Provo native Liz Owens, “a longtime social justice advocate,” will become the new CEO of YWCA Utah, the nonprofit announced Thursday, a decision celebrated by advocates who pointed to her experience with the state’s culture and her inclusive approach.
Owens currently is the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, where she has worked since March. As leader of YWCA Utah she will oversee what is arguably the flagship of the fight against domestic violence in Utah, including the nonprofit’s shelter, transitional housing and child care center in Salt Lake City, emergency crisis line, leadership initiatives and advocacy at the Utah Legislature.
“I am joining an organization with a long legacy of good work in our community and have deep respect for all of those who have made YWCA Utah what it is today,” she said in a statement. “I look to the future with excitement; a commitment to positive, collaborative change; and a sincere love for this work.”
One of Owens’ first challenges when she starts April 6 will be rebuilding trust with critics who have questioned YWCA Utah’s commitment to fighting racism and how effectively it serves women of color. She will succeed CEO Anne Burkholder, who is retiring after leading YWCA Utah for the last two decades.
Journey of Hope, a nonprofit focused on helping at-risk women, left its temporary office space at YWCA Utah last year because its clients — predominately women of color — were being turned away without help from the YWCA’s Family Justice Center, founder Shannon Cox said. The center provides walk-in services that include legal assistance, sexual assault nurse exams, short-term counseling and other support.
Cox’s concerns echoed issues raised by YWCA Utah board members who resigned in 2017, frustrated by how it responded to reported mistreatment of women of color, particularly employees. The departures by Journey of Hope and the board members, including Salt Lake Community College President Deneece Huftalin and Emma Houston, now director of diversity and inclusion in the Salt Lake County mayor’s office, were first reported by the Deseret News earlier this year.
On Thursday, Cox and other advocates who have worked with Owens praised her expertise with Utah issues and groups. Owens previously worked as director for community engagement at Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, and has held positions with Utah Pride Center and the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“I can’t even believe it. It’s a fricken’ miracle,” said Cox, who noted Owens has served on the board of Journey of Hope. “She’s brilliant. And she’s kind. And she gets it.”
Carol Matthews-Shifflett, volunteer and donations coordinator at YWCA Utah from 2007 to 2010, said she has continued to hear from others who, like her, were concerned about the YWCA’s treatment of women of color. Now the founder and CEO of The Sojourner Group, which supports African Americans impacted by sexual and domestic violence in Utah, Matthews-Shifflett said the YWCA needs to work more effectively on its mission of both empowering women and eliminating racism.
“Liz isn’t afraid to have the critical conversations that need to be had,” Matthews-Shifflett said Thursday. “She is the person for the mission.”
Owens has taught sociology courses at Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College, and program planning in the master of arts in community leadership at Westminster College. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Utah Valley University and her master’s degree in the theory and practice of human rights from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom.
Interviewed before Thursday’s announcement, Huftalin and Houston — who left the YWCA Utah board in 2017 — shared their hopes for the new leader. Huftalin said she hoped the new leadership team would “just really take a deep dive into the inside of the organization and the workplace culture and pay attention to some of the concerns that were raised, so that they can help create a really positive working culture going forward.”
Houston said she wanted the new CEO to be “intentional in making connections in communities that have been underserved,” and to realize how the YWCA is “viewed in the community from demographics that are marginalized.”
“They have to have a clear understanding of how to bridge that relationship, to build coalitions and partnerships, and be out of the four walls of the YWCA and to be in the community getting to know people and doing the work,” she said.
Jenn Oxborrow, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, said Owens has such connections to groups and people in Utah, and is “a passionate advocate. Liz is fierce about social justice issues. She really understands Utah culture.”
Jamie Justice, former director of the YWCA’s Family Justice Center, said she appreciates how Owens will bring “new eyes, experience, wisdom and skill” to the post. “Under Owens leadership, I hope to see YWCA Utah make advances in women’s rights, equality and social justice," said Justice, who is now the victim advocate at the University of Utah’s Department of Public Safety .
Justice said she had supported the partnership with Journey of Hope, and agreed with Cox that it exposed a gap in how at risk women are helped at YWCA Utah.
Before Journey of Hope staff began using space in the YWCA’s Family Justice Center early last year, the center was requiring anyone seeking its services to undergo a criminal background check. Cox objected, arguing it is not unusual for women at risk to have criminal histories, and that should not bar them from help or become a barrier that makes them feel unwelcome. She also questioned whether women were being effectively connected to services elsewhere.
The Family Justice Center now requires those seeking services to only undergo an initial “conflict check,” to ensure they are not involved in a criminal case related to an existing client. “The last thing we want is for anyone to be coming through our waiting room, feeling like they’ve found that place of safety, having heard that’s what we’re trying to provide, and then … while the chances would be slim … their abuser is the first person they meet,” said Liz Watson, current director of the center.
Burkholder said in a recent interview that she was “very sad and troubled” by the issues raised by Cox and others about YWCA Utah’s work with women of color. “We have not made any claims that we never make mistakes, but we are an organization that is very much aware of racism on personal levels and on institutional levels,” she said. “And, most importantly, sometimes subtly on structural levels.”
She said she had never intended to stay past 2020, and said she is proud to have overseen the expansion of the YWCA’s campus, the development of its leadership programs and its work on public policy.
During the interview, conducted before Thursday’s announcement, she said she hoped the new CEO “will be able to step in with her strengths and talents and really move the YWCA forward. We are a very strong, very stable, very effective organization and that's the gift that we want to give her. And she will bring perspectives and strengths that we'll be able to [use to] develop our mission in new ways. She will have a new vision for the YWCA and will be able to help us live our mission even more fully than we do now.”
Burkholder added: “I hope that if there are friends and partners in the community who have been frustrated and disappointed with some of the things that we have done or haven't done, that they can just let those go and see how the YWCA unfolds in the next decade and lend their support to a very special place.”
What she can assure the community, she said, "is that the person stepping into this role will be as passionate about the mission, and,” she paused, becoming emotional, “will love this place as much as I do.”