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‘We forgot the why’ — YMCA’s new CEO hopes to bring back organization’s message

Dorri McWhorter says the YMCA has forgotten the reason they do what they do. She plans to partner with community organizations to bring that message back.

New YMCA CEO Dorri McWhorter at the Crown Family YMCA Center, 1030 W. Van Buren St., photographed on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
New YMCA CEO Dorri McWhorter has held that post since Aug. 2; before that, she was CEO at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago for eight years.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Many who know Dorri McWhorter say she has “incredible energy.”

She laughs easily, gestures a lot and is not afraid to share her thoughts.

All that is especially clear when the CEO of the YMCA of Metro Chicago is asked about revamping the 163-year-old organization.

“I just really want us to be recognized as the largest provider of human services and that we are engaging with communities in such deep ways,” said McWhorter, 48. “I don’t know that people really recognize how much work we do.”

McWhorter has been CEO since Aug. 2; before that, she was CEO at the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago for eight years. She is the first woman and the first top Black executive of the Chicago YMCA.

Her first weeks in her new job already included challenges. Membership decline over the years led to drastic financial losses and forced three locations to close permanently in 2020.

In her first week, McWhorter fought to keep several other locations open despite the financial constraints. She succeeded, in part by using $5.3 million donated to the Metro YMCA by MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

McWhorter said she’s now looking at “how many communities we actually divested from over the past few decades.”

New YMCA CEO Dorri McWhorter at the Crown Family YMCA Center, 1030 W. Van Buren St., photographed on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.
YMCA CEO Dorri McWhorter says the organization had divested from Black and Brown communities over the years, and wants to refocus on providing human services.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Many already have reached out to her, “saying ‘Hey, we really miss having a YMCA here,’” she explained. “That’s one of the first things I’m asking for, from a data perspective: how our footprint has evolved over time, because it’s no secret that that footprint hasn’t been in Black and Brown communities.”

McWhorter blames a membership-driven business model for that divestment.

Membership fees vary by location, age and household size. For instance, members of the South Side YMCA, 6330 S. Stony Island Ave., pay $24 a month from ages 11 through 18, then pay $27 a month starting at age 19 through age 26. But when someone turns 27, the fee jumps to $51 a month.

“Unfortunately, that particular model doesn’t always allow us to participate in communities that can’t afford those fees,” McWhorter said.

But in focusing on the lost membership — and with it, the loss of revenue — McWhorter said the YMCA lost its way.

“We got caught up in the ‘what’ and forgot about the ‘why,’” she said.

The only way to get that “why” back, McWhorter said, is to put boots on the ground. She’s using her Fridays as “immersion days,” spending time at centers around the city. More importantly, McWhorter plans to partner with community-based organizations.

“If we’re truly going to make a difference here, we need to do things differently,” she said. “To me, we already have the asset base of the programs. It’s just how we deploy ourselves that will need to change.”

“Wonder Woman” items decorate the office of new Dorri McWhorter, the new CEO of the YMCA of Metro Chicago.
“Wonder Woman” items decorate the office of new Dorri McWhorter, the new CEO of the YMCA of Metro Chicago. McWhorter, who spent eight years as CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, is fond of the items, and often has been compared to the comic book character.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Already, McWhorter has contacted Garfield Park’s Rite to Wellness Collaborative, Dr. Byron Brazier with the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn and the Walt Disney Birthplace in Hermosa.

Rite to Wellness plans to launch a center whose goal will address West Side residents’ “death gap” — the fact that residents of neighborhoods in that part of Chicago have shorter lifespans than those living elsewhere in the city.

Through the partnership with the Rite to Wellness, McWhorter said the YMCA can provide West Side residents with “access to wellness in many different ways.”

Meanwhile, with the Obama Presidential Center being built near the South Side YMCA, McWhorter and Brazier have been meeting to discuss plans to minimize displacement and gentrification that some fear the project may cause.

“How do you support a community ... if you have no amenities, or if you have no support structure, or if there’s no place for them to shop or to go or walkability or things of that nature?” Brazier said.

One way, he said, is to look at an empty city-owned lot between the church and YMCA on Stony Island Avenue. Development in Woodlawn needs to complement what’s already in the community — and the presidential center.

“We have both an opportunity and a responsibility to look at how we best support those as stakeholders of Woodlawn — who are not going anywhere,” Brazier said

While focused on development in Woodlawn, McWhorter is hoping to use the Walt Disney birthplace home to develop joint programs focused on early childhood development, creativity and innovation.

The famous animator was born in Chicago at 2156 N. Tripp Ave. That home has been restored and plans to host youth programs that focus on creativity, learning and innovation, which is part of the YMCA’s mission as well, McWhorter said.

Dina Benadon and Brent Young founded the nonprofit Walt Disney Birthplace to restore and operate the home. They say they hope to “build engaging experiences” for YMCA youth.

“Creativity needs to start and home very early,” Young said. “It can be fun, but it’s also something that’s really important. (The YMCA) has programs and child overnights, and they want learning to be fun and engaging.”

McWhorter said these partnerships may come as a surprise to some, but that’s only because many of the services offered by the YMCA are overlooked. While the memberships are important, she said, the YMCA always will be about human services.

“People often talk about the pool or the gym, but what I think people underestimate is how many folks do not get the opportunity to participate in activities because of fear, because of affordability, because of the violence in their community,” McWhorter said.

“For us to create safe space in environments for them to continue to play and connect with others is a bigger deal than most people really give it credit for.”