Every four years, the World YWCA conducts a series of business meetings inviting women from YWCAs in 120 countries. The focus of these meetings is empowering women, laying out the strategic framework for a movement focused on gender equality and ending violence, electing a new governing body for the worldwide movement, and connecting with our YWCA sisters from around the world. Relationships are built and connections are made. The political differences take a back seat during the session for an entire week so that the work of these women can be conducted. They bring themselves to the table as they are, proud of the country they call home and the culture they are a part of. Proud to be contributing to their communities in all of the big and small ways that a woman can. Proud to be representing their small slice of the world on a global scale. The days are long and heavy laden with work, but the work doesn’t seem so daunting when you are surrounded by many hundred women you can only view as sisters because your souls speak to each other on a level that spans cultural differences. There is much joy, laughter, and dancing through the halls during the week. There are many tears, shared embraces, handshakes, and encouragements of support. This is YWCA World Council.
To say YWCA World Council is a life-changing experience is accurate, but seems to fall short of describing the experience. I have had the pleasure and honor of participating in World Council twice, in two very different parts of the world. In 2015, I participated in World Council as a voting delegate with the YWCA USA delegation in Bangkok, Thailand. Most recently in 2019, I participated in World Council as a nominee to the World Board of Directors representing YWCA USA on the North American ballot. This most recent meeting took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two experiences in and of themselves were vastly different. As a voting delegate, I and the five other voting delegates representing the USA were tasked with discussing and voting on constitutional amendments and resolutions that would impact the movement and electing a new governing body. We met candidates, read bios, and made our decisions as a group after much deliberation. As a Board nominee, however, I became the person that voting delegates wanted to speak with to hear my thoughts and ideas for the movement, to ask questions, to get to know the person behind the brief bio they had received. It was important for them to build relationships with the people that could potentially be leading the World YWCA movement into the next quadrennium, a responsibility that is taken very seriously.
Upon being selected by the YWCA USA to be the candidate to the Board, I was immensely excited yet nervous at the same time. Excited because this is exactly what I had been working towards; a platform to learn from some of the most remarkable women I have ever encountered, to listen to the voices of women with vastly different experiences than any I could imagine, and to impact change in the lives of many. During the first few business meetings of the 2019 World Council, my nervousness increased as I grasped the breadth of the responsibility being entrusted to me. “Oh God, what if I am not elected to the Board? Oh God, what if I am?” I kept fearfully praying, seeking guidance and wisdom. Then I looked around me, at the women representing the USA on this global stage, at the women I was creating relationships with from other parts of the world, and realized that here, here is guidance and wisdom I could draw upon. I was not an island. I was part of a vast network of women with wisdom, experiences, passions, education, and ideas that I could lean into for support. With these women supporting me, I could face this mountain.
So, I networked. I was introduced, interviewed, and interrogated by women taking their role as voting delegate very seriously and making sure that the vote they cast would matter. I met Rosemary from Zambia, a seasoned YWCA woman with earned wisdom in her eyes. She sized me up, scrutinized me, asked me the hard questions and watched me choose my responses thoughtfully. In the end, I earned her trust, and her vote. Thankfully, I gained a friend as well. This phenomenon continued to occur as I interacted with other women during the conference. There was Helena from Poland, Miriam from Bangladesh, Mathapelo from Lesotho, Rosalie from the Bahamas, Chloe from Switzerland, Laura from Uganda, and so many others. While we were networking professionally and handling business throughout the week, we developed bonds of trust and sisterhood that will carry us through the years to come.
In today’s technological era, the barriers of distance and time are a faint memory in maintaining relationships. With every new person I met, I received a business card, contact information put into my phone so we could stay in touch via WhatsApp, and even new Facebook friends. To be embarrassingly honest, I have kept in touch with friends I have made overseas at World Council more than my own friends and family here in the states. We shared an experience so awe-inspiring and monumental that it forever changed the way we see our footprint in the world.
For the opening ceremony of World Council, each country wears attire representing their country and is introduced on the floor. Together, all of the delegation for the country marches into to the room to the cheers and applause of their sister YWCAs. It’s rather reminiscent of the Olympics, but on a much smaller scale. That is one of the parts I think I enjoy the most, seeing everyone dressed in attire representing their country and the pride with which they wear them. Some of the costumes are quite colorful and elaborate, while others are much more subdued. Some countries decide to dress in uniforms while others allow more creative interpretation. The USA traditionally wears all white attire which is accented with a scarf of our signature persimmon color. This year, the YWCA USA delegation wore beautiful silk persimmon and gray scarves for our commemorative 160 year anniversary.
During the opening ceremony and gala, which took place later in the week, South African artist Tu Nokwe entertained the attendees for the evening. Her music is a spiritual new age African with influences of jazz and funk. While her music was unfamiliar to many in the room, that did not stop everyone from leaving their seats to join at the front of the room and on stage to dance the night away. Language and cultural barriers may separate us at different points in life, but music has a way of bringing everyone together. It was so beautiful and moving! Women danced and laughed together in joy! At one point, Jenny from YWCA Berkley/Oakland and I were teaching women from Honduras and Lebanon how to do the electric slide to some of Tu Nokwe’s music. It was the perfect evening of joyous celebration!
The Council meetings themselves are much like many other conference business meetings. There are financial reports given, presentations from guest speakers about topics close to our mission, and workshops. This year, the guest speakers spoke on topics such as climate change, intergenerational leadership, and transforming power structures. The membership heard reports from the Global Governance and Constitution Committee, the Nominations Committee, and the Young Women’s Global Advisory Committee from representatives of the current World Board and committee members. There was much discussion among the membership around issues pertaining to constitutional amendment changes. These meetings and votes would often run well over the allotted time schedule and send us late into the evening. The constitutional amendments are so important because they impact the World YWCA movement, and thereby all of us. Because different languages are being used to span so many different cultures, some things can be lost in translation at times which adds to the lengthy discussion. My heart really went out to those individuals who were working on the constitutional amendments, the amendments from the floor, making the necessary translations into English/Spanish/French, and keeping track of the minute-taking for this process. It was quite grueling work, but very important to do correctly and ensure that everyone felt heard and valued.
