March 11, 2019
Charisse Mitchell is the CEO of YWCA West Central Michigan, one of Heart of West Michigan United Way’s partner agencies. Before joining the YWCA in 2017, Charisse led the Center for Women in Transition in Holland for eight years. She holds a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and spent a decade in leadership at NGOs in Washington, D.C.
March is Women’s History Month, so we asked Charisse to reflect on her personal experiences and the signs of progress she sees for women in West Michigan.
Tell us about one of the female role models or personal mentors who’s inspired you in your own career.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have several female mentors throughout different stages of my career. I hadn’t thought about it before, but today I realize that as I grow as a person I need all types of women in my life to keep me grounded, remind me of my everyday joy, and help me navigate life.
One mentor that stands out is Kathryn Newcomer. She was my graduate school advisor and chair of the Public Administration department. She is a brilliant woman and wonderful teacher. I marveled at her ability to manage such a full life. She was teaching, writing books, consulting all over the world, chair of the department, and had a big loving family. She opened doors and helped me land my first post-graduate job where I got to work with members of Congress, World Bank officials, local politicians, academics, public managers, and national philanthropists. She’s a great leader and was so respected in the academic world that I often asked why she never stepped up to be dean of the school. I thought that would be one step closer to having it all. She said she was doing exactly what she wanted to do. That no one else was going to define what having it all meant for her. She was able to do what she wanted to do on her terms. I saw how empowered Kathy was to live her best life, joyfully and unapologetically, and I loved that. She inspired me to think about and truly lean into a vision for myself. What a beautiful way to start my professional journey.
What are the clearest signs of progress for women in West Michigan that you’ve witnessed in the last decade?
I think there’s a growing sense of solidarity among women today. There are more and more groups that recognize, empower, support, and celebrate the talent, spirit, and achievements of women. More importantly, these organizations are created and led by women and those who identify as female. These groups aren’t formed to create gender divisions. They are designed to create safe spaces to speak our truths, to nurture our talents and be our authentic selves. These organizations, these spaces, represent opportunities to invest in ourselves and turn those investments into better returns for the entire community.
Women are also simply more visible in all sectors of the community. While there still may be professions that are male-dominated, I don’t know of too many areas where there aren’t at least a few trailblazing women charting a path for their sisters to follow. There are also more organizations and sectors that recognize that the skills and talents they are looking for are not uniquely “male.” And things that are often associated with women – emotions, vulnerability, compassion, nurturing – are less often seen as hindrances, but assets for effective leadership. As people continue to unpack and challenge socialized gender norms and stereotypes, we are more aware than ever that the qualities that are typically synonymous with success – strength, intelligence, perseverance, leadership, integrity, vision – are equally abundant among all genders.
One of the biggest signs of progress for women that I see is the visibility, activism, leadership of young women and girls. I have had the privilege of meeting some amazing young women with tremendous vision and high expectations not just for themselves but for the community. Young women all over West Michigan are speaking up at School Board and City Council meetings, advocating for changes in law and policy, challenging the way they are portrayed in the media, volunteering to support organizations and causes they believe in, and using their voices to promote social justice. I was not nearly as informed and engaged when I was young. These young women aren’t “emerging leaders,” these people are leading today and I for one am ready to follow them. That is a sign of progress.
What are the biggest challenges women face in West Michigan as they pursue their careers and personal development?
I think one challenge is getting past the resistance that often comes with progress. Anytime you challenge the status quo, there are forces that resist change. When trying to break down barriers or chart a new course it’s sometimes the last step – not the first – that’s the hardest. This is one reason why solidarity and having strong allies are so important. When my sister is weary from pushing her boulder uphill, I can push with her, lighten her load from time to time and I know she will do the same for me. None of us have to do this alone.
While we have made great progress, there are still relics of societal and organizational norms that suggest when men are assertive, they are ambitious. But when women are assertive, they are aggressive, difficult, or bossy. I think women today still have to work hard to cast off negative labels like these and have to continually demonstrate that ambitious, confident women are positive forces in the community. When we celebrate the achievements of all women, we help the community replace old definitions of leadership and success with new ones – ones that are more reflective of the beautiful, diverse community that is West Michigan.
In your view, how have women in leadership made our Grand Rapids community stronger and more vibrant?
Women in leadership have made Grand Rapids stronger and more vibrant not because of what we’ve done but because of who we are. Our community is rich because more and more women – people – are showing up as their authentic selves. They are bringing their experiences, perspectives, ambitions, hopes to their work and their community. Women are leaders in all parts of the community – corporate boardrooms and classrooms, politics and pulpits, arts and academia, families and factories. We’re inspired by mentors and leaders that have taught us. Our community grows stronger and more vibrant when we collaborate with and celebrate each other and nurture the untapped leadership found in women throughout West Michigan.