After almost 10 years as CEO of the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region, Sandra Braham is stepping down as chief executive of the largest Y in the country.
Braham and her family are moving to Clearwater, Florida, where she has accepted a position as CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services, a non-profit with an annual budget of $40 million and 700 employees.
The organization provides a number of social services, but what hit closest to home for Braham was the work it does with foster children and adults with mental illness.
Braham, who grew up near Ferguson, Missouri, in the small town of Kinloch, spent time in foster care as a high school student. Her mother had schizophrenia.
Braham, 50, moved to El Paso almost 24 years ago. She worked for 14 years at the University of Texas at El Paso in several positions, including assistant vice president for outreach programs.
In 2006, she became CEO of the local YWCA, overseeing the non-profit during a tumultuous decade. Braham is fond of saying, “I don’t do panic,” but there were plenty of opportunities to do so.
There were the big floods that swept across El Paso in 2006, which damaged the YWCA’s Sara McKnight Transitional Living Center. The big freeze of 2011 did still more damage to the non-profit’s facilities.
There was the economic recession that struck shortly after the Y launched a big capital campaign. In the end, it raised $6 million, despite competing with huge campaigns at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso and the University of Texas at El Paso.
There was the celebration of the local YWCA’s centennial and the big move in 2011, when the non-profit moved its administrative offices from the historic Sarah D. Lea Administration Building to the Chase Building in Downtown.
The Y also weathered minimum wage increases, implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other new federal mandates.
Braham is credited with modernizing the Y’s infrastructure, technology and operations.
The YWCA El Paso del Norte Region was founded more than 100 years ago. It has about 400 employees, more than 25 program areas and an annual budget of more than $28 million. Its programs touch an estimated 75,000 El Pasoans every year.
The non-profit operates five branches, after-school programs in 43 locations and is the region’s largest provider of non-profit, private child care. It also hosts summer camps, operates racial justice programs, provides housing for homeless families, teaches financial literacy and houses women and children fleeing family violence.
Braham becomes CEO of Gulf Coast Jewish Family & Community Services at a difficult time for that organization. An interim CEO has led the non-profit since its former CEO, Rochelle Tatrai-Ray, was found dead with her husband in December 2014, apparently the victim of a murder-suicide.
Braham has served on numerous boards in El Paso and was nominated for El Pasoan of the Year by El Paso Inc. in 2013. She was honored as one of six Women of Impact in 2010.
Braham and her husband, Eric, have three children, ages 23, 20 and 18.
She sat down with El Paso Inc. and reflected on her time at the YWCA. She talked about the challenges the non-profit faces, the book she is writing and the unfinished business of eliminating racism and empowering women in El Paso.
Q: Why are you leaving the YWCA?
It came as a surprise to even myself. If you live your life very purposefully and you are in tune with who you are and have a relationship with God and you depend on that for guidance, you know when it is time.
When I came to the YWCA, I thought I would be here maybe five years. At seven years, I remember being alone and very thoughtful and thinking, “God, I know that you put me here, and if it is meant for me to stay here, give me a renewed spirit.”
I had begun to feel like I was entering the cycle again, doing what I was doing at the very beginning. When you take over an organization as old as the YWCA, you spend years peeling off layers to bring the organization to modern standards.
But it hit me that we had done so much with infrastructure and technology. We celebrated the centennial. We weathered new federal mandates like the minimum wage increases. What we hadn’t done enough of was focus on the people of the YWCA – the employees who make it happen.
Q: What did you do?
We set out to rethink how we bring on new employees – how we bring them into the mission of the YWCA where it is not just a job but a way of life.
We completely revamped our employee orientation and went from a four-hour orientation to a two-day orientation, which folks love. They appreciate the investment we make in them. They see it is more than the day-to-day stuff. We are on a mission to change lives.
The next leader of this organization will bring new life and new thinking. Hopefully they will bring an entrepreneurial spirit that will really take the YWCA into the next phase.
Q: Why leave now?
I turned 50 years old and it really hit me that women, after age 50, they struggle to gain higher-level employment, some do. There are many women today who are cracking that glass ceiling.
You’ve got these younger generations that are coming up, and they are doing amazing things. But then you’ve got people like me who are at the tail end of the baby boomer generation and you reach a point where you are either going to move forward or you are going to say, “This is where I am going to be.”
To wait another five or 10 years, people think you lose your brain, especially if you are a woman.
Just look at some of the criticism aimed at (Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton, “look at her hair” – things that have nothing to do with her capacity to be president.
Q: Bernie Sanders has some wild hair.
(Laughs). Exactly. Nobody’s talking about Bernie Sanders’ hair.
Q: When Myrna Deckert retired from the YWCA in 2002, she left some big shoes to fill. The next CEO left after three years and then you took the job, becoming the chief executive of the country’s biggest YWCA. What was that like?
I had the benefit of having been on the board of directors for seven years. When you’re a volunteer on a board you know a lot about the organization but you don’t really know the day-to-day guts. That was the challenge early on.
I spent the better part of the first year just observing operations. My first priority was to address a huge and growing deficit in the child care division.
If we are going to empower women, we have to support their ability to find high quality child care. So I reorganized the division and had to make some difficult leadership changes.
After that, we were faced by the minimum wage increase for three years. At the time, we had a large minimum wage workforce, and we looked at the cumulative cost of that over three years and it exceeded $1 million.
We were trying to figure out how a non-profit absorbs $1 million in salary increases. So we started to look at how we could become more efficient. We created a central purchasing system. With about 18 locations, everybody was doing their own purchasing.
