Helping to empower women
by her work and her example
Barbara Danforth was born in St. Paul Minnesota, but it is hard to tell exactly when. "I have a 16 year old daughter and a 98 year old mother so I'm somewhere between 35 and 75". Whatever her age Barbara has had an interesting life, and continues to make an impact on the lives of others, especially young women.
She actually grew up in Cleveland since her mother thought winters in St. Paul were just too cold. "This is my idea of Southern Migration - we moved to Cleveland." Having attended John Adams High School, she is a product of the Cleveland public school system.
There was never any doubt that she would go on to college, it was just a matter of choosing where. She didn't want to go too far, didn't want the school to be overwhelmingly large and she had to be mindful of tuition. She chose Eastern Michigan University, a relatively small school at the time.
"When I went to school it was actually less expensive for me to go to Eastern Michigan University as an out of state student than it was to go to an Ohio school as an Ohio resident." She received her degree in Social Work "for all of the wrong reasons. I selected a curriculum without math or science. I had no idea how to asses my skills or determine my passions." As a result she only lasted three months in this career.
By happenstance she acquired a job at All State Insurance Company and stayed there for about 4 years. They were keen on promoting her to the home office in Illinois, but she preferred to stay in Cleveland. She went to work for the Chubb Insurance Group in Cleveland and focused on investigating medical malpractice.
"This was my all time favorite job. I received an amazing one-on-one medical education." She was promoted to the Pittsburgh Office. She traveled the country to meet doctors and specialists, hired attorneys and supervised their work. It was her job to develop the strategy to be used in the case.
Barbara was the only one given authority to authorize a settlement, so the attorneys would ultimately have to come to her. "Then the medical malpractice crisis struck and it wasn't fun any more." So when they tried to promote her again, this time to the home office in New Jersey, she was ready to move on.
Barbara knew she wanted to go back to school and her decision now was between an MBA and a JD. "Once again external forces directed me. My friends all assumed I would go to law school, so that is what I did."
She got her law degree from the University of Pittsburgh. While she was still in school a law firm she had litigated against while she was with Chubb offered her a summer internship, which she accepted. She also studied one year as a visiting student at Case Western Reserve University back home in Cleveland.
Barbara Danforth instructing at the YWCA - Ohio Womens Bar Association Golf Outing
Barbara's father's family home was in Des Moines, Iowa. While visiting her family over Thanksgiving there she fell in love, got married and moved to Iowa. "There were more people of color in my high school class than there were in all of Des Moines," she recalls. She became the Assistant Attorney General for the State of Iowa, but after three years she "tired of both the marriage and the city" and came back to Cleveland.
At the time Michael White had just been elected to his first term as Mayor of the City. Her friends all encouraged her to go work for Mayor White. She became the Chief Prosecutor for the City of Cleveland and a Cabinet member during his first term. "Chief Prosecutor is the equivalent to a managing partner in the business sector."
From there Barbara went to the legal department of the Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services. She became the Legal Administrator there and calls it "the worst job - the hardest job - I ever had." She spent every day dealing with abused and/or neglected children and was frustrated and angry at the number of children that would never make it out of that system.
Barbara herself adopted a daughter out of this system. Her daughter, Halle is now 16 and a student at Beaumont High School. "She is named after the department store, just like Halle Berry." Her daughter is a major focus in her life today.
Barbara spent a lot of her time in Juvenile Court and started to think that maybe her skills would be more valuable on the bench instead of in front of it. In order to run for a political office she had to resign her position with the county, which she did. She lost the election by less than two thousand votes "and that was with an unknown name against a well known name - Sweeney."
Overnight Barbara found her self unemployed and a single mother. A friend told her that the YWCA was looking for an Executive Director. His career and hers had paralleled for many years so he was aware of her skills and knew this was a good opportunity for her and the YWCA as well.
She called the Search Committee and was invited to send a resume, but she was told they were conducting a national search and it may take upwards of five months. She told them that being unemployed for five months was not an option and opted not to send the resume.
A few days later the Search Committee called her back and offered her a position as Interim Director, but said if she accepted it she would not be considered for the permanent position. That was fine with her. It was employment and in a field she was familiar with.
Her first impressions were very positive. "When I met the staff I was very impressed. These were people being paid abysmally low wages and yet they all had pagers and stayed connected to their clients. Their work ethic was admirable."
The she met the Board of Directors and found them to be "dismayed and disheartened because of the struggle here. But I could also see their passion." And the mission of the YWCA "Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women" resonated with her.
After being on the job only 90 days she called the search committee and told them she had changed her mind, she wanted the permanent position. They reminded her of the agreement, but she made a strong case. She explained that bringing in someone from another city would take a long adjustment period; valuable time and resources would be lost.
"I told them I was grounded. I knew the players. I explained that I could raise the visibility and start raising funds tomorrow if I were hired. Someone else would waste valuable time trying to get to the position I was already in."
It may have been her experience as a lawyer, or her passion for the cause, but Barbara won the argument and 6 months after she started became the Director of the YWCA. Today, eleven years later, she still holds the title and is still happy with the position. "Of course it's had its ups and downs. There is exciting new energy today, but I couldn't have said that two years ago."
Barbara Danforth speaking at the YWCA Women of Achievement Awards Luncheon
There are four major issues that Barbara is committed to. The first is Teenage Pregnancy. She sites statistics for the country as being on a downward path. In Cuyahoga County they are remaining level. "But in Cleveland and some suburbs the number is on the rise".
Her concern is not only for children having children, but for the domino effect of long term poverty. The teen program at the YWCA assists over 2100 young girls each year. There are two major programs. The first is on parenting and pregnancy and the second emphasizes decision making especially in the areas of sex, drugs and alcohol.
