YWCA leader earns award for fighting racism in the region

From an easy-to-miss office on a side street in Downtown Bay City, Moira Branigan is working to change the world.

Moira Branigan, Executive Director of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region and 2024 MLK Jr. Drum Major Award recipient. (Photo courtesy of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region)Branigan, Executive Director of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region since 2019, admits the non-profit’s twin mission of eliminating racism and empowering women is not easy. Rather than focus on the difficulties of realizing these goals, she keeps her team focused on what they can do to help all women reach their full potential.

Other people are noticing the work Branigan and her team are doing.

This month, Branigan will receive the 2024 Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award for Bay County during the annual MLK Jr. Regional Celebration on Wed., Jan. 17 at Saginaw Valley State University. The Bay Area Community Foundation nominated her for the honor.

The event is free, but registration is requested. This year’s keynote speaker is Melissa Harris Perry, an award-winning professor, author, and media professional.

Branigan says she feels humbled by the award, but also encouraged that people believe what the YWCA is doing is making a difference. 

“Half the population is women and there are women of all colors,” she says. “To ignore the fact that racism exists, how are we going to be able to support these women to real their full potential?”

Branigan works alongside Program Director Erica Armstrong and SVSU Field Placement Facilitator Grace Macomber to advocate for women in the region. The trio works out of an office at 205 Sixth St.

The Bay County-based team works to fulfill its mission through several programs. 

The oldest, and most well-known, program is Getting Ahead. 

Graphic courtesy of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region“Getting Ahead is a goal-setting workshop for women who are struggling with instability. They need some support to find their footing as they make the transition to the next part of their lives,” Branigan says. 

Since 2020, the YWCA also has offered Moving Ahead. While the workshops have similar names, the programming is different. Moving Ahead is a program of the Allstate Foundation. 

“Moving Ahead is financial education written through the lens of women who have experienced financial abuse through domestic violence,” Branigan says.

In Moving Ahead, participants get help writing a budget, learn about credit scores, and meet bankers ready to help them move away from high-interest lenders and check-cashing services.

Graphic courtesy of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region“We want to connect them with good support and good resources,” Branigan says of each program.

In the last year, 125 women were part of the economic empowerment programs. 

Recently, the YWCA added Young Women Choosing Action, a leadership program developed by the YWCA USA. In Young Women Choosing Action, girls between 13 and 19 learn real-world leadership skills. The goal is to teach them to make decisions based on active choices rather than reactions. 

At the end of Young Women Choosing Action, participants complete a Social Justice Action Project. In 2023, the girls created videos around sexism and gender discrimination. The videos are linked on the YWCA website.

During the 2020 pandemic, the YWCA launched a program to directly tackle all forms of racism. The program, called InterACT, uses an Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) assessment to measure individual skills and experiences interaction with people from different backgrounds. 

Branigan, who leads InterACT locally, is a certified IDI Qualified Administrator and has a Diversity and Inclusion Certification from Cornell University.

The program measures how much experience participants have working with people from diverse backgrounds. Churches and families typically are homogenous. Everyone comes from similar socioeconomic classes, religions, or races. The IDI helps quantify our experiences with diversity.

After getting their score, the goal is that participants take steps to build more understanding of people of all backgrounds.

“Most of us do grow up in communities and families where everyone is the same,” Branigan says. 

Graphic courtesy of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay Region“This just gives everyone a chance to stop and think ‘How did I get this information?’ We’re responsible for what’s in our heads, but everything is kind of dumped into us. If you don’t know any different, how are you going to act any different?”

In this area, Branigan says one of the biggest dividers is socioeconomic class. 

“I think that’s one of the biggest ones in our region,” Branigan says. “There is so much judgment, misunderstanding, and division.

The misunderstandings play out in a number of ways. Take, for example, how people from different backgrounds view money. People in the middle class see money as something to conserve. Families in the upper class families use money as a tool. People living in poverty or instability often see money as something to be spent. 

Those different viewpoints lead people to judge each other’s financial decisions.

The goal of InterACT is you not only better understand your own circumstances, but you strive to improve your understanding of others. 

“You spend a little time thinking about things and investigating and learning and adding more data to your database, then you go back and take the assessment in six months or 12 months, you’ll likely grow your skill,” she says. “You want to grow and expand your experience and understanding.”

InterACT is taking off. A recent grant from the Bay Area Community Foundation and Hemlock Semiconductor is paying for area nonprofit organizations to participate in InterACT. Branigan hopes the experience helps the agencies better serve the community. 

Graphic courtesy of the YWCA Great Lakes Bay RegionBranigan sees the Drum Major Award as further evidence that YWCA programs fill a need in a changing community. 

“Bay City is pretty white, but it’s getting not to be. That’s changing,” Branigan says. “We’re getting smaller in some ways. We’re aging. The makeup of the community is changing. We’ve got neighborhoods where there are a couple families of color moving in.”

InterACT is just one tool for people to start on a journey of self-discovery and growth.

“I always recommend – when I close the conversation with someone at the end of the InterACT process – that an individual pick an area of exploration or study about a dimension of diversity they find interesting. Or something they have a lot of judgement around,” Branigan says. 

“It could be a completely different religion, or a culture as a whole, or what it's like to live with a different level of ability, family structure, or belief system: whatever you pick, read, listen to the voices of that community, find someone of this group that you can talk with (and who is open to discussing this topic) and ask them questions. Withholding judgment and leaning into curiosity, I think that is the biggest challenge. Most people think they know what another person's life experience is when they've never imagined what their life is like, or investigated this at all.”
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Read more articles by Kathy Roberts.

Kathy Roberts, a graduate of Central Michigan University, moved to Bay City in 1987 to start a career in the newspaper industry. She was a reporter and editor at the Bay City Times for 15 years before leaving to work at the Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, Covenant HealthCare, and Ohno Design. In 2019, she returned to her storytelling roots as the Managing Editor of Route Bay City. When she’s not editing or writing stories, you can find her reading books, knitting, or visiting the bars of Bay County. You can reach Kathy at editor@RouteBayCity.com