Today is October 1, 2014 and the time is 12 PM. This is Ryan Beam from the Kautz Family YMCA archives interviewing Rose Berberian. Rose, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.

Ryan Bean

Ms. Berberian

You’re very welcome.


Ryan Bean

My first question for you is, what was your first YMCA experience?

Ms. Berberian

My first YMCA experience was at the South Chicago YMCA in Chicago. I was a child, about age eight, and I took swimming lessons. I never did really pass. And I participated in the Y while in grade school.


Ryan Bean

And when about would that have been?

Ms. Berberian

Well, the years would have been, I graduated grammar school in ’53, so it was probably in the mid to late ‘40s. 


Ryan Bean

So the YMCA that you grew up in allowed both boys and girls to participate in.

Ms. Berberian

Yes. In the Chicago YMCA, every Y branch had a women/girls director, which was pretty progressive when you think about it in those days. And so women and girls were very prominent in Chicago Y. And Wilhelmina Aveling, who is in the YMCA Hall of Fame, was the women and girls secretary, they called it, for the Chicago Y.


Ryan Bean

When did you first start working for the YMCA, and could you briefly describe your career?

Ms. Berberian

Well, let me bridge that.


Ryan Bean

Sure.

Ms. Berberian

From grade school, and then into high school, I joined the Tri-Hi Y program at the South Shore YMCA, and I was active—it was a newer building, and it didn’t have residents, but it had everything else. So I was in the Tri-Hi program while I was a student at South Shore High School. And then a woman and girls director there, Dorothy Marshall, tapped me on the shoulder and said have you ever thought of a career in the YMCA?

I guess she saw some leadership there. And I was given a $300 scholarship to George Williams College in 1957 by Solon Cousins. And it was the Weisman Scholarship, so I knew I wanted to do something in human service. I’m not an early riser, so I didn’t want to get up early and have to be a school teacher. I didn’t want to work with kids who didn’t want to necessarily be there, and so I chose the Y.

I started working part time, while, not in high school, but in field placements. I didn’t work in the YMCA. So really my first employment was in Detroit in 1961. I was recruited out of George Williams College by a man named Herb Phifer, who at the time, YMCAs around the country would send their regional or field person, or state YMCA person, to come to the college to do interviews.

My field placements were in the Jewish Community Center, Hull House. So I didn’t really have a YMCA part-time job until I went to work full-time in Detroit. So that’s how I was recruited. And it was 300 miles from home, in Chicago, my home town, and my parents were still living. I wanted to be close enough, and I had a sister living there.

So I went to Detroit, really, as either the first or second professional staff person as a woman, and the Detroit Y did not have women and girls directors. So I went as an associate youth director, and the thing I didn’t know was that when I went to the first citywide staff meeting, there were no other women. Except for one, and I’m not sure what her status was. So I was kind of a pioneer in Detroit, which was very male. And so they were trying to integrate, and my job was as an associate youth director.


Do you have a sense where the YMCA Movement was in terms of female leadership in the Y when you came to Detroit? So Chicago had already established that precedent. Detroit, a comparable city not too far away hadn’t. So where is the movement at during this period in terms of bringing women on board?

Ryan Bean

Ms. Berberian

Well, I think that if you look at women in the YMCA historically, and many of those who served, served during wars. You know, and if you look at, again, the women who took on jobs that men were not available for, because the war. But whatever the vision in Chicago was, or however they got there, they were way ahead of the rest of the country. So the Chicago Y having a woman and girls director in every branch, going to Detroit, I didn’t realize how few women there were in the YMCA at that time.

So I don’t think that women and girls had been embraced. I think it became a financial issue. Detroit finally said, you know, there’s a market out there of women and girls, and the emphasis on family was probably not as altruistic as it was financial. I think it was a good business decision for Detroit to start getting into it. I think women and girls came in to the program through fitness.

The days of Bonnie Prudden and Mom and Baby swimming classes, and things of that nature. So the leadership was not anywhere near what it is today. You know, when you look at the number of females working for the YMCA professionally. And of course the term professional has changed. And so there is a, I was just shocked that there weren’t more women.

