Monique Parsons is purposeful, passionate, and prepared to take the helm of the McGaw YMCA the first woman and second African American to do so since the organization was founded in 1885.
Following Pastor Mark Dennis’ retirement from the Y at the end of 2017, its board conducted a national search and vetted more than 100 applicants, ultimately announcing last month that it had selected Evanston-born-and-raised Parsons, who brings with her energy, determination, eye toward equity, and 13 years of McGaw experience.
During her years at the Y, Parsons launched two key youth-development programs, Y readers, promoting literacy in partnership with District 65, and Y Achievers, which supports high school graduation, college success, and career exploration.
She was also instrumental in revitalizing the building’s youth lobby through MetaMedia, a digital media space for middle school students, providing more access to McGaw YMCA's Camp Echo, and the Children’s Center.
She also transitioned the Men’s Residence from a Single Residence Occupancy to a complete wrap-around program, including social services.
That she is the first woman and first woman of color to lead the organization should not go unnoticed. Until 1969, membership at the Evanston YMCA (as it was called) was restricted to white residents. A branch of the Y, the Emerson Y, was established in 1907 for Black Evanstonians (It closed in 1969).
Many Evanstonians know Parsons as the Y’s chief operating officer and as a member of the Evanston Township High School school board. I wanted to find out more about who she is, what motivates, her and what she hopes to accomplish in her new role.
We met in her spacious, stone-fireplace-equipped office a couple of weeks ago. This is a short version of our interview. Listen to the entire interview here.
DE: You’re seen as a role model in the community. How did growing up in Evanston as a Black woman shape you? What made you become the leader you are, and what’s your vision for the Y?
MP: I was born and raised in Evanston. I’m the youngest of six. My siblings were all born in Louisiana. And my mother, being a product of Louisiana as well, decided after she divorced her husband--my sibling’s father--that she wanted to give my siblings more opportunity up north. And this was during a time when, especially a single mom, at that time that was unheard of. And so she made a decision to leave Louisiana and come to Evanston.
DE: When was this?
MP: It was in the ‘50s. I think my mom was maybe in her mid-thirties. She came first to secure a job and a place to live and then she sent for her children.
And then years later she met my dad. She was working at the Evanston Post Office and worked with Gerry Sizemore who is also very known in this community and happens to be my aunt. My aunt Gerry introduced her to her brother and my mother and my dad dated for a while and they had me.
DE: Where did you live?
We all grew up in the same house. I think when I was born she lived on Wesley in the 5th Ward. And then she needed a bigger place and she moved on Hartrey right across from the football field. I remember growing up on Hartrey. That was my childhood.
DE: Where did you go to school?
MP: I went to Walker and then I went to Chute Middle School. I did not go to ETHS. When I graduated from 8th grade, my mother remarried. And my stepfather was from Cincinnati, Ohio. All my siblings were either in college or married and had their own careers. So I was the only one still in the house with my mom. And because of my age and because I’m the youngest, I had to go with her when she decided to marry and move with my stepfather. So I moved to Ohio as a freshman in high school. It was definitely a shock to the system.
But in retrospect, it was the best thing that happened to me. I look at it as an element that helped nurture my leadership. It exposed me to different things and opportunities ... I’d always been interested in music and they have a very strong high school that happens to be performing arts high school.
So I convinced my mother and my stepfather to allow me to audition. So I did a minor in vocal music but a major in technical theater. And technical theater is behind the scenes of a production. So that was the first time that I was exposed to providing leadership from behind the scenes.
DE: And did you just slide into your school? How was it different culturally?
MP: No, it was challenging. It was very difficult. I went into a school that already had their own cliques and people that grew up together and went to school together their entire life. So I didn’t just slide in, but I was fortunate enough, throughout my upbringing, to have examples of very strong women in my family.
DE: How was it different, Evanston and your new neighborhood?
MP: It was way different. In Evanston I grew up in a very segregated community. My school environment was integrated, but when we got on the bus, you know, I came to my block and they went to their block. But I experienced teachers that looked like me in Evanston. My principal, Mr. Johnson, looked like me and cultivated my development and nurtured my youth years. Same thing for Chute, my principal Mr. Ruff. I could look at him and see a reflection of myself. That was Evanston for me.
