In this episode, Michael Farris shares stories of his work as the Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the YMCA of the USA. Michael sees current diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the Movement as a direct thread from foundational philosophies spelled out by Y founder, George Williams, more that 130 years ago. These initiatives seek to unravel issues of race, socio-economic status, and marginalization in our country, and provide solidarity for people who experience such disparities.  It is through this commitment to building equitable community that the Y is able to maintain healthy relationships and address systemic problems that affect everyone.

Contributing to Broader Systemic Change

The first stop for Michael is to address systemic problems. If we are putting band-aids on systemic issues, we aren’t solving for an eroding foundation. This means we only resolving a symptom of a greater problem that will manifest in new ways down the road.

Hear Critical Conversations as Passion and Care

It is far too easy to engage our emotional reactions to critical questions and conversations. Shifting our reactions to hear critical views as an expression of passion and care toward a better future helps build systems rooted in trust and truth.

Collaboration is Key

The only way to unravel these deep-seated issues is through collaboration. If this work is done in isolation, the same problems will continue to be present. Through addressing the needs for broader systemic change with passion and care, we can find new paths forward together.

This interview was recorded on April 8, 2021

Podcast Transcription

Saranda West: Welcome, Accelerants. I have a thought-provoking episode for you today. As many of you are aware, the COVID pandemic has made us more attuned to systemic issues in our society that were once buried under layers of conflict and trauma. The goal of Accelerant Season 2 has been to cast more light on these issues as our industry speeds into recovery.

For these reasons, I was thrilled to sit down with Michael Farris and discuss issues of race, socioeconomic status, and marginalization in our country. As a current Senior Director for Diversity and Inclusion at the YMCA of the USA, Michael has dedicated his career to building opportunities for marginalized people and creating space for a flourishing culture of inclusion within the Y movement.

Michael connects the heart of these DEI initiatives to foundational philosophy from the Y’s founder, George Williams. He sees the work of unraveling racial bias as a continuation of those efforts more than 130 years ago. It was a privilege to have this conversation with Michael, and I’m so excited to share these deep and powerful insights with you.  

Michael Farris: What the Y can we do to help address some of those more systemic things, because we recognize it was all part of a larger systemic issue, whether it be education, healthcare, criminal justice, that the Y can play a critical role and not necessarily leading at all times, but convening the conversation in partnerships.

That’s what it’s been – a lot of driving convenient conversation around what can be our impact on a larger systemic level, because we know that our programs are phenomenal and great. However, we also challenge ourselves to not just band-aid a symptom but really unpack and try to work towards fixing the systems that create the need for those programs.

SW: Accelerant: A substance used to aid the spread of fire, accelerating or causing acceleration. This is the Accelerant podcast.

Hi there. Thank you for joining me today on the show. I’m your host, Saranda West. I’m thrilled to introduce you to our guest today. Michael Ferris is the Senior Director of Diversity and Inclusion for YMCA of the USA. Michael was on the team at the YMCA of Greater Kansas City prior to YUSA. Michael, welcome to the show.

MF: Oh, thanks. Thank you for having me, Saranda. Pleasure to connect with you all.  

SW: So, let’s start out to do the work that you do, which is so deeply in the heart of what the YMCA is with diversity and inclusion. You have to have a Y story. Do you have one that you could share with us?

Michael’s Y Story

MF: Yeah, so one I think I shared with you in previous conversations about my connection as a young person to the Y. I wasn’t a member, but my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Y, they always made me feel safe, whether I was sneaking in or coming through the front door at the time when I was a teen to play basketball, but my career started with the YMCA Metro Detroit back in 2006.  

It’s been an extraordinary journey. I started my career focused on youth development and providing support with college access to our young people from underrepresented and marginalized communities within the city of Detroit.

I did that for a couple of years before really expanding into an opportunity to serve with the YMCA of Greater Kansas City and launched what became our Achievers Program, our Young Achievers Initiative where we were able to expand that program and, at the time, be a premier college access and readiness program, with the support of our leadership there and working alongside folks from YUSA.  

I did that for about three years before I became an Executive Director in Kansas City, where I was in a community in Wyandotte County, that for every major health category, within the state of Kansas, Wyandotte County ranked dead last in every major health category, which provided me with some exposure and in disparities that are prevalent within our community that we’re impacting, communities of color, individuals from lower social economic statuses, in impacting them in a disproportionate manner and way, which was part of my introduction into really advocating for equity and access for folks was through that work within the YMCA of Greater Kansas City.