I never even thought to ask. So, I don’t know, Detroit was very conservative. You couldn’t be hired if you smoked. You couldn’t be hired if men didn’t wear hats. It’s just an old-fashioned YMCA, where Chicago was much more progressive. Why, I’m not sure. I don’t know.


Ryan Bean

Did you face resistance as you came on board in Detroit Y?

Ms. Berberian

Well, I was a novelty. And I had a job of starting programs, which the Y needed. It took awhile before there was another woman hired. I can’t tell you exactly the number of years. But I think that I was fortunate that I had, actually I say three Chucks in my life. I had the hiring exec, Chuck Swineford. The youth director, Chuck Wise. And then I had a third person named Chuck Long, and he was the personnel director.

They were very supportive. There was an advantage to being the only woman, and that was you were touted everywhere. So I had a lot of opportunities in Detroit to grow. There was an organization at the time called the Women and Girls Section of AOS, which was the Association of Secretaries, and that’s the forerunner to AYP.

Which was something else in between. But AOS had a women and girls section. I was in my first, my second year, maybe, of employment, has to be the member at large. I ended up being the treasurer. So there were sections of the professional society of which women and girls were. So there was some leadership, but much of it came out of Chicago.

And I was recruited there, probably because a woman named Elizabeth Pulley, an African American woman who worked in the Chicago Y knew me from Tri-Hi-Y camps, and I think that’s how I got recruited. I was with some names of people like Wendy Colton and others who were really, I mean, they were at higher levels than I ever was at that time, and so there was a leadership group at that point.


Ryan Bean

And did seeing women succeeding in the YMCA at levels above you give you some sort of guidance or show that there’s a pathway, or that there is more that you can accomplish?

Ms. Berberian

There were. I mean, there were women like Wendy Colton, who was on the National YMCA staff, and her job, the first, I think, woman on the National YMCA staff. Now known as the Y of the USA. As a women and girls director. And there were women who were mentors, and there were women who were role models, but they weren’t in the high positions. They just weren’t there. So when you talk about mentors in the Y, they were men. And I was really very fortunate to have some good male mentors.

So they were as inspirational to me as some of the women. And I know, Bobbi Johnson, who’s here at this conference, was one of those women. But the numbers were far and few between. And I happened to have a general secretary, as they called it at that time, who was very supportive and would take me to meetings. I was kind of a show piece at that point.

But it was a very different organization. We were called junior secretaries, and you had to write Christian mission statements. And you had to go through all kinds of training. Two years before you could move up to a secretary. So the whole concept of secretary—the whole concept of a calling and being there as a ministry of sorts, is quite different than it is, maybe today.


Ryan Bean

How many years were you with Detroit?

Ms. Berberian

About 35. And again, I was fortunate. I went to a metropolitan Y, and so my career ladder could be locally. I had opportunities to move, but every time I looked at the opportunity to move, like to New York or to a region position, I got kind of encouraged to stay by being given new opportunities. So I moved from an associate youth director in an urban branch with residents.

Then I moved to an outreach center and started a new branch as a program director. And then I went downtown to being a citywide high school program director. And then into more general program development, and then into personnel and human resources, and then I moved into human resources and training and strategic planning. And my last position in the Y was being an interim president of the Detroit Y.

And at the same time, I was very fortunate that they allowed me to continue my education. I went to Detroit partly because I was going to be a social work master’s degree. I couldn’t get into the master’s program in social work part time. You had to be full time. So then I decided to go into guidance and counseling, got a master’s there, and then I was fortunate through training opportunities to, again a mentor Ron Lippit, in institutional and organizational change.

And I was able to go to the University of Michigan, and do that all part time. So the Detroit Y had a tuition reimbursement for one class, that would pay for one class. And I had to take one semester off to do full student residency. So I had a great career. And every time I looked to move, I thought, why do I need to move? By then you have family and friends, and stuff like that.


What is something all new YMCA employees should know?

Ryan Bean

Ms. Berberian

Wow, that’s a tough one. I guess they should know what the mission of the organization is. And as I say that, I don’t even know if I know what the mission of the organization is today. I mean, I went into the Y for youth work.