Also, my mother worked in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 as a teacher’s aide. So all the teachers knew my mother. And all the teachers knew the children, all my siblings, so there wasn’t really anything that we could do that we could get away with, because we were deeply connected in the community.
Evanston has always been diverse. People talk about that, the joys of living in diverse Evanston, and it has always been that for me. But still very much segregated.
When I moved to Cincinnati, that was the first time that I came in contact with folks that didn’t look like me. White people who were poor. Who were extremely poor. They didn’t live on my block in Cincinnati, but I went to school with them. That wasn’t what I was exposed to in Evanston. The white people who lived in Evanston were very well off. Their homes were huge. They didn’t live in trailer parks. You know, it was just a way different experience. That was a culture shock for me.
DE: Do you think you learned anything from that experience?
MP: Well, it’s interesting, because if you’re growing up and living in Evanston in a very segregated community then you think that all white folks live near the lake and have big homes and mansions. And that all black people are on welfare, seeking assistance, or you know, are not educated in a formal way. And so that exposure in Cincinnati gave me a different perspective.
DE: What was your family’s situation economically, growing up?
MP: Well, with a single mother, you can imagine. You know we were very low-income and required assistance. We grew up in subsidized housing. We grew up seeking support. My mother worked, but she had six children to take care of.
So no, it wasn’t easy, but I didn’t know that. As a youngster, my mother never exposed the challenges of raising six children to her children. I absolutely didn’t know her struggles. I didn’t know what it meant to be stigmatized as a single mother. My mother worked, she was known, she was respected. She raised her kids to be that way.
My mother taught me by action, by watching her. She definitely taught me that my circumstance didn’t and would not dictate my outcome. So just because we were being raised by her by herself, that it didn’t mean that we wouldn’t go to college. That she didn’t have high aspirations for me, for us all of us. That she definitely didn’t have low expectations. That we had to be respectful. That she was still very community focused.
So even though she knew very few people, and the people that she knew she met while she was working, she made sure that they understood what her expectations were for her children. And if they saw us not behaving or out of line, then they had every right to let her know. And that they had every right to correct our behavior.
My mother didn’t allow us to just wallow in self-pity. And she made it very clear that she was a parent. That she was obligated to take care of us. That adult issues were adult issues, and children were to be children and not be exposed to what she had taken on.
And so if I came home and the lights were out and we had candles on the table, it was a fun time for me because we had candles. I had no idea that she was stretching her paycheck. And that was just my mother. She was proud. Graceful, proud, determined.
DE: What did you do after high school?
MP: By the time my mom had me, she was tapped out financially. So I spent a year after high school working. I came back here, back to Evanston.
I worked for a year and I did my research to try to figure out where I could go for college. That was not a negotiable. I had to go to school. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it, but I knew I had to go. The University of Minnesota accepted me and offered me a scholarship to start in the summer prior to the fall start of the semester. I was a part of their minority scholarship summer program, it was called Summer Institute.
So I was excited. I had no idea what was in Minnesota, what Minnesota was about. I just knew that I didn’t have money to go, and they were offering me money, and I knew that I needed a degree.
So I went to Minnesota and became familiar with the university campus and met friends. And then when the fall started it was like, whoa, where did all these people come from? And why can’t I find my friends from the summer? There are just so many other folks who don’t look like me that I can’t find those who do. So it was, that was another shock to the system. Being in a classroom of over 1,000 students and there’s only one or two others that look like you in the class.
But I made a decision to stay, and I also made a decision to find my community on campus. So I started working at the African American Learning Resource Center. And then I became the President of the Black student union. So I did that for the length of time that I was a student at the University of Minnesota. But I definitely had to do that in order to keep my mind and to stay there and to build my resources.
DE: How did you decide to study criminal justice?
MP: You know, my mother worked as a teacher’s aide. And she was always helping families. I mean even when we barely had anything, she was always going through our closet taking something out and giving it to another family. Or bringing another kid home and feeding this child or whatever. She was always taking care of somebody.
And I believe that as a college student on campus, especially being in Minnesota, I started seeing how minority people were being mistreated within the state of Minnesota. Minnesota was, during the time that I went to school, unprepared for the influx of minority people moving there.
