Women to Watch: Colleen Butler


By Lisa Bauer

COLLEEN BUTLER GREW UP IN A DIVERSE SMALL TOWN. “From as early as I can remember, we were talking about race at the school lunch table,” she says. As a teen, she set her mind on a career in racial justice. For more than a decade, Butler’s been racial justice director at YWCA Madison, transforming her program into a local powerhouse in the fight for equity.

It’s no surprise that Butler’s racked up numerous awards. YWCA Madison CEO Rachel Krinsky credits her with clutching the 2015 Association Excellence Award in the field of racial justice for the organization.

During her tenure, the YWCA’s racial justice program went from one part-time staff person to 13 staff members and nearly 100 volunteers. To its interpersonal training (with a Racial Justice Toolkit, created by Butler), the YWCA has added equity support in schools, government agencies and the business sector.

Hundreds of people gather for conversations, education and action each year at the nationally renowned YWCA Madison Racial Justice Summit, spearheaded by Butler. A recent summit resulted in a partnership between the YWCA and Rotary Club of Madison to back area businesses that hire and retain people of color. “People are finally coming to the conclusion that if we don’t figure out how to make this an equitable town, it will impact the whole community, including the corporate sector.”

Butler’s acutely aware of difficulties in navigating racial justice activism as a white woman, but she says it’s crucial that white people act, adding, “I’ve made mistakes, and I’m still learning, but we have to provide leadership and continue to have difficult conversations with white friends, family and colleagues.”

Butler will continue her powerful fight for equity. “Ultimately I want my daughter to live in a community that’s as good for all kids as it is for her.”

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