The second area of her commitment is Domestic Violence. "Domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions." Again her concern is for the children and notes that statistically children from a domestic violence situation either become victims or perpetrators. The Domestic Violence program at the YWCA serves over 500 women a year.
Child Care is her third major issue. "I was only able to work because I had good, safe child care for my daughter." In that respect she proudly points out how the YWCA's child care is different than most. "In most cases child care is near the parent's home. We are located near their work."
The YWCA is located in Midtown so children are brought there by parents diverse in all aspects. The YWCA's second center is in East Cleveland and has a diverse population of disabled and fully functioning participants.
Finally, Barbara is deeply committed to Gender Diversity. "Women in top corporate management positions are very much lacking in this city."
The anti-racism curriculum used to teach the children makes them less inclined to grow up "with walls of prejudice."
In Barbara Danforth's office
Barbara hears the term "at-risk minority teens" and shakes her head. "I say all teens are at risk." She attended a program at the YWCA with her daughter. "This was a three year federally funded program that mandated parental participation. One objective was to open the lines of communication with our teens. The other was to teach us the language of our teens."
She believes it is important to understand what your children are talking about when they use "internet shorthand." "It helps bridge the communication gap and keeps a parent aware of what is happening with their teen."
"My daughter would probably say she is embarrassed, but I'd like to think that on some level she understands and is grateful. If not now, maybe some day later."
Barbara Danforth and Hillary Rodham Clinton
A large focus of Barbara's philosophy about women of all ages is the need to empower them. "Empowering means different things at different times." For example a young mother is empowered "when she realizes that she is responsible for her own life and the life of her child. Regardless of her age it is her job to acquire the skills she needs to be a good parent and a good adult. Even if she is only 12."
"A woman involved in a domestic violence situation becomes empowered when she understands the cycle of violence and that it is not her fault."
In terms of women in leadership, empowerment occurs "when a woman takes control of her own career in new ways. When she can self assess her core competence and not allow external forces to lead her."
Barbara feels "strong self esteem and confidence frees you to make good decisions."
If she were to address a group of young girls, Barbara would want them to know what an exciting time they are living in. The jobs they will have some day may not even exist today. She would tell them that it is their responsibility to do the job today as best they can.
"Strive for excellence. Today your job is to be the best student you can be." She would tell them the importance of education "A college degree today is like a High School Degree two years ago." She would encourage them to be open and available to new opportunities. She would convince them of the need to be active in the community; volunteer in school or church.
She would tell them they must learn early how to give back. "The sky is the limit. Be open and available to climb the ladder to the sky. The ladder can be climbed in high heels - especially in high heels."
Even at home Barbara never really turns off the YWCA. She spends a lot of time thinking of problems and viable solutions. "One cannot focus on the enormity of the situation and try to tackle it all themselves. One can only do their part, however small. But if everyone does their part the problem will not remain enormous."
"People make 18 judgments within the first 10 seconds of meeting a person. I think people see me first as a person of color and second as a woman." Being a woman of color has both spurred her on and held her back in her lifetime. "My mother explained that I would have to be twice as good as my counterpart. Excellence became expected."
One way she believes woman have been held back is in the area of mentoring. Because woman are so new to the world of business and public decision making there are few role models. "People are usually mentored by someone who looks like them. The same is true for sponsors and role models."
Women, and specifically women of color, she says, do not have as many "people who look like them" to refer to. But she is confident, and pleased, that that is changing with each new generation.
She has explained to her daughter that her primary job right now is to "experience as much as possible" while in High School so that she can make good decisions. "Try clubs and groups and different things so you will know if it is something you would like to choose for your future."
Barbara works very hard at being a parent and concedes "it is very hard, demanding work. You must find a way to balance what a child will see and what you want them to see."
Her daughter, she says, believes she is living in the dark ages because their home has one 25 inch color television and one 13 inch black and white and no cable. There are books everywhere in their house. "Whether I'm in the bathroom or the kitchen, I'm reading. It is so important to read as much as possible".
Barbara's face lights up whenever she mentions her daughter. Not just when she is talking about the 13 weeks Halle spent in rural Costa Rica at a camp. "It was an amazing experience and such a great opportunity to acknowledge what we have and what others don't have. She learned so much." Or the fact that she sings in the Church Choir. It is the mere mention of her daughter that brings that glow to her face.
Tim Russert and Barbara Danforth
Barbara has been the worthy recipient of many awards including the 2005 Athena Award from Inside Business Magazine and a 2004 Rainmaker Award by Northern Ohio Live, among others. She was selected to be a panelist on the Perspectives if Women in Business hosted by Small Business Magazine and Crain's Cleveland Business named her a Woman of Note.
There are two titles, however, that seem to be most important to Barbara. The first and foremost is "Mom." She recognizes the importance of "walking her talk" in her own home and loves her daughter Halle very much.
The second, of course, is Director. As Director of the YWCA Barbara has the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people.
It would be a daunting challenge to most people. But for Barbara Danforth it is a welcome challenge - one she will not back away from. And one she does not face alone. Barbara is a very spiritual person and relies on her faith to give her insights.
She says it was "external forces" that directed much of her early school and career decisions. There is no doubt that the "external forces" that led her to where she is today knew exactly what they were doing.
The job she is in requires a strong, confident, spiritual woman with immense insight and strength. It requires someone with the ability to make decisions. It demands commitment. It requires an open heart and an open mind.
Barbara Danforth is all of these things and she is indeed, exactly where she should be.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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