Women to Watch

VANESSA MCDOWELL

LEADING THE EQUITY CHARGE FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
By Lisa Bauer

IF NOT US, WHO? IF NOT NOW, WHEN?” A quote attributed to an early Jewish leader, this is Vanessa Mc- Dowell’s mantra. “If I wanted to throw in the towel and give up, what is the consequence for future generations?” she says. “I believe I’m part of a bigger purpose to help heal a broken world.”

As YWCA Madison’s new chief programs officer, she oversees the Housing, Employment & Training and Restorative Justice departments where she’ll have a broad impact on direct service programs in these areas. She’s known for her solutions-focused influence, and a fresh, hopeful outlook that melds with a fierce determination to reduce homelessness and promote job training. McDowell’s keenly aware of the link between housing and employment: “If you don’t have a place to sleep, you don’t have time to look for a job.” She’s pushing for partnerships with local businesses to increase employment opportunities.

McDowell emphasizes the Y’s Restorative Justice program, under her charge, as a way to attack racial disparities by shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline. “The program has blossomed as an alternative to punitive measures for students who could otherwise be funneled into the criminal justice system. It gives them a chance to heal.”

She’s healed and inspired by her faith, and her parents. Milwaukee natives, they marched for civil rights in the ’60s. “My parents have a drive for justice and a strong work ethic. They are trailblazers,” she says. With another nod to her mother, McDowell is a legacy and active member of the Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., an organization committed to community service.

McDowell’s also an advocate for mental wellness in the African-American community. She adds, “We don’t have to stay in a state of brokenness. I believe we can be healed and restored.” Hers will be a best effort to share that vision.