So we saw a large group of minority people moving in from Michigan, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee and so forth. And no sooner than they got there did they get caught up in the criminal justice system. This was also around the time of the Clinton administration when three-strikes-and-you’re-out was implemented. And so I witnessed individuals that had come in as a new resident and might have committed some minor crime get caught up in the system and all of a sudden have 30 years.
And then I was always passionate about helping youngsters, juveniles, stay away from that system.
So I became a criminal justice major-- actually it was sociology of law--that focused on criminal justice. I thought that way I would help somehow change the system.
But then I realized I wasn’t figuring out what the issues were from the back end that caused them to become part of the system. I was in the system when they showed up.
So during that time, I realized I needed to reset and do this all over. And this was during the time when I worked for Hennepin County, Ramsey County, worked in their gang task force, worked for the juvenile detention center. Then I worked for Department of Corrections through the State of Minnesota.
But I had to shift my focus and say, you know, my goal is to prevent them, to stop them from entering into the system.
And right around then, in 1997, I became pregnant, and that forced me to become very intentional about my career decision. And I began working for a community outreach program. I decided to leave a very good government job with the Department of Corrections. I stayed for a year, had my son there, and then decided to move back home so I could raise my son in Evanston. He was a year old when we moved back.
DE: What is it like to be the single mom of a young Black boy, now man?
MP: It is very, very hard. You know, when I was told that I was going to have a boy, I cried. My passion has always been to work with young boys. I’ve just been drawn to them for some reason. And then having the experience of working in the juvenile justice system when you see how they’re being put through the system and how they’re perceived.
And then you’re told that you’re going to have a young Black boy, a baby. You know, it shakes you. Because even though I knew I was ready as a parent because of the wonderful example I had and a supportive family to help raise my son, I was nervous about how society would treat my child.
And so we moved back here because I was very--you’ll hear me use the word ‘intentional’ a lot--and I use it because I’m really purposeful in what I do. But I knew that my son’s father and I would not be together. So we made that decision and I came to peace with it, but I knew that my child needed male role models around him. I have brothers-in-law who I call brothers because they’ve been in my life since I was a young child, and an older nephew, the son of my oldest sister. And my son needed that. I needed that in order to raise him in the way that I wanted him to be raised, and to be supported in the way that I needed him to be supported. I knew that as a mother, I couldn’t do that alone.
And thank God I did have a family like that, and he had men around him to teach him what it would be like to be Black in the society.
DE: Did you have to protect and defend him against racism?
MP: Absolutely. On many levels. I made sure that every year this was something that I did when my son started school: I wrote a letter to the teacher, every year, all the way through high school. And I said here’s my son, let me introduce him to you. This is what I know about him. You will discover things that I don’t know, but this is how I’m bringing him to you. And because I’m bringing him to you with high expectations, it is my expectation that you will partner with me in his success. I felt I had to do this. I had to share with them that, as a single mom bringing them a Black young man or young boy, that I had the same expectations for my child being successful as any other parent.
It’s scary at times and it’s exhausting because I’m concerned for his well-being and his life. And you know, even here in Evanston, he’s been stopped many times for no cause, for no reason. And he gets frustrated because this is a place that he grew up in ever since he was a year old. So he doesn’t understand. He feels this is my community. I went to school here. I played ball here. People know me. And I’ve never been in any trouble. But I’m being stopped.
DE: You’re President of the YMCA and you’re on the board of District 202. Talk about how you got here; what’s your purpose?
MP: This is so hard and some people may not understand this: I only know that I got here because my steps have been ordered. I never thought about ever being the president of any organization, let alone the YMCA. I wasn’t a member of this YMCA as a youngster. This wasn’t a part of my childhood.
DE: Were you more familiar with the Emerson Y?
Emerson YMCA (Photo cred: Shorefront Legacy Center)
MP: Absolutely. That’s what my oldest siblings knew about. They knew about the Emerson Y. They knew about Foster, which is now Fleetwood. That’s where they went to hang out. That’s where they felt welcomed. It wasn’t this Y. So this was not in my dream. I knew I was passionate about youth. I knew that I was passionate about boys. I knew that that led me even before the YMCA to my work at the Boys and Girls Club in Chicago.
