The Year of the Woman: Adding a Unique Perspective

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Regina Malveaux, JD, Chief Executive Officer
YWCA Spokane (Spokane, Washington)

Though I have never met Ms. Malveaux in person, I was encouraged to speak to her about my “law school dreams”. We eventually became friends on different social media platforms and I have often asked her for advice about different career paths and opportunities. While seeking her wise counsel, I gained a wealth of knowledge about her work around women’s issues.

This interview was conducted to explore why women’s issues were so important to Ms. Malveaux and to gain a better understanding of the path she took to tackle these issues.

Q. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I am originally from San Diego, California but attended high school in Huntsville, Alabama. I a proud graduate of Oakwood Academy and also have an undergraduate degree in Social Policy from San Diego State University and a law degree from Howard University School of Law. I am currently the CEO of the YWCA Spokane, a $3.5 mil social service and social justice organization.

Q. Do you think civic engagement is important?

With the growing income, class and racial divides in our nation today, civic engagement is more important now that ever. Our clients and communities experience a direct impact when policy priorities shift based on which party is in power in Congress and the White House. It is only when citizens are actively engaged in ALL elections (not just the Presidential year elections) AND regularly holding their elected officials accountable that the change we seek in these areas will happen.

Q. Do you think it is important for more women to become involved in politics/advocacy? Why or why not?

I have the very good fortune to have come into political life as a young woman during what was then termed “The Year of the Woman” – when a large number of women were elected to the US Senate. During my lifetime I’ve seen how policies that impact women and children, particularly those we consider the working poor, have been given more voice and support by virtue of women in leadership positions.

Women have a unique perspective as mothers and, all too often, the primary caregivers for a family. We are tuned into issues affecting families in a way that other politicians often aren’t. Further, I believe that in general women’s leadership styles tend to be more collaborative. We tend to seek solutions through relationship vs. conflict.

Our nation clearly needs more of this.

Q. How did you get into advocacy/politics?

My entry into advocacy/politics was very personal. I’d grown up in a comfortable, middle class environment, attended private schools and had a relatively privileged upbringing. During my early college years I met, married and had two children with a man I deeply loved who turned out to be incredibly abusive. I left the marriage when my children were 1 ½ and 3 years old. The abuse and subsequent trauma led to my inability to keep my full time job. In the first two years following my divorce I supported my children with a combination of student financial aid, part time work and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. I was on a long wait list for subsidized child care which was absolutely necessary to be able to both work and go to school. Moving from “private school princess” to struggling single mom showed me the significant difference between the opportunities and respect afforded to those in different socioeconomic groups. I also learned how challenging it was to navigate difficult systems which families often must rely on in order to receive benefits to assistance with basic needs like food, shelter, etc.

A role model who was instrumental in my career path was Marian Wright Edelman. Mrs. Edelman is President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, an organization dedicated to being a voice for poor women, children and families. She was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar Association while working in Jackson, Mississippi, the epicenter of hate during the civil rights movement. I had already been an admirer of her advocacy and civil rights legacy, but when I began to experience the difficulty of raising two young children as a single mother on a limited income I came to realize how important her work on behalf of families and systems change really was.

I met Mrs. Edelman when she came to speak at the dedication of the Thurgood Marshall College at the University California San Diego. I was very inspired by her message of being a champion for children and families living in poverty.

Over the coming months, I reached out to the Children’s Defense Fund (somewhat relentlessly I have to admit) and inquired about doing an internship in their Washington, DC office during spring break. That was the spring of 1995 and I’ve been an advocate/activist ever sense.

Q. Could you give a brief summary of your journey?

I started out my college career as a journalism major at Alabama A & M University, later declared as business major before ultimately finding my passion in social work and social policy. After completing my internship at the Children’s Defense Fund in my junior year of college (8 years after my graduation from high school) my passions crystalized into a plan.

I took advantage of a unique program that allowed you to craft your own major if you could articulate why no existing major met your career goals. After completing an interdisciplinary degree which included political science, social work and child and family studies, I went on to help implement several Children’s Defense Fund projects before entering law school at Howard University.

My children were 5 and 7 when I entered law school. First year law school is difficult under the best of circumstances, when you are a mom with two young children, a limited financial aid package and no-child support the journey is even more difficult. That year certainly stands out as one of the most difficult of my life, and though I’m honestly still in awe of how I actually got through it, I am always grateful for the ability to have persevered and pushed through.

