlyjust to help let some of these bridges get maybe rebuilt for that older generation of the African American community. And we still have work to do. It is tough, as a matter of fact I will tell you that our LGBTQ work as a, throwing out all these letters, as an ERG or employee resource group, of our YMCA, has really been the leader in our diversity and inclusion work. There has been more work and efforts done there because of members of that community driving that agenda to a certain degree and having the acceptance of the organization backing it, and I think that's just been a real gift for us as an organization. 00:54:00
We've tried to do that as well with the multicultural side of this, with theblack and brown community, and it's been a little more challenging, partly because of just the percentages of those employees that we are constantly working to try and build those bridges. So in my mind, this is one of those things that even with the ... this is not only the right thing to do from a values and a mission statement of the YMCA and who we are culturally as an organization, this is a good business decision, across the board. To see the changing and the browing of America, we have got to be that organization that's going to be welcoming to all people.
So to your question, I think it's probably more challenging in the black andbrown community. We're making some small strides on that as we're working forward on that, and I think the LGBTQ, that ERG group is really kind of set the 00:55:00way for that because it has demonstrated a real importance of what it means for our organization and how leadership staff in the organization that may be allies or just maybe okay this is the right thing to do are embracing the fact that this is energy and effort that we've put into that.
Rachel Muir, In...:I know the answer to this question, but somebody viewing thisinterview wouldn't know that, are there scholarship opportunities for families of limited means and does those kind of opportunities, are they helpful in drawing in people of color into the Y?
Paul Vest:Absolutely. And even white people. We've done over four milliondollars of subsidized services in our community, so our camps, our after school childcare, those are some of the biggest enriched programs. Again, when you talk 00:56:00about people who are working on fringe and making close to the minimum wage or a little over that are certainly not even the kind of wages that help keep them afloat in the community, we're the largest provider of subsidized childcare, state subsidized childcare in the state. So a third of our kids get some kind of state subsidy. And those unfortunately are the folks who are working those hardest hit jobs in some cases. As a matter of fact, we've seen our increase in the diversity of our kids and our families over this last year because those folks have been the ones who have really had to carry the load in some of these employment situations, but they're just not making good wages.
So fortunately the Y, between our financial assistance, the money we raise as anorganization which is about 1.2, 1.4 million dollars every year in our annual 00:57:00campaign, we have other opportunities whether it be United Way or the state subsidized offerings or grants or some of those things to help underwrite kids or families that can't afford YMCA services. Membership, to my mind, and I'm going to be very fascinated as we get to winding back up, as the pandemic, you get more shots in arms, and people start coming back to the Y, whether they're employed or not, I've always felt like in some cases the best thing you can do for yourself is workout, take care of yourself, be socially active in a safe environment, and then network, and network the heck out of, and we'll help you. We did that with you. We will help find jobs for people just by sometimes creating the environments where people can create relationships and build bonds and then all of the sudden you know, I work for this company that's got a job 00:58:00that you would be perfect for, and all of the sudden those things start happening.
So as the unemployment continues to skyrocket, I do think that there's going tobe some opportunities for our community through the Y, the network through the Y to really help make some things happen.
Rachel Muir, In...:I'll tell you the short story of how I became a Y employeeback in I think 2015, '16, but the management approached me and said, "Clearly you have a background in athletics and would you be interested in coming in and working for us as a wellness coach?" I said let me think about it, and then I came in for a workout late relatively in the evening and what I witnessed was I witnessed a number of Hispanic families coming into the Y, and I just sort of imagined okay, these folks have probably been working since dawn, it's 6:30, they're bringing their kids in to go to the pool, and they're bringing some of 00:59:00their kids upstairs to workout in the gym. So one I was just, the effort that they were making as parents and as a family on their own behalf was so impressive, but secondly it occurred to me they're probably here with some support. And later I found out that some of that support comes from employees at the Y donating portions of their salary to support people coming in, I said oh my gosh this is an organization that I want to be a part of. Just witnessing all those things in the course of one evening, so I got in touch with the supervisor and I said I'm in.
