Sylvia Acosta is walking in the big footsteps of Myrna Deckert and Sandra Braham as the new CEO of the YWCA in El Paso, but she’s had big jobs before and says this one is made for her.
The Bel Air High School graduate, who went on to earn a doctorate, left a position at the University of California-Irvine to take over at the YWCA. Her first day on the job was March 1.
Acosta brings more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management to the new job, nearly all of it at UTEP, NMSU and UC-Irvine, where she helped raise $1 billion for a capital campaign.
Acosta says she knew she wanted the job as soon as she heard it was open.
“I love this community,” she said. “I have a heart and soul that beckons me back to the place I was born.”
Acosta was born in El Paso and is the daughter of a bracero program worker with a third-grade education and a mom who worked in a jeans factory. She hopes to help teach young women what she learned at the YWCA while growing up.
“Everything is possible,” she said. “That is what I learned from the YWCA, and it stuck.”
Acosta, 49, is married to Joe Graham, who was born and raised on New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and is director of the American Indian Resource Program at UC-Irvine.
Her son, Alex, is a videographer who is better known in El Paso as the rapper Tobi Brown and her daughter, Sybonae, is an eighth-grader.
Acosta’s husband continues to work in California. And they will be meeting up in California, El Paso or somewhere in between, and he’s OK with that.
“When I showed him this position, he knew there was no option,” she said. “We’ll work it out.”
The organization she’s taken over touched more than 41,000 lives in the last fiscal year and continues to be the largest and most comprehensive YWCA in the nation.
Acosta sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about why the El Paso YWCA is so successful, how it carries out its missions and why she left a perfectly good university job to come back to El Paso.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622
Q: The YWCA’s mission statement is “eliminating racism, empowering women.” How does the El Paso YWCA carry out those missions, and what are the priorities?
We are very focused on empowering women. We have our Transitional Living Center for homeless women and their children. We have classes that they take. We have the LIFT program created as part of the Transitional Living Center. It’s a 14-week intensive program where they learn customer service. If they don’t have their GED, we help them to get their GED.
One of the stories that we had for the Women’s Luncheon was Gisela Garcia Escobedo, who was one of our Mi Casa participants. She was working on her mechanical engineering degree and became homeless. She lived with us for over a year. In that time, we provided the childcare she needed. We provided the after-school care and the opportunity for her to spend long evenings studying, so that this year she can finish with her degree. We are very proud of that story.
Q: How many women are using the Transitional Living Center and why?
We have an average of 374 women a year. Many of them are in difficult situations, either domestic abuse situations or maybe they’ve lost their job or there’s been some situation that has caused them to become homeless. So they come to our center.
Q: This YWCA describes itself as the “largest and most comprehensive” YWCA in the U.S. El Paso doesn’t have many biggest and bests. In what ways is this YWCA the biggest and most comprehensive?
We’re very proud of that distinction. In addition to being the largest, I think one of the things we are striving for is to be the best in the country. We are the largest provider of varied services because we have 64 sites where we provide services in the county. The closest to us is Birmingham, Alabama, which has 33 sites. That’s what makes us the largest.
What makes us the best is the fact that we care deeply about the families we serve. We care deeply about making sure that everything we do within the organization is focused on educational achievement of either the children or the families and making sure that they’re getting out of difficult situations. At the YWCA, we don’t believe in a handout we believe in a hand up. That’s our goal, to provide individuals with the tools to be successful.
Q: What about eliminating racism?
We believe the best way to eliminate racism is through conversation and through engagement of different types of individuals through curriculum. One of the things that we do is diversity training, and we provide diversity training for facilitators throughout the city who can go out and have these sometimes very difficult conversations. That’s the role we take in eliminating racism. For us, it is all about education and providing an opportunity for open and free conversations.
Q: Are you talking about diversity training for companies?
Yes, in companies, in schools, in our after-school programs, our summer camps and our teen leadership programs. We provide diversity training in the sense of providing opportunities for dialogue. There’s an opportunity for us to talk about how our differences make us special and how our differences make us good people to be around.
Q: Soon after you started here, the YWCA lost its keynote speaker for the women’s luncheon on April 27, Ashley Judd. You quickly found Erin Gruwell, who inspired the movie “Freedom Writers.” How did that come about?
I met Erin when I moved to California. When I went to go work at the University of California-Irvine four years ago, she was one of our alumni. She needed somebody to work with her on some of her management and nonprofit issues. So she asked me to serve on her board. I served on her board for many years, and in that time, she and I really created a very tight bond.
We became very dear friends and because of that, I was able to call in a favor. She had already been on our list of speaker candidates for many years.
Q: How was the event?
It was so wonderful, I am still getting phone calls, emails and notes from people saying thank you for bringing Erin. It was so incredibly inspirational. People were moved to tears by her speech. It wasn’t so much a formal speech as it was a moment for her to connect with the community, and she did it in such a genuine way. She talked about things that matter, you know, standing up, using your voice for things that matter in your community. It was like having a conversation with 2,000 of her closest friends.