Our connection to community development and working alongside community to find out what could be some of the answers for us to address some of the systemic barriers that our community was experiencing.  

SW: Wow. Will you go back to the Young Achievers Program that you mentioned? Just give me a little bit more detail. You said college readiness, so what all did that involve?

MF: Yeah, it provided an exposure to volunteers that had gone to college, graduated, matriculated, and were into their careers to come back and serve as mentors to our young people and provided exposure to the college experience, whether that was through college tours, where we went to a variety or different colleges and experiences, not just in and around our area in the Midwest but through some of the spaces in places all over the country.

We did a historically black college tour to provide exposure to most of our young people who are identified as black or Latino to provide them with exposure to what the HBCU experience could be like and also attended some of the traditional, predominantly white institutions in and around our area so that they had exposure to that.  

Then just connecting with some of their counselors that were looking to recruit young people from our area, providing them with the exposure, but also trying to help the colleges, building some of the culture and experience to encourage our young people to stay within that community.

Because what we were finding is that we could set up all the resources to get them there, but then there was a whole other culture shock and experience that our young people were having. We were running into some of the systemic barriers that even the colleges weren’t necessarily prepared to support.

Working alongside them to help create that inclusive environment that provided a wraparound support and services for our young people as well.  

SW: People tend to over-generalize and just think of the YMCA is just where I go to workout or where my kids go to swim lessons, but how do you get at a program like this, obviously serving a huge need in the community, how do you get people plugged in to know that these types of programs exist?

Plugging Your Community into Programs

MF: For us, it was a lot of connecting with a community to find out what the needs were and the specific area, and then a lot of collaboration. It’s not something that can be done in isolation, but how do we work with community to identify what the needs are and then sharing in what the solutions could look like?

It wasn’t our Achievers Program. Then there’s a long history of the Achiever Program, historically called the Black Achievers Program within the Y, that speaks to meeting that need, but working alongside community to really advance its efforts in getting the information out there, supporting, and that was your question.

It was a big point of us pushing against this gym and swim mentality, even within that community, because folks may see it as well. We didn’t know that the Y played in this space or that they were doing things to address opportunity gaps or systemic racism or barriers that existed that perpetuate our communities and keep the educational system disparities growing.

So, it was working with our community partners to identify those, and I’ll say, I think for me personally, I started my career with the YMCA of Metro Detroit and the great work that we were doing there, I think that really also gave me the support in what I needed at the time of my career to really talk about who really “owns the program,” the whole program.  

We allowed our young people to contribute, to lead, to share their ideas, because this was their program to decide on what it is that they wanted to do and accomplish. So, I was a resource, but I was helping them navigate those pieces so much so that our young people, we had a budget for a college tour. They contacted the colleges that they wanted to visit to find out when we could set dates. They helped work within that budget to schedule the college tours, to identify what hotels were on the route that then I would contact and work through and build out the contract.

But they did a lot of the legwork because it was their program. And I just tried to make sure that the resources were there for them to do what they wanted to do to accomplish their goals.  

SW: And what a good experience for them. Talk about getting them some leadership experience. I’m sure it was all weaved into that point.

MF: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

SW: Your work with Detroit and then Kansas City ultimately led you to your position at YMCA of the USA today. What does your role now look like?  

MF: If it’s those last two lines of other duties as assigned, I think it does. It’s a combination of all of those things, but it’s really helping to build our Y on the foundation of our organization to really think about who are we leaving out when we talk about being for all and how do we expand that to be inclusive and equitable?

We’re all community members, so a lot of my efforts are really an opportunity to engage our local Y leaders, not just here in the US but internationally as well, to talk about how do we really expand what that means. It’s really looking at equity pre-COVID. It was a lot of integration into strategic plans and operating plans for goals around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Post-COVID, it still includes those pieces. It’s also a deeper dive into looking at what are our systemic barriers and how can the Y really work as a conduit, partner, convener to really help address some of those inequities from a systemic level, whether it be around racism or oppression or things of that nature and supporting our local Ys through that.

As we journey, ourselves and the YMCA of the USA, working towards becoming an anti-racist, multicultural organization, really helping walk our local Ys through that process as well, along with their boards and their community members also. I’m not doing it alone. We have a great team and so many leaders, like I said, across the movement domestically here in the US and then also internationally that are making the commitment to work alongside us and journey alongside myself.  