I’d chosen Howard University because of its civil rights/social justice legacy and the community of support that I knew I would find there. Its Washington DC location was also key as I knew that I was interested in putting my law degree to use in the public policy arena. During my time in law school I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund, had three unpaid internships and one paid fellowship. My internships including working for Judge Zinora Mitchell Rankin (then Chief Judge of Family Court), Congresswoman Maxine Waters (then Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus) and then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

My last year in both law school and Washington included receiving 1 of 10 national policy fellowships within the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families. These experiences woven together with what I learned about the law and law making gave me the background needed to be not only a passionate, but a skilled advocate on behalf of women and children.

Though I loved Washington, I came to realize that the high profile career I was striving for was not consistent with what my children needed from me during that season of our lives so we returned home to San Diego and I went to work in the non-profit sector. I have worked in the non-profit sector for over 15 years in positions of increasing responsibility.

I currently work for the YWCA where our mission is eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

I began my career with YWCAs as a Legal Advocate at the YWCA of San Diego. I took my first executive job as the Executive Director of the YWCA South Hampton Roads in 2010 just as my daughter was graduating from high school. Currently I am the CEO of the YWCA Spokane where we provide support services for victims of domestic violence and their children and help prepare 4 year olds from low-income families for kindergarten.

On average, we provide services to approximately 17,000 women and children annually. Our programs help women escape from domestic violence, get access to legal support, provide a safe place for healing and growth, grant opportunities for women to learn new skills, increase employment options, and provide access to resources for their children’s education and well-being.

I am exceedingly proud of the opportunity to lead an agency which plays such an important role in supporting women and children in moving from what is often the most traumatic moment in their lives to a new life of hope, healing, stability and empowerment.

I’d like to think that my own experience as a struggling mother and domestic violence victim helps inform my leadership and the work that my agency does both at the direct services and systems change levels.

Q. Looking back at your journey, which role did you enjoy the most and why?

I can honestly say that the role I’m in now is the one I was “born to play”. I believe that EVERY job and internship leading to this one helped me gain skills, confidence and content knowledge that allow me to be an acknowledged expert in my field. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a CEO and not only provide services to those who need them, but to provide opportunities for young women entering the fields of advocacy, activism, human services and the law. It is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.

Q. Which role taught you the most, whether about yourself, about politics, about advocacy, or about something else that you deem important?

My time working in the White House was a turning point in my career. I was young and idealistic and SO grateful to be working there, even in my small capacity as an intern in the First Lady’s speechwriting office. But my internship semester coincided with the timing of the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. To that point I had been firmly committed on a path to public service and planned to eventually run for public office, I even have a photo of myself on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with a caption in my scrapbook which reads “Senator Lockett” (my name at the time). After watching several years of gridlock and what became known as “the politics of personal destruction” I came to see that Congress was no longer something I aspired to. I’ve been very sad to watch in recent years as the institution has been further eroded by an even deeper culture of antagonism and divisiveness. We deserve better of our elected officials.

Q. What challenges did you experience when trying to break into the political arena?

Trying to get a paid!

As I said, I committed many semesters, spring breaks, summers, evenings and weekends to various political internships, initiatives and organizing efforts, almost all unpaid. I was so grateful (and relieved) when I was offered a paid position on the Victory 96 coordinated campaign in Southern California and had the good fortune of working as part of the Clinton/Gore campaign. While it wasn’t a large amount of money, it felt good to have my time and talents respected with compensation.

Q. Is there any one thing you wish you knew before you dedicated your time and effort to this work?

It would have been good for me to have known early on that most “opportunities” for young people on political campaigns and within Congress and the Administration are unpaid internships. I had a very specific roadmap to the future that I wanted to create and it included obtaining experience in the field and in the halls of Congress and the White House. I didn’t realize however that those opportunities were by and large uncompensated. This was a real challenge as I had not only myself to support, but two young children. I came to recognize that there was a distinct advantage for those who had the financial freedom to commit to internships or volunteer positions without competing work obligations. This system seemed exceedingly unfair and stacked against those without family support or independent means. In my own agency now I work hard to make sure that the young people who come to work for us can be compensated, if not by the agency directly than by work study, service learning fellowships or other support sources that we help find to underwrite their work. Large institutions should not run on the backs of hungry interns ☺.

Q. What do you hope to do in the future?

I love the work that I do and hope to compliment it by completing my book and perhaps sharing my story with others as a keynote speaker for conferences and fundraising events that support victim’s services or young women’s organizations like mine.

I also wouldn’t be averse to serving in the Office of Violence Against Women in the next Clinton Administration ☺

Q. Is there anything that you think is missing from politics that in a perfect world, you think should be present?

Civility, humility, more concern for the common good.

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The Year of the Woman: Adding a Unique Perspective

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