Helping All Women to Have It All | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Helping All Women to Have It All

People considering new jobs often look for clues that their prospective employer shares their values.

For Danielle Moss Lee
(Ed. D. ’06), who recently became Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of the City of
New York, the writing was literally on the wall.

That would be the motto of the 154-year-old institution, which is the country’s oldest YWCA: “Eliminating racism and empowering women.”

“For some people empowering women means only helping disadvantaged women, but I think there are so many areas where women are underrepresented, despite the fact that girls are going to college more,” Lee says. “There are still salary disparities, there are still opportunity disparities.”

Lee, 43, comes naturally to her sense of mission. Her grandmother grew up in poverty and worked as a domestic at the age of eight. Later, she worked three jobs to support her children and buy her own home. 

Lee herself is the daughter of a photographer and a research librarian who once taught in the New York City schools. She attended Swarthmore College and earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership at Teachers College, where she recently joined the College’s 125th Anniversary Steering Committee.  She credits the College with making her a “huge advocate of public education,” adding that “just getting to see the systemic challenges in public education was really eye-opening.” She believes teachers, and public education in general, are the current focus of an attack that is “just a distraction that prevents us from looking at systemic inequality.”

After beginning her career as an assistant principal at the Grace Lutheran School in the Bronx, Lee held a number of leadership positions at nonprofits, including Assistant Executive Director of the Morningside Alliance and President and CEO of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund (HEAF), an after-school program that emphasizes leadership and college preparation.

In the latter job, which she held for a decade, Lee says she learned the importance of young people organizing their own events, such as college or green career fairs, as a way of developing leadership skills.

“Danielle is someone who really has the management skills and understanding and the connections and networks,” says Marcia Sells, Chair of the YWCA Board.

Lee, who has a 16-year-old daughter, says her goal at the YWCA is to reach out to women “from all walks of life” to address issues like fair pay and access to health care.  She cites a recent, much-debated article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, a political scientist at Princeton. “I think what we’ve failed to do as a country is to ask the question of who defines what ‘it all’ is,” she says. “Any time women start talking about work-life balance, people hear ‘weakness,’ ‘lack of professionalism,’ ‘not ambitious enough.’”

The YWCA offers after-school programs for children and high school students and a variety of programs for women, such as computer training, child care and workforce development. Lee also wants to involve more young women in leadership and to encourage girls to pursue STEM careers.  She believes that any effort to connect with young people must employ social media such as Facebook, and that the creation of youth councils or youth advisory groups can help with outreach, both to parents and children.

“When I was at HEAF, we worked with an immigrant family that was reluctant to let their daughter leave home and go to Yale,” she recalls. “We spent a lot of time talking with the family, and finally they decided to let her go. She graduated with honors and went on to medical school. So making a difference requires learning to listen as much as you talk, and to strike a balance. It’s a dialogue, not a monologue.” 

Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012