Who we are – both individually, and the fabric of our communities – has been undeniably shaped by the influential, inspirational women in our lives. While each woman’s story is unique, we all have shared triumphs and struggles that unite us.
Washington Women Who Dare is a new YWCA series celebrating our collective strength as women. As our 125th anniversary celebration continues through 2019, stay tuned for exclusive interviews with local women who are shaping our region in important ways.
Lynne Varner, Associate Vice Chancellor at Washington State University Everett, made the switch from journalism to academia 5 years ago after an award-winning 25-year career writing for media outlets such as The Washington Post and The Seattle Times. Recently appointed Chair of the Board of Directors for Cascade Public Media (the first Black woman to hold this title in its history), Lynne spoke to us about the women who have shaped her and the ongoing battle to achieving true equity and inclusion.
Read on to learn how she’s gone from strength to strength, her advice for those looking to get more involved in their communities, and why acting in our collective best interest is more important than ever.
YWCA: Name a woman who has inspired you in your life and share why.
Lynne Varner: When I answer this question, it’s always my mother. She moved from a rural farm in North Carolina, was one of 9 children and moved to Washington D.C. with just a high school education. She had her first job at 17 and climbed the ladder in federal government until she retired as a top aide to one of the under secretaries at the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development--and she did it by being tenacious. She says that she learned to make a way out of no way. She never did get a college degree and she didn't marry wealthy so she had a lot of struggles, but every role she took was larger than the role previously, every dream was a bigger dream. She turns 90 in October and she volunteers and she mentors the younger women in her church.
YW: We all need a helping hand at some point in our lives. Share a time you overcame a barrier and who helped you.
LV: When I transitioned from journalism to academia, I relied on a small group of really brilliant women. They lead college campuses here, some of them are heads of education-related nonprofits, and it was clear that just as I had excelled in journalism, I could do the same in university leadership--but I also was clear about the learning curve that would exist. I knew what I didn't know. I turned to these women: Constance Rice is one, JC Johnson is another, Sheila Edwards Lange, who is president of the Seattle Colleges, Joanne Harrell, who is a UW Regent, Wanda Herndon formerly of Starbucks and Mary Pugh of Pugh Capital. These women are part of my kitchen cabinet. They supported me, helped me learn the culture of academia and it just reminded me that as women, as human beings, we have the choice to support people or leave them to sink or swim--and I’m proud that these women chose to help me swim.
YW: What advice would you have for your fellow Washingtonian women looking to make a difference in their communities, but don’t know where to get started?
LV: Start where you are. Begin building roots right in your community through service, or maybe in your workplace. I think the big one is, next time you’re invited to a fundraising luncheon, write the check but then turn around and offer your time--a lot of organizations provide a box you can check if you want to get involved. It’s easier now more than ever to really plug in!
YW: What do racial/gender equity mean to you?
LV: It’s about fairness. It means having a practice and culture of treating everyone fairly regardless of race or gender. I think of it as applying a justice lens to decisions and choices that we make. If you think about education funding, but think about it in a manner that recognizes that students don’t all bear the same set of circumstances, then you’re going to think differently. You're going to think about allocating resources not equally, because that’s not going to result in true equity, but allocate them in a way that gets at who needs more. Who is starting with far less and needs to catch up?
YW: What makes you feel empowered? How can we help empower our neighbors?
LV: Knowledge and action. When I go from thinking and planning to actually putting it into action whether it’s taking that class, joining a professional organization, or moving towards that next promotion or helping to solve some issues in the community, then I feel like I’m doing something, I’m part of the solution. For other people, the best thing I can do is to ensure they’re well informed. This goes back to my former profession I think, whether we’re talking about social inequities or another pressing problem like climate change, if you start the conversation with clarity and accuracy, it’s going to lead to empowerment because that person then has the tools (i.e the knowledge) to go out and make a decision or take action or vote.
YW: What is your hope or vision for women in Washington?
LV: That we continue to support one another and keep our collective best interests in the forefront. When I say ‘collective best interest’, it means that if some of us are doing well, but others are not, the battle for equity and inclusion continues. I hear a lot of women say, ‘we’re CEO’s, we’re getting on boards!’ and I think that’s great, but when women who take time out of the workforce to raise children can’t get back in or find themselves discriminated against because of their gender and the choices they’ve made--then we’re not doing well. If we’re still talking about “firsts” everytime a woman climbs another rung, and we do a lot, then that’s a clear signal the battle isn’t over!
YW125 is a year-long celebration of YWCA’s proud commitment to serving women and their families in our region for the past 125 years. By shining a spotlight on diverse local women and their stories, YWCA hopes to make 2019 “the year of Washington women” and lead the way in creating a new, bold vision for women across our state.
Feeling inspired after reading? Visit ywcaworks.org/get-involved to learn about the many ways you can join us in our mission to serve and empower women and girls across our region.