New YWCA Utah CEO talks about eliminating racism, her childhood and how she’ll approach the job

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liz Owens takes over as CEO of YWCA Utah on April 6, 2020.

YWCA Utah’s mission to eliminate racism is “massive” and “beautiful,” incoming CEO Liz Owens believes. But it’s also “complex and, I think, sometimes misunderstood,” she said.

“Eliminating racism does not mean that we have done it. It means that we are continually working on it, and that we’re working on it with it front and center,” Owens said.

Owens takes on this task when she starts as the CEO of the nonprofit Monday, succeeding Anne Burkholder, who is retiring after two decades with the organization. As head of YWCA Utah, Owens 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.

It’s a role Owens, 39, said she’s been preparing for over the past decade in her social justice work, from volunteering in shelters and at hotlines, to grassroots advocacy, to legislative lobbying and directing programs.

Most recently, Owens served as the executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Before that, the Lehi resident worked as the transgender program coordinator for the Utah Pride Center, education and training coordinator with the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, community engagement coordinator for the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah, and taught at Utah Valley University, Salt Lake Community College and Westminster College.

A while back, Owens decided that if she was going to spend 40 hours or more a week working, it should be at a job that made her feel “fired up” and “passionate.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Liz Owens is the new CEO of YWCA Utah.

“I just continued to look for roles and opportunities that allowed me to feel like I could contribute and like I could learn,” she said.

Owens’ dedication to gender and racial justice stems from her childhood. “I am a woman of color, and I was raised in Provo,” she said. Her mother is a Samoan immigrant and her father is African American.

“I grew up on ... food stamps and free school lunch,” which was “actually really unique in Provo in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I didn’t know a lot of other people who had that experience or had free lunch or those sorts of things,” she said.

Looking back, Owens realized “how salient my race and gender have been in my life.” It made her want “to understand more about my place in the world,” and she’s let that interest lead her.

Owens approaches her work through “the lens of understanding the intersecting issues and the dimensions of identity.” That means YWCA Utah’s three-part mission — eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all — can’t be treated as siloed issues, she said.

“You cannot eliminate racism without the rest of the mission. ... Racism will never be eliminated without gender equity and without freedom and dignity for everyone,” Owens said.

What makes this work so complicated and so difficult, she said, is that “women are not a homogeneous group.” They face different barriers and pathways depending on their identities and experiences.

“When a woman is seeking safety in escaping violence, it’s different if it’s an immigrant woman who doesn’t speak English, than if it’s a lesbian woman. They require different resources,” Owens said. The goal in the work that YWCA Utah does is to make sure no one is left behind, she said.

Earlier this year, YWCA Utah faced criticism of its commitment to fighting racism and questions about how effectively it serves women of color.

Board members had resigned in 2017 after becoming frustrated with how the nonprofit responded to reported mistreatment of women of color, particularly employees. And 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.

When asked about these reports late last month, Owens said, “I trust the women of color’s experiences and their stories matter.” They provide “essential insight into gaps in all of our anti-racism and gender equity work and illustrate how we can do better,” she said.

Eliminating racism isn’t a “little thing that we do on the side. It isn’t a workshop that we have once a year. It is something that centers all of our work” and is continually pursued, Owens said.

“I think that once you get into that work and you start to peel back the layers, one might find that racism is insidiously pervasive. It’s built into the fabric of all of our lives and institutions. And in order to really address it, we have to unlearn some things, and we have to deconstruct what it has built. And that’s hard work. It’s lifelong work. And I think it’s worthy of all of the effort,” she said.

“As a woman of color, leading this effort in this organization, you know, I will get it wrong sometimes. And as the YWCA always does and has done, we’ll continue to learn from it, and we’ll strive to do and be better,” Owens said.

Owens said she welcomes “these difficult conversations and difficult feedback in the service of growing through it. And I’m proud that I get to help move this conversation forward in our organization and in our community."

Owens also will have to navigate leading the nonprofit during the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Salt Lake City police said that 911 dispatchers received about 30% more domestic violence calls than normal. Owens said she is focused on making sure her staff and the nonprofit’s clients stay safe as they provide services.

“This pandemic is traumatizing,” she said. “... It’s really important to me to be accessible and be welcoming and dependable and trustworthy.”

YWCA Utah is a 100-plus-year-old organization, and “it has weathered these difficult crises” before, she added. Owens said she’s proud to “build on the legacy and the work that has been done," and as she begins, she’d like Utahns to know: “I want to be in community with you. I want to do this work with you.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.