Q: What is the budget and how many employees does the YWCA have?
Some people say we have a $50 million budget, and other people say we have a $26 million budget, because we do have a lot of pass-through grants that go through our organization. Our official budget is in the $26 million range, and we have 450 employees.
Q: How much of the money that you raise is local and where does it come from?
I would say that a large percentage of our money comes from private philanthropy from local donors. A large percentage of that comes from the Women’s Luncheon. We did have a capital campaign a few years ago, and that capital campaign was funded through individual donors from this community. So I’d say the largest percentage of our donors are from the El Paso region.
Q: What percentage is that?
Our philanthropic giving is probably about 8 percent of our total budget. The rest of our budget comes from federal and state contracts and partnerships that we have throughout the community that provide funding for either after-school care, private pay for our early learning academies, or partnerships. For instance, Workforce Solutions Borderplex provides a large portion of our funding, because they help to fund our early learning academies or help to supplement pay for those individuals that are using our early learning academies to utilize our resources.
Q: So you’re very reliant on federal and state funds. Are there possible cutbacks in those funds coming that have you concerned?
We do get U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding as well, but none of the programming or budget cuts that have been proposed directly affect the services that we have. There have been some changes to the way that the monies are being expended.
For example, with HUD we used to get money for direct services to clients for after-school childcare. Now that’s not going to happen in that way; it’s rapid rehousing, providing a roof over the head of individuals that come through our programming. So the service part of it is being affected. That’s where our philanthropy will come into play, along with increases in partnerships with the school districts.
One of the most important partnerships for us is with the school districts and providing the after-school programming for each of the school districts. That really helps to support many of the programs we have. So we are deeply indebted and just absolutely excited about the type of relationships we have with the school districts.
Q: I hear you’re a good fundraiser. Is that going to be a big part of your job here at the YWCA?
A large percentage of our budget depends on partnerships. So expanding those partnerships is my No. 1 priority. Philanthropy plays a big role in what we do. Does it play the largest role in what we do? No. But it is critically important to our mission and to supporting those programs like the Transitional Living Center that really have no other funding sources. That’s really important.
The biggest part of our business really has to do with the partnerships we have with Workforce Solutions Borderplex, the county, Rio Grande Council of Governments and the school districts. So making sure that we solidify and grow those partnerships is going to be critical for us as we move forward.
Q: What were you doing before you took this job, and what made you want to return to El Paso to take this position?
I was an assistant vice chancellor at the University of California-Irvine, and my job was to manage all of the fundraisers at the university. For a while, I even managed the health fundraisers for the university. I had about 50 to 60 direct reports that were all fundraisers, and my job was to secure and solicit funds with individuals over $5 million. That was my direct job and to oversee all the other fundraisers and to create management and management structures so that they could be successful.
Q: Why did you come back to El Paso?
I love this community. I have a heart and soul that beckons me back to the place I was born. There’s a Mexican saying, in Latino tradition, it’s kind of a philosophy. One of the things you learn is where your umbilical cord is buried. That’s where you’re rooted, and that’s where you’ll always come back to. Mine is buried here.
When I was a teenager, I participated in the YWCA program here. I was involved in a girl’s leadership program. I really feel like that program taught me about how to prioritize. It taught me about goal setting and more than anything, it taught me there was nothing I could not accomplish.
To be able to come back and with this position open, there was not a doubt in my mind for one second that this is where I wanted to be.
This is what I wanted to do. It was an honor – like the circle of life. For me, this was the perfect position to be able to come back to and be the CEO, because now I can say to other young ladies, mothers and participants that everything is possible. You can accomplish anything because I was there and I did it, and this organization helped me do it. That’s why I love this organization, and that’s why I came back to El Paso.
Q: It sounds like you came to stay.
I am here. I am not going anywhere. I found my home.
Q: Where did you live in El Paso?
We lived in many places. My dad was a bracero, so we moved around a lot. When we first were in El Paso, we were in the Segundo Barrio. We lived in a one bedroom little apartment. Then my dad got a job with ASARCO, and that changed the trajectory of our entire family was that job. Now we could buy a house, now we could have consistency. My father purchased his first house, and I still own that house by Bel Air High School. Then, he continued to purchase other homes. By the time I was in high school, my dad was the landlord for practically our whole neighborhood.
He said this is what we need to be doing, so he started buying little houses all around our neighborhood, and when my mother passed away, we still had two of those homes. We still own those homes.
Q: What does your husband do?
He’s the director of Native American resources at UC-Irvine before that he was the director of Native American resources at New Mexico State. We’re going to try and figure out what he is going to do.
He is doing a lot of work over there. He’s helping to bring back the first the only Native American university.