Paul Vest:Good. Well kudos to you for putting all that together because one ofthe things we don't do a good job of as an organization is telling our story and patting ourselves on the back. We just got staff who's hearts are just pure 01:00:00gold. Not only do they not make enough money, but then they turn around and they give money back because they see that work first hand and the lives that it's changing. It's kind of what makes us special. Your story is a great one and for whatever reason, those families are drawn to us. We don't do a good job of having a lot of Spanish speaking staff, so you've got that barrier. But I'll tell you what, my admiration for families who come into our organization with all these different road bumps ahead of them, whether it be financial, whether it be language, whether it be sexuality, whatever it is, that still muster up enough fortitude to come in and be part of the organization and help create community.
Let's face it, if we're just that gym that brought in a bunch of white people01:01:00who could pay for their memberships and didn't really care about the community impact piece of this, it wouldn't be a Y.
Rachel Muir, In...:One thing in working on some national issues, one of thechallenges we came across on behalf of LGBTQ communities was lots of organizations or companies will say, "Well, we've got an inclusive policy, but when it comes down to the business of hiring and offering jobs to those individuals, they were no shows." So how would you characterize the LGBTQ staff? Are they upfront in dealing with your members? Are they behind the scenes? Are they in management? How are they distributed throughout your organization?
Paul Vest:You're assuming I know who all the LGBTQ members of our staff are. Iwill say the ones that I know are part of that community, especially from our leadership standpoint that I've had just beautiful relationships with were 01:02:00always senior leadership, administrative, behind the scenes, in front of the scenes kind of folks. We've had some that prefer not to be in front. They love the work that we do, but we have a huge need on the back office side. We're constantly looking for those support staff and not everybody is a high social ability mentality that love to be out there and are happy jacking with everybody, but we've got some skillsets that we really need on the finance and the back office side.
I would say it varies, and again, the ones that I'm aware of that are part ofthat community have always been incredible employees for us. That's what I've always appreciated and valued and why I don't understand in some ways, it really does contribute to who we are as an organization, and it takes all of us to do 01:03:00that. But just to add that special added gift to our organization because they walk a different journey in life and they have a different perspective on things. Sometimes I remember we had a staff person, this is where it becomes real personal on these relationship connection pieces, but we had a staff person that was involved in one of our programs and she was in the process of going through her own transition in her sexuality, that became a community issue that became a little bit too unnerving for me. I was a little more concerned about her safety at the time and so we just had a sit down, and being able to share that concern and knowing that we weren't going to make the change, but was it in 01:04:00her best interest to make a change, and or move to a different location or some of those kinds of things.
We talked about that and we talked about the whole reality of well there's someother things that you can be doing behind the scenes and properties came up and again the question well what happens when you need to go into the locker room and what does that look like, and she was not identified yet, so the question ... and anyway, the conversation was really the most loving, caring, genuine conversation that I think we could have, and we kind of left from the standpoint of, you know what, I need to take care of myself and I need to get through this process, can I come back to the Y someday if and when that's right. And I said absolutely.
So I think again it's so critically important, I don't know how I got off on01:05:00this tangent but that these conversations can be had, and that we as an organization, it's our duty, it's our obligation to create the environment where staff feel comfortable and safe in being able to get into the conversation. And sometimes the conversation may not go the way that the Y, the organization, or the individual wants it to go, but at least if you're having that honest, genuine conversation, I think there's some understanding there, and I think people get afraid of that and I think there's some fear in there.
Rachel Muir, In...:I think it's right on topic. It seems to me that one of thethings we concluded that one of the best ways to make progress on these kind of issues and on equality for example is to have conversations.
Rachel Muir, In...:Individual conversations and then conversations between anorganization and a community. Well, we're coming up on an hour and 15 minutes. I 01:06:00appreciate your generosity of your time.
Paul Vest:Oh sure.