It’s not like I’m doing all of this by myself. There’s a lot of us, and I could not take any of the credit without the support and working alongside some phenomenal leaders within the Y movement.  

SW: That’s great. I’m so glad they have you as a leader to help guide and direct them.

I want to make a very strong statement. This is my own personal viewpoint from where I sit. I’ve been working with YMCAs for about 15 years now, and I’ve heard a lot of stories like yours in terms of programs, you were running the Young Achievers, and just different ways that the Ys have tried to create this opportunity for inclusion and being diverse.

In my opinion, I really feel like the Ys are ahead of their time when it comes to diversity and inclusion, maybe compared to the rest of society. Now, I’m not saying there’s not room for improvement because there always is. There’s always stuff that we can do better, but what do you think? Am I in line there?

YMCAs Advancing DEI

MF: I think that we have made as a collective of very strong effort in advancing and being at the table with people. I think we are further along than where we were maybe last year or maybe even 15, 20 years ago within the movement as well. I think there’s, as you said, Saranda, a ton of opportunity for us to continue to grow and press forward and also identify or find out what is it that we don’t know that we have some opportunity to grow.  

I think that over the last 10, 15 years, as I stated with the leadership or executive leadership, such as our CEO leadership, starting with Neo, Nico, and then continue with Kevin Washington, but with having elevated Linda Gonzalez Chavez is our Chief Diversity and Inclusion Global Officer to really lead this effort.  

I think we have made tremendous strides over that time period, and there’s still a lot of work for us to do, which we are taking on a daily basis. Also trying to identify who are partners with us? Yes, we’ve been on a social justice equity aspect because it started with George Williams and we’ve been doing that for a while, and there are some other organizations that have been doing it differently, even around this aspect of anti-racism that we’ve picked up.  

How do we partner with other organizations to learn from them and work alongside them? I think that’s where we’ve been really positioning ourselves as well. Even with that long history, about 170 some odd years or more as a movement, there are still some folks that may not see us necessarily in that space and want to learn more about the Y being a contributor and leader in that space as well.

Quant Corner

Constance Miller: Hello. I’d like to interrupt this podcast to introduce myself. I’m Constance Miller, Director of Research, Analytics and Insights at Daxko. That means my job is to surface actionable insights, to help all we work with, make the most informed decisions possible to drive success. We thought the accelerant podcast would be an ideal opportunity to link the stories you’re listening to from amazing people all across the country and add data to deepen the takeaways.

So, here we are in the Quant Corner, where numbers and data tell beautiful stories.

In all sincerity, I could listen to this episode a second time. I’m sure, like many of you, this topic continues to be on my mind. Michael spoke not only about the Y’s role and opportunities to drive DEI and social justice forward, but the very real impact of that work in addition to serving communities. It is who we include and who we exclude, whether actively or passively.

This begins with where we work and the work we do, and also who we hire like most good things. The evidence to support micro statements, as well as investing in diversity and diverse staff is easily find-able. If you aren’t already aware of the McKinsey and Company “Why Diversity Matters” study published in 2015, take a few minutes and look it up today.

It’s a quick and impactful read and has been instrumental in many organizations supporting a case to invest more and more. Here’s a few stats for you, which are comparatively gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform other orcs like them. Those which are ethnically diverse are 35% more likely to have higher financial gains compared to their competitors serving a similar market.  

Here are a couple more numbers for you. If you’re interested in hiring diverse staff, according to Glassdoor, 67% of job seekers are actively looking for a diverse workforce. A recent Harvard Business Review found that organizations which have a comparatively higher diversity are 70% more likely to capture a new market or in the Y’s case, serve new people and new members.

I’ll stop there with numbers. One more case study to direct you to. Many of you may have already heard of Google’s Project Oxygen Research. If you look that code name up, you will also find a project called Project Aristotle. The purpose of Project Aristotle was to understand what makes the most effective team possible.

The number one finding was psychological safety, meaning I can speak up and I will not be reprimanded or there will not be negative consequences. Trust. A key factor of trust in many studies has been found to be diversity, diversity of thought, acceptance of different thought, and free sharing of ideas.

There’s a lot of information I just shared from high-level trends to studies to look up and a few numbers for you. Thank you for all that each of you do to support diversity and inclusion and this work.

SW: You’ve mentioned a couple of times all the work you’ve done in the past year. Can you give me just some insight into what that has looked like in your communities and in a lot of our local Ys that have been impacted by, whether it’s the recent influx of anti-Asian hate and sentiment that has been taking place?

