Vanessa McDowell

Vanessa McDowell is the new chief executive officer at YWCA Madison.

YWCA Madison

The YWCA Madison has a new chief executive officer, and it’s a first for the 109-year-old organization.

Vanessa McDowell is the first woman of color to head the local YWCA, which offers housing, transportation and job training services for low-income families while seeking to combat racism and empower women. She had been serving as interim CEO since January.

McDowell, a Madison native, was first hired as director of support services in 2014, and became chief programs officer in 2015. As interim CEO, McDowell said, she has worked to build staff morale and alter the perception of YWCA, especially with communities of color.

“I think the YWCA Madison was seen as having mostly white leadership, while a lot of the participants we serve are people of color,” McDowell said. “We’ve been coming from more of a charity model versus an empowerment model, and that’s something I’ve been adamant about changing.”

McDowell was a key figure in the move of the YWCA Empowerment Center from Latham Drive to South Park Street, a location “right in the heart of the community we serve,” she said. The new building is scheduled to open in September.

She also “took the baton” from previous CEO Rachel Krinsky on a project that will provide permanent supportive housing for homeless families. Called the “Tree Lane Project,” for the West Side street where it will be housed, the 45-unit building is expected to open to families in 2018. The YWCA is in the process of finding supporters and raising funds for the building’s services.

“We’re really trying to work with our community to be more collaborative, externally and internally, and see how we can better serve our community going forward,” McDowell said.

An open house for McDowell will be held at the new Empowerment Center on Sept. 15.


Bill Novak is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Lexy Brodt is a local reporting intern for the Wisconsin State Journal.