The mission of the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center is simple: to eliminate racism and empower women.
In recent years though, Director of the YWCA PWC Kathy Mack has extended that mission to eliminating racism and empowering all people.
“At the YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center we have a very unique opportunity to empower young people daily in our after-school extended learning setting — and that’s middle and high school boys and girls — so it’s interesting, but our mission with the YWCA as a whole is to empower women and eliminate racism,” Mack said. “And how we are doing that is we are doing the day-to-day work. People ask us all the time if we only serve women, but no, it’s man, woman, boy and girl.”
In addition to the center’s after-school assistance, it also acts as a full community center open Monday through Sunday, hosting birthday parties, wedding showers and bridal showers to provide unique services for the community.
With 2020 already underway, the PWC celebrates 100 years of serving the East Knoxville community this year. Festivities include Diversity Day, Be Kind Day and a homecoming celebration later in the calendar year.
Mack harped on the longevity of the Center and the strides of change it has made in the community.
“That’s a long time. I tell people, ‘I don’t know anything that’s 100 years old and still moving.’ So one of the things that we always say is that a lot of things have changed over the last 100 years and are no longer vital, but the Phyllis Wheatley Center has remained, and that’s one of the things that we take a lot of pride in,” Mack said.
Diversity Day took place on Jan. 18 at the PWC in efforts to engage with members of the Knoxville community and celebrate diversity and make a stand against racism. Over 200 participants registered to run in the Race Against Racism 5K one-mile walk.
To celebrate Black History Month, the PWC is hosting a unique rendition of a Valentine’s Day party on Feb. 13.
“We’re going to celebrate all-month-long Black History, but we also want to do a ‘Be Kind’ movement. Instead of celebrating Valentine’s Day, we’re going to do a ‘Be Kind Day,’ and that’s going to be interesting in our setting when you deal with young people in the community ... So getting them to understand that there’s nothing in this world you could do, and be successful at it, if you don’t be kind to others,” Mack said.
The PWC was created as a place of empowerment for six African American women in 1920, a time when the United States was still segregated. The goal was to create a place for them to grow, to go, to be developed and to be empowered.
In the past 100 years, the PWC has opened its arms to all people regardless of race, gender, age or socio-economic class.
“We don’t want it to be noted that we’re just celebrating 100 years, but that it’s still a movement and that it’s not just a black thing. It’s not just a white thing — it’s an everybody thing,” Mack said, at the Diversity Day celebration.
The PWC also hosts an after-school program for middle and high school students Monday through Friday, whose mission is to promote a sense of family and community by acknowledging where each child comes from.
“So when kids come to the Center today, they feel like they’re coming home because we see them when they come through the door, we acknowledge them, we love on them and we meet them where they are,” Mack said.
Located in East Knoxville, the PWC sits in a food desert zone, meaning that the closest grocery store is miles away. As a way to bring fresh produce into the lives of young people, the PWC planted a community garden in 2017.
“So one of the reasons why it was so important to us to have that garden at the Phyllis Wheatley Center is for every new face that comes in that door we plant a seed. We might not be the ones to see it flourish to its full potential, but we expect a harvest from every kid we sow a seed in,” Mack said.
To prepare for the first harvest, community members planted okra, cabbage, carrots and greens so that when they sprouted, children were in awe that they could take it right out of the ground and into their kitchens.
Mack also emphasized that the harvest process provided a learning opportunity for the after-school program saying, “Everything we do in that facility is a teaching moment.”
For students looking to get involved with the PWC through internships or volunteer work, Mack said that students can help in three ways: with their time, their talent and their treasure.
In their search for volunteers, Mack said, “I also always tell volunteers or interns when they come to the Phyllis Wheatley Center that it is an opportunity that will make you a better person, and you can’t afford to pass up on it.”