YUSA DEI Work in the Last Year

MF: Well, with the pandemic launching early last year and how that started to some of the witnessing of unarmed black and Brown folks have experienced that has been captured on video tape. I think we reached a critical point in the last year around witnessing those types of things. The economic crisis that we were experiencing, where we add more and more folks that were recipients of food distribution, who were also in need, not just in our more urban communities, but in suburban communities and rural communities.

We saw a huge impact of these things that were driving a lot of our society in an intersectional manner that we wanted to come together. Those conversations to advance equity and what that looks like and who was disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 from those that were being exposed to it that were then ultimately succumbing to the virus and how that was impacting us and really unpacking what the Y can do to help address some of those more systemic things because we recognize it was all part of a larger systemic issue, whether it be education, healthcare, criminal justice, that the Y can play a critical role in not necessarily leading at all times, but convening conversation in partnerships.  

That’s what it’s been – a lot of driving and convenient conversation around what our impact can be on a larger systemic level, because we know that our programs are phenomenal and great. However, we also challenge ourselves to not just band-aid a symptom, but really unpack and try to work towards fixing the systems that create the need for those programs.  

SW: Yeah. It was so humbling and just such a proud moment you’re talking about. Early last year when we’re all in shutdown and how the Ys just completely shifted to things like you said, right?

The food banks and the different senior programs, all of those different services. They probably were serving in some capacity there, but they just dove in. How do you see, and how have you seen, the Y continue to lean in there? How do you see it changing the strategy of the Y moving forward?

MF: No, that’s a great question. I think for me in my observations has been this getting back to our roots. I think that it’s always been there. Like I mentioned earlier about George Williams and what he did with the Protestant men in sitting in the room and what the whole purpose was to identify what the societal ails.  

We’re taking place in London at the time, and then bringing that opportunity over here to the US and in our experiences. I think we’re recognizing more and more of what our opportunity is to have a greater societal impact. Again, I think the programs are phenomenal and fantastic. I think what we’re challenging ourselves to ask now, as well as what is the contribution that it makes to a larger systemic change.  

If we’re thinking about the educational opportunity gaps that exist, and we’re creating programs like Achievers, how does that impact the larger educational system and who do we need to partner with to have a greater impact to narrow those opportunity gaps as a collective whole, and, and inclusive of race and ethnicity?

Across socioeconomic and gender lines as well, what is the impact that we can have? Thinking through some of those things around the systemic impacts that the Y can contribute to that our programming may feed into some systems change. It really speaks to how that exists and continuing to get outside of our four walls and brick and mortar, which many of our Ys have done and continue to do.  

There were Ys that were doing food distribution for years. There are Ys that have been serving as residents for community members as well. How do we continue to elevate those messages to show? I don’t know if the general public is still aware of those efforts that have continued and it’s not anything new for us.  

SW: Yeah. I would guess also sharing that message. You mentioned community partners sharing it with people in the community for funding, right? That’s what it takes. It takes money to pull off these programs and getting the support of the community to make them happen.

Remaining Relevant, Sustainable, and Safe

MF: Definitely takes us in a space of maintaining our relevance, our sustainability, and keeping our community safe. What is our contribution to that? I think that’s the messaging that we provide to potential funders or community partners around visit. Yes, we need the philanthropic dollars, but I think it’s also around how do we remain sustainable, relevant, and safe for our communities, for our organization as well, and that’s been a part of our messaging related to the opportunities or our partnerships and collaborations that we seek out.

SW: I know the last year for many has been really hard in a lot of different ways. How through all of that and all of your work have you managed to stay healthy and happy? How do you ground yourself?

Staying Healthy

MF: Right. That is a great question. It is funny that I was sharing an article with a few colleagues, not just at Y USA, but along across several organizational lines and in the movement around.

This idea of burnout and what folks have been experiencing, being isolated. And then where I think many of us in, from an organizational sense when they’re doing more with less. And so how do we maintain that safety and security for folks from a mental health standpoint? And I know that we’re all making adjustments for me personally.

I try to stay grounded in identifying what opportunities exist for us, but also maintaining the joy. For me, it’s been a year of isolation working from home, which also gave me an opportunity to spend more time with my family, my kids, where I was maybe on the road once a week for 40 some odd weeks out of the year.

I’ve been at home all the time with them, which I don’t know if they’ve been too excited about that, because then I’m here all day, but they had their own space that they were able to do some of the things that they wanted to, and then it’s all, man, dad’s here.  