Q: Are you going to meet halfway? Is he there and you’re working here?
Yes, he is going to be there. He actually is probably going to be in both places so we’ll figure out how that works out. When I showed him this position, he knew there was no option. He was very supportive he says I know there is, you have to say yes to this. If you get this position, you have to say yes because it is where your heart is. So, he has always been that kind of individual, very supportive of everything we have done. He’s excited about this opportunity.
He is doing a lot of work over there. He’s helping to bring back the only Native American university.
Q: Education is clearly important to you and has made a big difference in your life. What do you think about where El Paso is today? Is there a way the YWCA can make a bigger difference when it comes to education here?
That’s something I am extremely focused on right now. We have changed the names of our early learning centers to early learning academies, and we did that very deliberately. Our goal is to improve the educational outcomes of those children. We’ve always been focused on it, but now we’re just laser focused. We’re working to make sure all those kids who go through our program are school ready. We want to make sure that we have evidence-based programming within our early-learning academies. I am working on partnerships with UTEP and El Paso Community College to see how we can do some research see how we can best measure our outcomes with those kids once they leave those programs.
Q: Why do you think the YWCA is important in El Paso?
We have homeless families. We help women that require a hand up and some support. We help children that are school-aged, children that are birth to school age. We have a teenage leadership program to help try to prevent dropout. We also have specific programming for, and we are going to work with SISD on a girl’s summer camp academy where we are going to promote opportunities for girls to grow in their own environment. We want to provide STEM there.
And, we want to provide leadership opportunities. So, it’s all of these things that we do, because that’s why we are the largest and because we do so many different things.
We have the LIFT program where we work with kids that have been adjudicated and we work with them to try help them get a job. Many of our kids go through that program. When they come into our program, they’re earning $7.25 an hour. When they leave our program, they’re earning $7.75. If you’re making that kind of money, a 50-cent raise is a big deal. Half of those go into post-secondary education. So, many of these kids that may come out of the system feeling like they have nowhere to go come to the YWCA, and we say you are worth it. You can accomplish!
When a person is adjudicated, they feel like they don’t have many options. It’s hard for these individuals to get hired because they’ve been in the juvenile system. We work with adult probation as well. They are coming out, and many of those individuals don’t have access to a job. We work with employers to try to make sure they get a job once they go through our program.
So, if you ask me why the YWCA is important to the community, it’s because we’re the social safety net in so many areas because we are so broad in the types of services we provide. So, I can’t imagine a day without the YWCA. I just can’t.
Q: Are there any new areas you want to take this YWCA? Any partnerships or programs that you are developing?
We are open for partnerships. We believe we are stronger when we come together as a community. How ever we can partner. Right now, what we are looking at is just improving education. For us, the No. 1 focus is what are we doing with our after-school programs to make sure that these kids are junior high ready?
We want to make sure they are middle school ready. Are we tutoring them? We are working on those educational outcomes right now. That is our number one priority for school age and K-10, birth through school age children. When it comes to other programming, it’s just making sure that we are providing an opportunity for people to advance in their lives by providing them with the right tools so that they can be successful.
Q: As you look at education statistics for El Paso, getting a college level education is still an issue. Now that you’re looking at a city that is approaching 1 million people, and unless something changes the direction of both income and education, we’re going to be a big and potentially poor city.
I think that’s why most of the leadership in El Paso is focused on our educational obtainment. I just spoke at UTEP to students about the fact that only 9 percent of Mexican-Americans have bachelor’s degrees, 3 percent have master’s degrees and less than one percent of Mexican-Americans have doctorates.
So when I was sitting in a room filled with students, they thought those numbers were really puzzling because everyone they see around them is Mexican-American. They were, like, how can that be the number when we’re the majority. They don’t realize that when you leave this city, that this is a different world. We should be encouraging more of our kids to finish at UTEP, to finish at El Paso Community College and move onto UTEP.
What role can we as the YWCA have in helping to facilitate that? What do we need to do to build kids’ self-esteem? What do we need to make sure that we help them self-correct? Maybe they’re going in the wrong direction. How do we encourage kids that have been adjudicated and say to them, “It’s OK, go back to school. You still have an opportunity to make a difference.”
All of that is where we’re focused. That’s where we are going to move. Those are the kinds of things we are going to provide for our families.
Our LIFT program is very new. It has only been around for two years, and it was funded through Wal-Mart through Prudential. We have other funders that are coming onboard. It was a pilot program to see how it worked, and it’s working. We are seeing these kids move on, and what’s most exciting to me, beyond their salary increase, is the fact that they’re going on to postsecondary education, whether that means being a chef or going onto El Paso Community College and then to UTEP, whether that means being a mechanic, or an electrician or whatever it may be. They’re going beyond their circumstances. That’s what the YWCA is all about. We’re about moving people from beyond their circumstances to hope and to a new way of life.