Rachel Muir, In...:Are there some more on our list of questions or in your ownmind, are there some other things that you'd particularly like to address?
Paul Vest:I think the only other thing that comes to mind is this is, I thinkthere's a personal responsibility in a lot of this work, in diversity and inclusion work, and for me it's always been, I think my responsibility is set the table, so to speak, or set the tone for what this means for us as an organization, and in the same way that I can be so passionate about our willingness to just love everybody and accept everybody and create a safe environment and do the right thing as it relates to hiring people and training and orienting and the whole bit, that we're not going to be perfect, number one, and that we are going to step on ourselves and make stupid comments and 01:07:00inappropriate comments and I've always trusted and hoped, and I've told this to our staff in both from a diversity lens and an inclusion lens, if and when your CEO does that I need you to tell me, because that's how I learn and that's how I get better at this work.
The flip side of this is over the years I've come to recognize that noteverybody is on [inaudible] bandwagon. I've had staff that just morally, from a faith standpoint, cannot accept my view and value of acceptance. That it's morally, faith based wrong. And that's a really extreme conflict for me in our organization, and I've had to have those conversations with folks, even to the point of going back to when we changed our membership piece, and I'll never 01:08:00forget this, I had a young, all the stereotypical things that you would expect that really hook your mind a little bit, but I had a young, 18, 19 year old young lady who worked our front desk at one of our branches call and say, "I'd like to come talk to you." And hopefully welcomed that and had the conversation, I was very surprised, talk about getting your head out of the sand, but I was very surprised to hear her comments saying, "I can't work for an organization that's going to accept people of this lifestyle, it's against my Christian faith."
And I realized at that point in time it's really, being somebody of the samefaith, but from very different perspectives realized I needed to accept that and try to understand it in the same way that I would hope that she would understand 01:09:00my perspective. We had a conversation, it didn't go anywhere. She moved on and resigned her job, and that's okay. I welcomed the fact that I valued her decision in that process because of where she was in her own faith, in her own life, not that I agreed with it. And I hope that she kind of felt the same way for me.
But I do think that, to your point, and I've said this several times, that theimportance of us as a society and as a community and certainly within the YMCA, to always make sure that we leave those doors cracked for those opportunities for conversation, and in the same way, bring us full circle and the volunteer who approached me years after this decision to move forward, that he came back, and he didn't have to tell me this story, but he told me this story of the other 01:10:00gentleman in the bible study group that came out and said that his son had come out and was gay and that the Y's conversations created a safe environment for that dad to say, "You know what, I've been wrong. I love my son and I'm going to support him on this and you all as other business leaders, part of this bible study, need to hear that from me." And so it wasn't only him that was influenced by the conversations and the work of the Y, but now it was probably five or six other probably white gentlemen sitting in there now being associated and recognized and said okay I know somebody who has a son that's gay.
Rachel Muir, In...:Yeah.
Paul Vest:And we just need to constantly be open to those opportunities ofawareness, and it's no different than to a certain degree, the old adage, I have 01:11:00that one black friend, how much time do you spend with that one black friend and have a conversation with them to understand what they're going through and what it means to support or be a part of the Black Lives Matter effort. So anyway, I get on my tangents.
Rachel Muir, In...:Oh great. Well we can talk about it a little later, but ifthere are, we basically call them artifacts, but if there are papers or photos or things from your past or your experience that you'd like to include as part of this conversation and to be included into our archives, let me know.
Rachel Muir, In...:And if you have recommendations of other folks that you workwith or who are members who might be interested in doing an interview, let me know and I'll be glad to follow up on that.
Paul Vest:Okay. We have them in the Y. I don't know how many Y voices you wantto have around this, but I'll give some more thought to some of the other folks 01:12:00that are connected with [crosstalk].
Rachel Muir, In...:I've interviewed several Y employees and Y members as part ofthis effort. We're at over 50 conversations so far of which Y members are part of it. I'm going to stop recording now, I want to thank you again for your help and ... yes.