SW: They’re ready for you to go back on the road  

MF: Pretty much. But I think connected there, and then also just, even within this work, Saranda, is like building relationships with people that I think I have been able to go deeper. It’s not just about the work that we’re showing up to do, but to me, it’s also about relationships. Building relationships, the personal ones that I have, but with family and friends, and then, yeah, the professional ones. I’ve gotten to know my coworkers and our leaders across the movement and other partners in a deeper way.  

I think we, at least for myself, pause to really buy in and get back into touch with humanity, to find out so that we can have these dialogues and conversations, even around some of the things that may be challenging that we see as challenges within a greater society.

Well, if we were able to build relationship and have open and honest discussion with one another, how much more can we help transform and get to know one another on a humane level versus a scrolling through social media and or spending time talking to people.  

SW: Yeah. One of the things that I tried to start doing over the past year, you jump on a work call, or even if it was an in-person meeting, everyone say, how are you doing?

I’m good. I’m fine. I’m great. And that’s the answer you get. I started being honest. I would say, actually, it’s a really crappy day and this just happened. You can have some of those vulnerable moments and share with people, and reality is in some form or fashion, we were all going through hard times. It opened up then to get to know people better. I love that.  

MF: I absolutely agree. I’m a huge Marvel comic fan. I love the movies and the character Deadpool. When someone says that they’re fine, which is typically the response we give in passing. Hey, how you doing? Oh, I’m fine.

He has an acronym that goes with fine that I would encourage folks to Google on their own time and not on their work devices, but to find that out what he says about those pieces. I think that this has allowed us to go deeper and beyond that. Right? Because like you said, we’re all struggling.

We’re all worried about how we may be impacted from the loss of employment to provide for and take care of our family, how we were going to stay safe during this global pandemic of keeping ourselves healthy, keeping our loved ones healthy around us, and then what we were going to do. I know it created a lot of anxiety and maybe for me personally, but I know that I’ve seen it in other people that we wanted to make sure that we stay connected and it was a lot.

I feel like that feeds into this other discussion that we would have been really able to tap into our humanity because we were all experiencing some of the same things at the same time and worried about the same pieces. Like I said earlier with the food distribution, there was food being distributed in communities that may not have even thought about it or that were on the fringe and didn’t realize it until the crisis hit. How do we work through and talk through all of those pieces and support one another?  

SW: Yeah, that’s great. From all that we’ve talked about, and even considering who may be listening for those Y staff or those maybe supporting the Y would you have any final words?  

I think we’re all in a state, especially when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, wanting to lean in and do what we all can individually to help or in our organizations help. Did you just have any final words for us?

Final Words

MF: Yeah. I think for me, I would just say, let’s continue to lean in together. This is a journey of equity that we’re all on. Like I said earlier, we’ve been doing it on this journey for over 170 something years on this path. We’re still continuing to journey together.

Let’s continue that process, that commitment, to build relationships, connect with one another, and know that this body of work will not stop. The organization is not going to go away. How do we ensure that we leave it in a better place than when we received it for the time and tenure of our careers, our volunteer experience of our participation in programs?

We all have to do that. Together. That may come with some very open, what is maybe perceived as critical conversation. To me, any type of critical conflict that is raised when people are questioning, it shows that they care and they’re passionate about the work. When we’re asking questions of ourselves of our organization, that’s because we care.

How do we continue to show that care through questioning and pushing forward?  

SW: Thank you, Michael. Thank you for leaving your legacy with the Y.  

MF: Thank you for having me, Saranda. A pleasure to be in this space.

SW: Thanks so much for listening to the latest episode of the Accelerant podcast. As always, this is about inspiring you and me. Okay. All of us, let us know what you’ve learned, what you want to hear. Any other thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Daxko. That’s d-a-x-k-o or post with #accelerantpodcast.

Or you can send us an email at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you. You can find accelerate wherever you listen to podcasts. Remember to hit subscribe. That simple click helps us continue to bring new episodes packed with uplifting and insightful stories. Bonus points. If you leave a review, but other listeners know about us and what Accelerant means to you.

The Accelerant podcast is a product of Daxko, serving the health and wellness community for over 20 years with comprehensive technology solutions to over 17 million members worldwide. Learn more at That’s d-a-x-k-o dot com.  

Accelerant is produced by Christy Brown, Sean Ellis Hussey, and me, Saranda West. Sound and editing by Sean Ellis Hussey. Visual design by Jenny Miller.

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