So it just kept mounting up, that youth passion, youth development, just kept building. And when I moved back to Evanston, I knew I wanted to work in my community. It was v hard to find a job in Evanston. That’s why I went to the Boys and Girls Clubs in Chicago.
But I hated driving out of my community, working my passion in another space. And I was fortunate and blessed enough to meet Bill Geiger [who served on the D202 board and as executive director of the Y for nine years] at a school board meeting. I was working at Ford Motor Company and shared with Bill my dissatisfaction with the after-school program here at the YMCA. [add]And he called me, and that’s how it started.
DE: What was your first position?
MP: I was Vice President of Programs. So my steps have been ordered. I never thought I would be on the school board. I’m very much, again, going back to my high school years, very much behind the scenes. I’ve never been a very public person. I like others getting the credit. That was an opportunity that came up; a couple people talked to me about it. And then I just felt like my voice was missing or the voice that I represented as a single mom engaged in this community.
I said well it makes sense, that voice is not there and it would benefit the community. I decided at the 11th hour before the decision deadline. I went into it stress free. People would often say what’s going to happen? or, how will you feel if you lose? And I said, well I’m not in it to lose it. I’ve been on the board now three years, going into my final year.
DE: Are your roles on the board and here similar in any way?
MP: They’re similar for many reasons. I believe the YMCA and ETHS are probably the two best places in this community where our communities collide. Where our neighborhoods collide. So even though I may not live on your block, I may come out and work out on a treadmill and you know, we don’t know each other, but we know each other here.
It’s very diverse and it’s the same thing with the high school. You may go to your neighborhood high school, unless you’re in the 5th Ward where one doesn’t exist, but unless you go to private school, we’re going to wind up at the same high school.
In my role--because I have been so passionate about making sure that every child within our Evanston community gets the same opportunity to be successful--that’s what I do here. I expose opportunities and I take down barriers for the entire community. At the high school I get you from ninth through 12th grade. But here I get you from the cradle all the way to your transition years.
DE: What are you excited about? What do you hope for this place?
MP: I’m so excited for our community because they’re so excited. And for Evanston, I think it’s great to be a woman leading this organization. And I’m excited for the YMCA because this gives us an opportunity to go deeper and put more things in motion.
I’ve been here for at least 12 years and I’ve been over program development. I built collaborations and relationships and I’ve been able to provide access for more people to our YMCA. And I’ve been able to be more intentional about the programs that support what the community needs.
Now I’m able to make those decisions more strategically, from the very top, and provide a vision or a landscape of how to go broader. So it’s definitely my vision that our YMCA, anything we engage in, anything that we touch, any time we sit down at the table that we’re changing and shifting the conversation and the outcome.
DE: Talk about the various programs that are here.
MP: People always say, oh, your mission is so big and it’s so hard. I say it’s a blessing because we provide a lot for so many people.
We start as early as six weeks with childcare and early childhood education. So we’re able to nurture and cultivate and change outcomes from six weeks by being very deliberate in the opportunities and programs we develop and partnerships we create.
We’re very strategic about who we partner with because I want our partnerships and programs to support what’s needed in the community and to change outcomes.
Through District 65 we have a program called Y Readers, which started under my leadership as COO. It’s a six-week literacy program that focuses on those that are reading at or below the 30th percentile. We bring the program because it’s been successful at other YMCAs, but we’re not the reading experts. So District 65 brings that expertise and we’re in the school setting throughout the summer and we’ve seen dramatic outcomes in stopping the reading loss that takes place during summer months.
We have a Y Achievers program which is also a signature program. It’s a high school program that promotes high school graduation, college graduation, and career exploration. So not only are we helping students graduate from high school, we’re helping them through college.
Our children center is the biggest in Cook County. It’s starts as early as six weeks all the way through fifth grade because we provide an after-school program for our K thru fifth graders. And wee have MetaMedia, which is a free digital media space for middle school kids. It's free and open to them.
We remove the membership barrier for our middle schoolers. We targeted that group because we knew that there were limited opportunities for middle school kids.
We have aquatics program with swim lessons and a swim team. And lap swimming which is a part of membership. The YMCA is a membership based organization. We make sure that anyone who wants a membership can get a membership. Then you are able to access the swimming pool and the wellness center which is our fitness center and other programs and activities.
