“I do love Louisiana. I have it (a fleur-de-lis) tattooed on the back of my neck.” Jennifer SHoub, CEO of YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge
The first time Jennifer Shoub saw the mission of the YWCA in print, she was amazed.
“I could not believe there was an organization that did that work,” she said.
“Eliminating racism, empowering women” is a “bold mission,” Shoub said, one that means providing services to help women, but also becoming an advocate at the local, state and national levels to try to improve life for women and people of color.
That mission convinced her more than two decades ago to apply for a position as director of the YWCA in Kalamazoo, Mich., a job she held for two decades before coming to Baton Rouge last month as CEO of the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge.
“That (goal) to me is a huge opportunity,” Shoub said. “Not just putting Band-Aids on, but trying to figure out how to stop the cut from happening in the first place.”
Shoub, 52, said she has loved south Louisiana since visiting the state more than a decade ago on the invitation of Trudy Smith, the former YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge president, who encouraged several women at a national YWCA meeting to visit Mardi Gras. Shoub visited 10 times after that.
During one visit, Shoub even got a discreet tattoo of a fleur-de-lis.
“I do love Louisiana,” Shoub said. “I have it tattooed on the back of my neck.”
But, as she said in her introduction speech at the YWCA’s Persimmon Women event in October, she did not leave a job she loved for 21 years to be closer to the food and culture of the bayou country.
The prospect of working in an organization she was passionate for in a community with “such potential to eliminate racism and empower women” drew her here, she said in her speech.
Shoub has been recognized as a national leader in the YWCA, said Judi Bishop, the interim director of the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge who led the organization for eight months until Shoub was hired.
“She is very bright,” Bishop said by phone from her home in Fort Worth, Texas. “Her commitment is unwavering. She has done a turnaround before. This YW does not need a turnaround, but it does need new energy.”
Born and raised in Michigan, Shoub has spent her life working in nonprofit organizations. In Ohio she worked as a social worker for adults with mental retardation and developmental disabilities, then ran the Northwest Ohio Crisis Line, a rural domestic violence and sexual assault assistance organization, before joining the YWCA of Kalamazoo. She earned a master’s degree in nonprofit administration from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.
In Kalamazoo, Shoub led a YWCA that had a large domestic violence and sexual assault program with an emergency shelter and transitional housing for victims of domestic abuse. She directed a successful fundraising campaign there, according to the YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge, that in only eight months raised $6.8 million toward a $5 million goal.
Baton Rouge’s YWCA focuses on assisting women through its Center for Family Empowerment education and literacy program and its ENCOREplus program, which educates women about breast and cervical cancers. The local “YW,” as many call it, is often most well known for its Head Start educational program for children.
The current YWCA of Greater Baton Rouge began in 1968 when it was formed as a racially integrated organization. Previously the YWCA in Baton Rouge had been racially segregated, with a separate branch for women of color.
Eliminating racism, while a difficult proposition, excites Shoub. In Kalamazoo, she held dialogues and community summits that educated the community about racism in the modern United States, Smith said.
“They had under her leadership one of the leading racial justice programs in the U.S.,” Smith said. “I think she will bring a much-needed aspect to Baton Rouge. She’s a proven leader that believes in the mission. There’s no one better to do that.”
For Shoub, racism in the modern U.S. appears through white privilege. White people, living in a world created by white people, are automatically better equipped for success.
“I benefit from white privilege, and I don’t even realize how I benefit from white privilege.... Because of racism we know who we know,” Shoub said. “We’re still a relatively segregated society and we have to really make efforts to change that.”
After a lifetime in Ohio and Michigan, is Shoub comfortable talking to Southerners about racial issues?
“Am I comfortable with that? I love the word comfortable. The answer is no,” she said.
White people like to be comfortable and have created a world of white privilege where people of color are often uncomfortable, Shoub said.
“So if I’m uncomfortable,” she said, “I’m probably doing the right thing.”
Shoub’s challenges started right away. Before she even started work, while she was unpacking on Oct. 20, the YWCA’s Istrouma Early Head Start building on Winbourne Avenue caught fire, causing an estimated $180,000 in damage.
Some called it her “baptism by fire.”
While Shoub is seen by many as a leader in the national YWCA organization, she said she plans to build her reputation anew in Baton Rouge.
“I’m really a worker bee in that regard, and I like to build relationships,” she said. “It’s all about building relationships. Relationships open and close doors.”