Q: And old technology, I hear.
Oh, my gosh! We had little servers that were basically old PCs at each of our branches. It was like, “There’s this computer here and it’s the server so don’t touch it.” And that is what was running the agency.
I remember people coming to the branches and they wanted to pay their bill. We’d tell the folks, “Well, come out after your workout and we’ll have your balance.”
Q: When you’re coming in as a new leader of a large organization, what is the key to making it work, especially if you are looking to make changes?
You’ve got to get to know your leadership team, because you are not coming in to be the boss of people. And if you come in with the attitude that you are going to be the boss of people, that is going to sink you very quickly. You’ve got to walk into it believing in your leadership team.
Q: Having to ask for money can be one of the more awkward parts of heading a non-profit. How do you go about it?
Another turning point during my time at the Y, and it was the first major donor relationship I was able to engage in, was meeting Stephen Wolslager with the Wolslager Foundation.
Our playgrounds had started to be closed because of licensing. They had the old tires and wood structures, and they were not safe and functional anymore. We had a huge need to rebuild them and no resources to do it.
I remember one of our employees wrote a letter to the foundation and it came back that they weren’t going to fund the Y at that time. I thought I really needed to reach out to this guy and let him know who I am and what we were doing.
Some donors had stepped away a little bit after Myrna (Deckert’s) retirement. The Wolslager Foundation had been a significant partner in helping the Y build the transitional living center. We had the opportunity to meet, and we talked and developed a working relationship and a respect for each other, and they funded us to rebuild all of our playgrounds.
People give to causes they care about, and they give to organizations that are led by people they trust.
Q: Is there one particular memory or story from your time at the Y that comes to mind right now?
At one of the transitional living center apartments years ago, a family was boiling a baby bottle and they fell asleep and the bottle began to melt. As one of the staff was doing the check, she heard the alarm and got into the apartment.
The bottle was melted on the stove and the family was in the early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning. She raised the family and saved them.
Behind the public face, there are amazing employees here that are doing amazing things without seeking the spotlight.
Q: Where does the YWCA go from here?
Leadership is a huge challenge for all non-profits as baby boomers retire. We need to continue to ensure that there is stable and solid leadership at the agency.
I attended an economic roundtable with Wells Fargo on Friday, and I was shocked to hear their economist say the only way you are going to find these people is to steal them from somewhere else. There is a huge gap as the current generation is just rising up through the ranks and they haven’t been in jobs for very long.
I am excited that we are completing our strategic plan, and the draft is set to be approved by the board. That is going to guide the next five years. Part of it is taking a hard look at our plant.
Q: How sprawling is it?
About 18 buildings. But the Y has no debt, which is great. We’ve got some land with nothing on it in Las Cruces and El Paso, and the board will be looking in the future at what to do with those properties.
Q: The Y’s tagline is “Eliminating Racism, Empowering Women.” How is El Paso doing in those areas?
On the empowering women side, the El Paso Women’s Economic Summit that was recently held was exciting. Women’s organizations came together to look at the status of women in El Paso. We are seeing the beginning pieces of a movement, with these women’s organizations really looking at how to intentionally mentor a new generation of women.
On the eliminating racism side, what we are really trying to do is become a leader in what eliminating racism looks like here on the border, where there is a large Hispanic population.
While the rest of America is looking at it in this very black and white context, we’re recognizing that we have an opportunity. We are in the process of hiring a new racial justice director who will hopefully take us to this new level. Nobody is talking about racism in this context on the national level.
Q: What is your sense of what racism looks like in this context? Is there racism in El Paso?
Anyone who would say there isn’t is in a dream world. Where El Paso is different is we have a large majority-minority population. Because of that, I think that people here are a bit savvier. If I’m outright racist, my business isn’t going to thrive. So I don’t think people are as in your face, but it is there.
Q: Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the black teen killed in Florida, is the keynote speaker at this year’s Y luncheon. Have you gotten any reaction? It’s a controversial topic.
But why should it be? The truth is why should this woman be crucified when she is the one who lost her child? That is the sad thing. So many people nationwide have tried to make this about politics when it is not.
We’ve gotten very positive reaction, but there have been a couple of folks who have said they think it is political.
I had a great opportunity on Friday to have an extended conversation with Sybrina to talk about the misinformation that’s out there. In this polarized and hypersensitive media and political environment, it’s like you can’t have a normal conversation about race without people trying to make it about politics.
Sybrina is not coming to talk about race; that is the biggest misperception. She’s coming to talk as a mom who lost her child.
“Oh, she’s using her son to cash in on his death.” That is absolutely absurd. Just like somebody who lost a loved one to cancer or Lou Gehrig’s might start a foundation, she wants to help. She is to be admired for founding an organization for women who have lost children – not just black women.
Q: You’ve been here almost 24 years, your kids grew up here, what will you miss most about El Paso?
You know what, I love the people. I will miss the people. I will miss the mountains. When I wake up and see the mountains, I think, “This is God’s place.” It is a wonderful place. This is home, and I don’t know how you leave home, and I’ve left many places.
Q: How is your book coming along?
For the past probably eight months, I have not found the time to write. I literally had about 35 pages left to edit before writing the final chapter, but I could not find a minute.
When the search firm reached out to me, it was out of the blue – totally off of my radar. I feel like my book is all about grace and these amazing things that unfold when you have faith, and this is another example of that. I’m excited about being on the beach somewhere watching the sunrise or sunset and finishing the book.