I think they need to know that it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance, and it’s a career, and it’s a calling. If you look at it as a job, I don’t know that you would be very successful. I think that’s part of the dynamic right now. A lot of people coming in and going out, coming in and going. I think they need to know there is career potential if they hang with it.


Ryan Bean

And you spoke a little bit ago about how your career was quite successful in Detroit, and you were able to advance through the ranks, and ultimately kind of holding the top position. What is something all YMCA leaders should be aware of?

Ms. Berberian

Well, I think that they should be aware that they’ve got to get out of where they are, and be exposed and become known, and we’re known by our good works. Number one, where we are. Not with your eye on the next position, but do a good job where you are.

I think they need to be aware that there is also an informal structure, so it’s not necessarily just based on your good works and hard work, but that there is such a strong informal network of who you know, and that’s how you can make yourself known to people by going to conferences, by being visible. And not only where you are, but in this national Movement.


Ryan Bean

What does the YMCA mean to you?

Ms. Berberian

Well, I think the YMCA, for me, means an informal educational and life skills center. It’s a, and when I say it’s informal, you choose to be there. It’s not like school. You don’t have to go. And so it means that people who come want to be there. And they want to experience and grow. I think it means for me that it’s an opportunity to bring your talents and your gifts and use them in a way that can be very meaningful.

It means to me you can touch a lot of lives. It means to me that you give as much as you get, and that you get as much as you give. And that it’s—I think of the quote, “you know you make a living by what you do, but you make a life by what you are.” And I guess I should say, you make a living by what you give, you make a life by what you get. Or, there’s a Winston Churchill quote. It’s a very important organization.

I worry about it. I do. I think it’s changed dramatically. So what the YMCA meant to me or means to me, it’s not what I think it means today to so many people. I don’t—for me, it doesn’t mean a fitness center. It means a place where people can go, and they can, in fact, establish friendships and learn. So it’s, I think a very important organization, but I do worry about its identity.


Ryan Bean

What else? You had mentioned kind of an emphasis on the fitness center aspect of it. What are other aspects of the way the Y shows up today that you’re concerned about?

Ms. Berberian

Well, I think on the program side, I see too much emphasis on fitness. I see the tax challenge in terms of what makes the Y different than LA Fitness or Planet Fitness, or the 24/7s, and I think the concern I have is that it’s become an adult club. And that what we’re missing are the youth. We’re missing a lot of the youth, what was called the forefront programs, the club programs.

I get concerned in our society about technology, and I don’t think we understand yet what the impact is. Because there’s no longitudinal. Technology hasn’t been around long enough to really see what the effects are going to be. And I think that there are developmental tasks that kids have to go through. And that sense of belonging to groups, learning leadership skills, learning the sides of the triangle that are not necessary just physical. And that concerns me.

I also am concerned that the financing of the organization is going to just, it’s a bubble. And that the taking of bonds, using of corporate and business kinds of finance approaches, and getting away from people being involved in communities and raising money and doing things. I get concerned when I hear Neil Nicoll say, we don’t, do we need 900? We can consolidate.

Well, the Y should be a community-based organization. And a community-based organization should have boards and committees, and involvement. I’ve always said, the greatest adult, we’re a great adult education organization just through our boards, the work we do with adults. The learning of leadership skills. The learning of committee work. And I don’t see that happening on conference calls, or through Skype, or through technology.

It’s the coming together of people around a table and voicing their opinions, and building relationships. And that’s what I worry about. And I worry about that not only for the Y, but for our society. I see an awful lot of kids isolated, and when we sit with, plus the physical effects of computers.

I was just with somebody who had a seizure because he’d been playing so many video games that his brain got kind of wired, and they’re saying it could have been from the intensity of those games. So I don’t know that we know the effects of technology. And I have to sort it out.

How much is it my resistance to change, and how much is it, because I really believe in my head intellectually that there are developmental tasks that we go through and grow. And those have to do with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And if we’re not doing those, I don’t think you can shortcut them.


