In praise of Doris Overby


When disputes become drawn out, as has the Midtown YWCA controversy, we are well advised to review the events and values that prompted Doris Overby to go signature-gathering on Aug. 20, 2018.

By that time, YWCA CEO Luz Maria Frias, without inviting member input, had announced a new pay-to-park plan. Members learned of the plan only days before construction began, lending it a “done deal” quality that couldn’t be changed.

Members believed that Ms. Frias rushed her plan because had it been vetted carefully, its validity would have imploded. As we have explained in detail in Southside Pride over several months, a permanent pay-to-park system was not necessary to keep non-members out—the sole reason given for putting in gates. Moreover, strangely enough, her plan doesn’t block non-members from parking in YWCA lots.

Doris Overby, concerned about both plan and process, sought to gather member opinion, and by way of a petition, inform CEO Frias. Ms. Overby sought not to substitute her plan for Ms. Frias’; rather, she wanted to slow the process down allowing a dialogue to emerge that would include member concerns and carefully examine the rationale for the Y’s proposal.

First, Ms. Overby pointed out that members had a material stake in the issue. Many members had chosen Midtown because parking was free, and, suddenly, a new parking fee was about to add $180 to the annual cost of going to the Y. For some, the fee would be less, for others more. Ms. Overby urged Ms. Frias to consider approaches that blocked non-members but didn’t impose costs on members—people who were not the source of the problem.

Not only did Ms. Overby embrace member concerns, she embraced member rights. She took seriously the YWCA credo of “Empowering Women” and “Welcoming Everyone.” By its very definition, to empower someone is to allow her or his initiative to unfold without undue restraint. In this case, her initiative took the form of benign civic action—gathering signatures to a petition with the intent of finding a mutually satisfying resolution among equal human beings.

Midtown officials chose a different course. Contending that Ms. Overby violated an unspecified rule, they chose to immediately block her signature-gathering and directed her activities to the sidewalk. Later, in order to justify his actions, Midtown Manager Aguilar concocted the “Signature Gathering is Solicitation is Harassment Rule,” a construction that does not exist in the membership policies.

What happened to the “Empowerment of Women”? It morphed into the “Non-Empowerment of Members, Women or Men.” Ms. Overby wasn’t a self-initiating human being after all. She had assumed that because members paid membership fees, fees that made the services of the Y possible, that members naturally had a right to have their voices heard. But this was not so! She and the other members had a right to receive orders from Y management, the only force allowed to take the initiative.

Ms. Overby wasn’t deterred. Aware that suppressing member concerns was something different from refuting them, she persisted in exposing the weakness of the parking plan and the shabby treatment meted out to her. Confident in her course and the values that led her to act, she knew that her initiative could be blocked, but not ended; so she continued to write, to speak out, and to insist that her rightful concerns and those of all the members become a permanent feature of a new more sensible and just governance structure.

Having resorted to coercion from the beginning, Mr. Aguilar extended it by suspending Doris’ membership and mine as well. To justify it, he could do no better than refer to vague “false statements” we made, even though he didn’t bother to cite any. Apparently, management’s prerogatives allow them to inflict harm without cause, an approach that shows a glaring lack of candor and ethics. And the managers have sent the ominous message to members that they could be subjected to arbitrary, punitive action for merely disagreeing with decisions of management, an attitude that has needlessly fostered a climate of apprehension.

Ms. Overby has responded by doubling down on her efforts. Along the way, she has acquired ever more supporters, men and women, especially women. These women haven’t waited for Y management to confer power on them. They have created power from within and have used it to put their creativity and skill in the service of truth and justice—and they inspire us all.

As much as our lives are enmeshed in national and international issues, we live our daily lives in local communities and institutions. In walking onto the exercise floor and holding out her humble petition, Doris Overby reaffirmed the best in us—that an injury to one is an injury to all, that we are all initiators, that we all deserve dignity and respect, that we all have voices that deserve to be heard, that reason is our lodestar, and that democracy fosters community. In an age of growing inequality and authoritarianism, Doris Overby insists on democratic participation, due process, fairness and accountability.

Yet Ms. Overby knows that inspiring principles are not enough—they must be put into practice. That’s why she and others have been calling on YWCA officials to add members to the Board of Directors. As Ms. Overby wrote earlier to Board Chair Moeller, being on the board establishes member rights and gives them a platform to express their interests and concerns. She pointed out that it introduces democracy to the proceedings, and the glue of democracy helps convert a collection of individuals into a community.

She sees it as a win-win situation. Outside board members bring no small expertise to the Y, but the paying members experience the various services of the Y on a daily basis, and they can and do suggest useful improvements. Finally, as a consensus seeker, Ms. Overby points out that if conflicts arise between members and managers and both are on the Board, that conflict can be nipped in the bud, ill feelings avoided, and harmony restored. It’s a giant step forward for all the stakeholders.

After the holidays, we plan to hold a public meeting to discuss and advance our ideas.

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