When Dara Richardson-Heron was a young girl, her parents dispelled an important piece of advice. They advised, “Don’t ever be limited by your race or gender.”
“They told me I could succeed at anything I wanted to do in life,” said Richardson-Heron, who added that her parents are her role models because they taught her how to lead with integrity and ethics and to never compromise her standards.
Now, as CEO of the YWCA USA, Richardson-Heron embodies the principles she learned as a young girl through the organization’s mission to empower women by providing them with the tools and resources necessary to make a positive impact in their families and communities.
Challenges Women Face
According to Richardson-Heron, there are three primary factors holding women back from reaching their full potential: gender inequality, racial injustice, and the lack of economic empowerment. “I wish things were different,” she said, “but it is clear that racism still exists and that women do not have equal opportunities.”
She emphasized the importance of evening the playing field for women in business, politics, and the economy by addressing the institutional inequalities and positioning more women to succeed in the highest levels of leadership.
“Many women are alone at the top,” Richardson-Heron remarked, “and we need more resources and support in place to take the demands off of these women so they can focus on being great role models, performing at a high level, and righting the stereotypes that exist against women.”
Change in Action
The YWCA has 227 associations nationwide and each one offers distinct programming to meet the needs of the women in the local community. For adults, the YWCA provides job training, career counseling, education, and even refuge. Children have access to afterschool educational programs including a focus on STEM education which begins as early as preschool.
“When you educate a woman, you educate her entire family,” explained Richardson-Heron. “The core purpose of our programs is to provide self-esteem and confidence in addition to knowledge and skills training.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of leading the YWCA, according to Richardson-Heron, is being able to see the transformation from sadness to optimism in women who have benefited from the organization’s life-changing services. “I visit the facilities –many of which have shelters for women in transition –and it is so humbling to meet women who came to the YWCA with nothing more than the clothes on their back and are in the process of turning their life around.”
Fighting the Good Fight: Advice for Her Peers
“Never give up,” advised Richardson-Heron. “It is not easy being a change agent, but the end result is worth it. You have to be resilient and prove yourself every day.” This is the advice Richardson-Heron gives to female leaders who are leading the way in the fight to balance the scales for women.
As a physician, Richardson-Heron also stresses the importance of focusing on personal health by taking time to relax and recharge. “Saying ‘yes’ to everything will leave you exhausted and ineffective,” she said. “When you take time off and allow your mind and body to take a break, you can come back rejuvenated and renewed.”
Even though the demands and pressures of daily life can be a lot to handle, Richardson-Heron always takes a moment to acknowledge everything in her life for which she is grateful. “Remember to express gratitude, recognize how fortunate you are and connect with the people that you care about,” she added.
Perseverance Pays Off: Advice for Future Leaders
When Richardson-Heron talks to young people, she often finds herself recounting and repeating the advice given to her as a child. “I urge them to give their very best at all times and to never allow themselves to be limited,” she said.
One of the most valuable lessons that today’s youth can learn is that a strong work ethic can take you very far in life, regardless of the obstacles you may encounter along the way. “If you work hard, you will accomplish you goals and eventually get to where you want to be,” said Richardson-Heron. “Young people have to accept that they must earn their place through dedication and perseverance.”
She continued, “Life is not always fair and people may try to treat you differently, but you have the power to transform a negative experience into a positive one by exceeding expectations and maintaining a positive attitude.”
Honoring Women Leaders
On June 12th – 14th, the YWCA USA will hold their annual conference in Washington, D.C. at which YWCA leaders from across the United States will gather to discuss the collective impact of the organization, hold training sessions and workshops, advocate on Capitol Hill for women’s economic empowerment, and honor the achievements of extraordinary women at the Women of Distinction Awards Gala hosted by Robin Givens on June 13th.
The conference will feature the presentation of the Dorothy I. Height Racial Justice Award to broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien, recognizing her contributions to the fight against racial injustice over the last two decades. Speakers will include: Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Leader, House of Representatives; Neera Tanden, President, Center for American Progress; Judge Glenda A. Hatchett, Host, Judge Hatchett.
“The conference is a wonderful platform for reflecting on the organization’s accomplishments and looking ahead at the future opportunities to continue to make a difference in the lives of women and girls,” Richardson-Heron said.