Hi! We’re Ally & Amanda — your go-to blogging duo for all things Knoxville business. We’ve got the inside scoop, and we’re here to share it with you! Whether you’re looking for some mid-week motivation or just a quick, insightful read, we’ve got the tales of trials and triumphs you’re looking for.
This month’s coffee and conversation was truly one for the books! We met up with local businesswoman, activist, and visionary, Alizza Punzalan-Randle, to chat about her journey to CEO of YWCA Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley. We started by talking about her family, her passion for advocacy, and her commitment to her career… but by the end of brunch, we found ourselves engulfed in a deep, yet enlightening conversation on today’s hottest social issues. It was a full and impactful conversation between new friends, and we’re excited to share a small part of Alizza’s story with you now!
First, tell us a little bit about YWCA. Just how far does your organization reach?
“YWCA is an international membership organization that’s been around for over 160 years. Our local chapter, founded in 1899, is part of an association of about 200 U.S. affiliates and we’re one of four in Tennessee. In terms of reach, our YWCA covers 6 counties where we operate out of 3 locations: downtown Knoxville, Oak Ridge, and the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in East Knoxville.”
What’s your core mission and how does your team work to uphold it in our area?
“In general, all YW’s follow the same mission of eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all. But we all go about that goal in our own way, based on what our local communities needs most. In our service area, our programs address transitional housing, youth development, and domestic violence victim advocacy. Because those are the spaces where we’re needed. We uphold our mission by working very closely with law enforcement, the community, and other non-profits in the area. That way, if we don’t offer a particular program or service, we’ll know just where to send someone.”
What’s a typical day at the office look like for you?
“There’s no typical day!” she laughs. “Which is what I honestly love about this job. If anything reoccurs, it would be administrative work. Fundraising, payroll, maintenance repairs, partnership management… you know, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. That stuff doesn’t change. But it’s much more than that every day. It’s managing real relationships. It’s interacting with our clients as they pass us on the stairwell— many of whom are women that feel passed by or looked down on by society.
In the office, I have 7 people on my leadership team. It may sound tedious, but we meet every week as a group and then I meet with them individually for about an hour each. That weekly time together is how I stay connected with them and our mission. Positive, personal connection with the people around us is so important.”
What led you to a career with YWCA?
“I actually grew up here! As in, at this YWCA. I learned how to swim here when I was 7,” she recalls. “Then I went through Y-Teens, which was a leadership development program for teenagers. After graduating from Rhodes College in Memphis, I moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. I lived there for nearly 20 years, but I never truly left the YWCA. I still served on the local and national boards, and I even sent my daughter to the local YW’s childcare center.
Funny enough, I got a music degree. That led me to work for a symphony orchestra as a PR Director, which is where my nonprofit administration background kicked in,” she laughs. “I’ve been involved with nonprofits ever since! So, when this position opened up last year, we moved back and I got to be closer to my parents again. It’s interesting because my parents and the YWCA have both shaped who I am today. So, the YW’s always been a part of me, and now getting to be a part of this chapter in the organization’s story is just really cool.”
What is one challenge you’ve overcome since taking on your role as CEO in 2018?
“The first year in any new role, especially a leadership one, is challenging. I’ve found that it has taken me about that long to get a firm grasp on everything. From getting to know the 50ish staff members on a personal level to managing the many grants that keep our programs going… it’s a lot! Have y’all ever written grants? Shew!” she jokes.
From eliminating racism to ending violence, your team strives to better the community in many important ways. What do you believe is today’s most pressing social issue and why?
“I would say… systemic inequality. It covers health, wealth, racism… everything. The way I see it, many groups and coalitions have an issue they’re trying to address, right? So, I sit and listen to their mission and about their outreach. What I find, though, is that we can talk about an issue and the “band-aids” we’ve put on them all day long, but the question remains: what systems is this person willing to put in place to create lasting change? How deep is the organization willing to go? If we’re not willing to change those systemic issues where it really matters, like within the law, then we won’t be able to create a long-lasting impact.
“If you want to affect the largest number of people — and the people who need it most — then you need to change at a systemic level.”
— Alizza Punzalan-Randle
How do you stay motivated (to drive positive change) despite certain negativity surrounding “hot” social issues in today’s media?
“My daughters,” Punzalan-Randle says promptly with a smile. “They’re seven and two and a half years, and they’re mixed-race. My husband is Caucasian and I’m Filipino, so they already experience comments from classmates… you know, kids being kids. But even kids notice what’s uncomfortable, especially a seven-year-old. She’s been listening to NPR since she was in the womb, after all,” she laughs.
“But really, she sees people on social media and she doesn’t even have social media. She sees the way people react to the news. She hears the comments and gets the questions. So, when I think of equality, I think of my daughters. They’re what keeps me motivated. When they’re my age, and they experience a struggle or challenge, I want them to be able to come from an understanding perspective and not be purely reactive.”
What are you most excited for in 2020?
“Wow. 2020 is a big year! The YW has several milestones this year. It’s the 100th anniversary of our Phyllis Wheatley Center, the 25th anniversary of our Diversity Day/Race Against Racism, and the 10th anniversary of the Keys of Hope Luncheon, our largest annual fundraiser. We have a lot of events planned around diversity and inclusion this coming year, and it was a big part of why I was hired, so it’s really exciting for me.
At YWCA, we do a great job at advocating for our victims and the women we serve, but eliminating racism? It’s hard. It’s like achieving world peace. But 2020 will take YWCA several steps closer to achieving our mission in our community, and we’ve never been more excited to be part of the conversation about change.”
Big thanks to Alizza for taking the time to share her story with us!
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