Ryan Bean

So to circle back on development and growth, you’ve mentioned a couple times the forefront programs, and then your involvement in Tri-Hi-Y. Did the Tri-Hi-Y program or prepare you at all for your YMCA career?

Ms. Berberian

Oh, I think it—I owe a lot to Tri-Hi-Y. And in Chicago, in my high school, which was probably 50% of 60% Jewish. There were BBGs and ACAs, and the Jewish social organization, and then there was Tri-Hi-Y. And I think that again, you learned how to be an officer of a Tri-Hi-Y. You learned how to have a democratic process. You learned how to do service projects. You learned how to even have a little treasurer’s sheets.

For me, Tri-Hi-Y was a great program of learning for me. And then, of course, it let me to a career. But I think that and camping are the two very best programs. And I worry that camping could go the way of the forefront programs. And I worry that camps are being sold, because they’re valuable pieces of property. Many of which were donated.

The YMCA’s got the best property next to the Catholic church in my opinion. I mean, we’ve got beautiful pieces of property. But I know they’re being put on the block for sale, because of the bonds having to be repaid, and they’re not easy programs to do. Especially in this day and age. And so, the Girl Scouts in Detroit last week were on the front page. They’re closing and selling their last camp.

They’re out of the camping business. I see the Y coming right behind that. But I think Tri-Hi-Y, and it was a feeder to employment. I look at the two kids from Springfield College saying the one came through the Rochester Y. That feeder system is going to disappear. And partly because we’re operating on so many levels of staff.

There isn’t a Dorothy Marshall or a Wilhelmina Aveling to tap a kid on the shoulder. So I think that the whole organization has shifted, and so, yeah, I do believe in hi-Y and tri-hi-Y, and I think some of our major gifts have come. In Detroit the endowment started with a $4 million gift by a man who was touched. And so, somewhere in there, we’re missing that whole level of recruitment.

My HR committee in Detroit used to say to me, you’ve got the easiest recruitment in the whole world. Look how many kids you have. So whether it was Youth in Government, Tri-Hi-Y, Hi-Y, student YMCAs, camps—those were all recruiting sources. 


Ryan Bean

And then you mentioned that you attended George Williams College on a scholarship. How did George Williams prepare you for your YMCA career?

Ms. Berberian

Well, at the time, there were 400 students at George Williams, and most of them came from YMCAs. So you were dealing with people who all understood what a Y experience was. You know, you had the common knowledge and common background coming in. Most of us didn’t have much money, and so the laboratory learning of George Williams, of working in field placements was not only a way of making money, but also a way of learning.

The curriculum, in my opinion, was outstanding for managing work of nonprofit organizations. It was everything from folk dance to recreation, which informs physical education, and of course all the aquatics. But you know, the whole notion of group work, which was my major, and the health and PE people were certainly, with Arthur Steinhouse and others, perceived as a pre-med curriculum.

So I thought George Williams was a laboratory for life. It was not, certainly not my first time, but it was the time when you met the diversity of African Americans and, I hate to say the Canadians, but there was a large Canadian, so you got some what of an international look.

And to this day, I still have many friends. And it makes me very sad that the George Williams lifetime card went to Downer’s Grove. The whole focus kind of shifted it, and now it went out of business. That was unconscionable, in my opinion.


Ryan Bean

I just have one final question for you is, is there anything that I have not asked you about today that you’d like to share?

Ms. Berberian

Well, you know, the saying I guess is, in the good ole days, and we certainly have—they were good ole days. But these are good days, too. There is something in this era that’s exciting and new and challenging. And I guess I would just want to say that I hope the Y doesn’t lose itself and its identity.

This whole notion of diversity is certainly important, but it shouldn’t change the mission of the YMCA. Or it shouldn’t change, the history needs to be remembered. And I guess that’s why I think this is an important project for you, Ryan. I think that we forget where we came from, when we haven’t been there, and we haven’t seen people from the past.

And I think it’s a challenging time, but as we recruit people from outside the YMCA because they have good business skills, they need to come and return to the fact this is a ministry of sorts. So I say thank you.

Ryan Bean

And thank you for sharing your time and sharing your story.

Ms. Berberian

Yeah.