Finally, the elections for the Board of Directors took place. The Board of Directors acts as the governing, guiding body of the World YWCA between the years of World Council meetings. The election procedures were very well detailed. Instructions were reviewed multiple times. Staff and volunteers were on hand to help answer questions or deal with technology difficulties. Being one of the few non-voting people in the room during the time the elections were cast, I can tell you that the air was heavy. The voting delegates had been taking great measures to confidently vote on individuals they believed would best serve the World YWCA movement. Of 41 people whose names had been put forth, only 20 would be selected. Those 20 people would make up the Board of Directors; one President, one Treasurer, six Vice Presidents, and 12 board members. The Nominations Committee took the evening after the elections to verify the votes and made the announcement the next morning. I had expected to see tears of anguish or grief from the nominees who were not selected, but I saw none of that. Everyone seemed genuinely happy for the women who had been selected to lead the movement for the next four years. Of course, it may have been difficult for me to see the tears of others through my own tears that day after the announcements were made. I did not realize I had been holding my breath until I saw my name flash across the screen: ANDREA THAXTON – USA, NORTH AMERICA. My first feeling was relief which was quickly replaced with a surge of excitement as I was swept up into a wave of hugs, tears, and congratulations. Ok, maybe the tears were still just mine.
From the moment I discovered I was elected to the World YWCA Board of Directors, my mentality changed. I was no longer working to find my place among these women. These were my women. It was now my responsibility to represent them, to listen to them, to be their voice, to help to lead them. I launched myself into conversations and workshops soaking in all of the information I could, challenging myself to learn more about global relations, peace treaties, and the World YWCA constitution. I am not sure if any other new Board member felt this way. I was too embarrassed to ask when we all first met. I just felt this burning need to enter into this new position as well-informed as I could possibly be. I want to represent our country well and bring pride to my national office and local community.
The last day of World Council, there was a ceremonial passing of the torch from the former Board members to the incoming Board members and a pinning ceremony. To an outsider, it may have seemed a silly, meaningless ceremony, but to someone sitting in that room it was moving. These women were joyful yet solemn as they approached the stage that day and were handed their Bibles, constitutions, and calabashes. It is no small task being placed before these women to lead the World YWCA into the next four years. There is much work to be done. The former Board pinned lapel pins to our blouses and gave us congratulations.
A woman I had briefly met through a colleague approached me, Haifa from Palestine. Haifa was completing her term on the Board as a Vice President. She gripped me by the shoulders and leaned in so I could clearly hear her. She exclaimed to me how proud she was that I had been elected. She had read my bio and thought I would be a valuable asset to the Board of Directors moving forward. Her words touched me as I was feeling overwhelmed with the task before me. As she leaned closer and placed her forehead against mine, she said to me confidently, quietly, “I pass my torch to you.”
Upon the conclusion of the World Council meetings, there are people everywhere. Everywhere you turn, there is a smile and an open embrace to wish you well, congratulate you, thank you for your friendship, wish you safe travels, tell you farewell…. It can be a lot to process during an already emotional time. (I’m a sap, if you can’t tell.) I slipped outside into the fresh air and let the wind dance through my hair as I took some deep, cleansing breaths. “This is what I have been working for,” I reminded myself. It was incredible. I never would have imagined that a small-town West Virginia girl who prefers solitude at a mountain lake over shopping in the big city would be in a position of governance for a world movement. I never would have imagined that I would have the opportunity to travel beyond my country’s borders and meet these incredible women and have these remarkable experiences. At the end of a long journey, I am always ready to go home. West Virginia is my home. It is my favorite place to be. Yet, I am always sad to leave the feeling of unity and togetherness that is World Council, sad to leave the excitement of new friendships and discoveries. If I could just bundle it all up and bring it back to West Virginia with me, maybe then people would understand how truly special World YWCA is to me.
The new Board of Directors had its first meeting after the Council meetings had ended. Haifa saved me a seat next to her. The outgoing Board shared bits of wisdom with us as their parting words. Then the incoming Board made our introductions to each other. Looking around the table at the other women I will be serving with for the next four years, I saw my same expression reflected back at me in in the eyes of many. Excitement, nervousness, confidence, determination. None of us have all of the answers, but collectively we will all be able to serve our movement well. “We are one.”
To see more images of the World Council experience, the World YWCA has shared some of their professional images here.
Andrea Thaxton Arbogast works as the Executive Manager with YWCA Charleston, West Virginia, USA, where she provides extensive support to the CEO, Board of Directors, and many committees. She is an important liaison between the for-profit and non-profit sectors where she works to promote opportunities for young professionals to become engaged in their communities via volunteerism and nonprofit board participation. Andrea created and now chairs the Young Women’s Advisory Group and its mentoring program for high school girls, YWCA Girl Talk. She serves on the Executive Committee for the YWCA World Service Council which is the fundraising arm of the YWCA USA focused on fundraising for the World YWCA and its 122 country affiliates. She has worked to be engaged with the YWCA USA and World YWCA through her attendance at many regional and national meetings, and her participation in events such as the 2015 and 2019 YWCA World Council and the 62nd United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Andrea was most recently elected to serve on the Board of Directors for the World YWCA representing North America (USA).
Article and pictures by YWCA Charleston