We also have Camp Echo which is in Freemont, Michigan. That’s our summer residential camp where over 1,000 youth participate in an eight-week program. We have family camps there, and a lot of weekend getaway camps
And we have a residence. We have 172 rooms that are single room occupancy for low-income men. And that has always been a part of our history, even with the Emerson Y. Residency for men was a part of their core program. So we’re committed to that and providing that affordable housing in our community.
For our active older adults, we have a wellness program and they participate in our group exercise classes. Of course, they come and swim as well. And they've created their own small community. So they celebrate each other’s birthdays and go out on outings and do things like that.
DE: Is your membership diverse racially and socio-economically?
MP: Our membership definitely reflects the community of Evanston. We have every dimension of diversity. And we’re trying to do a better job serving everyone. That’s our challenge. It's a great challenge to have. Our mission is so broad it allows us to do that.
DE: What would you like to see change in the city, particularly for low-income people, people of color, people who are less often seen, less often heard, less often included?
MP: There’s so, so, so, so much. I think there’s a perception that we all just need the same thing. And we don’t. We live in a community that has resources, but for whatever reason, many may not know that they’re accessible to them. So there are barriers, whether it’s human beings that still have not changed their heart in how they provide service to this community that create that barrier.
To me it’s very basic and it starts with the human perspective. We have to first understand that even though we are blessed to live in this diverse community, we have people that need us for different things. And we have to first be open-minded to understand and listen to what those needs are instead of assuming that we know.
I want Evanston to start being honest and having courageous conversations and not push away from what it means to live in this community, but embrace it and say we’re not perfect. That we don’t know everything. That we are missing voices at the table.
And even pause when you enter a room and the room looks solely like you or there’s no representation of what Evanston looks like and say, we’re not ready to have this dialogue because the people in the room are not reflective. Or the topic we’re talking about doesn’t affect the people in this room. So let’s just be honest, let’s just be bold. Let’s just step out and say, I had good intentions about having this dialogue, but we can’t have it without the voices that are being affected by the systemic racism that we’re experiencing in this community from many different levels.
How wonderful would that be to push pause and say, yeah, we don’t have to build this without their input. Actually, we cannot build it and wait and then get their input.
So that’s what I want for Evanston.
I want us to be bold and real and authentic about who we truly are. And I’m hopeful. As a matter of fact, McGaw has started doing that work. Because McGaw YMCA wasn’t always the welcoming place that we profess to be under the YMCA.
You know the YMCA has always said we welcome everyone. McGaw YMCA wasn’t always that place. But we’ve been doing the work to make sure that we are that way, and that we knock down barriers, and that we do the self-work to make sure we’re putting ourselves in check personally first.
I think it’s very important, and I’ve communicated to my staff, that it’s very important that we have that Y of USA perspective, but that we also bring it home and understand the community we live in. It has to be a balanced approach of what equity looks like from the national level, but how it lives in this community.
DE: I know you’re a person of faith. How does that guide your life and your decisions?
MP: It has made my work more purposeful. It was when my son started getting older and moving into his adolescent years and young adult years, that God started, really started transforming me and positioning me beyond my comfort zone. And moving me into spaces that I didn’t think I would be moved into. And then people started seeing a different leadership in me.
DE: Is it a daunting feeling? An exciting feeling?
MP: It’s all that. I’m excited about my position for the community first. Because it stopped being about me a long time ago.
I’m serving families and communities. I think I understand better that in order for a youth to be successful, and to be happy, and to be prosperous, and to reach their full potential, it has to be proximate. You have to start with the family.
And in order for that family to thrive and be successful, the community has to be strong, and supportive, and listening, and adaptive. And so while my focus was thinking directly about what I could do to pour into this child, I realized that I could be pouring everything I had into this child, but sending him into a society that didn’t care about him.
I strongly believe that my work is purposeful, and that along the way I’ve experienced certain things for a reason.
My hope and deep desire is to use all that to elevate McGaw YMCA to the next level, because there’s so much here, so much potential in our community.
We have great, awesome staff here who are here because they choose to be here.
I know my role and my responsibility are huge. And I know people are excited about this in the community and within our movement, our YMCA movement.
But I’m more excited about what this will mean to the community, and how I will be able to build leaders within this organization and outside this organization.