Episode 005: Charisse Mitchell

Jul 10, 2020

Charisse Mitchell
Credit Bird + Bird Studio (cropped)

Charisse Mitchell serves as the CEO of the YWCA West Central Michigan, a resume that includes earning a strong reputation among private and public funders throughout Michigan, plus over a decade in Washington DC in the area of Municipal Management and Human Services. What motivates Charisse to do what she does so well in a challenging niche? We ask her.

Full Transcript:

>> Produced by women about many powerful women, let's talk is a series of interviews that women who have helped shape our community and chance for who we are and how we lit.

I’m Shelley Irwin. Today's powerful woman has earned a strong reputation among private and public funders throughout Michigan and with their peers, not only locally but nationally. Charisse Mitchell serves as the CEO of the Y W C A West Central Michigan deeply committed to ensuring those who have access to critical services, her resume includes administration with Washington DC Center for excellence and municipal management the American public human Services Association, plus directing Holland Center for women in transition.

>> Charisse is very involved in the community, her giving back nature strong and inspirational so please welcome to this powerful women, let's talk discussion, Charisse Mitchell.

Hello Charisse, Hi Shelly good to see you…

now want to get the toughest question out of the way you grew up with the nickname, Chuck

I did, 8th grade drafting class I had a teacher who could not say Charisse to save his life. I had a friend who said call her Charles better yet just CHUCK, and and a time when I was always hiding in the shadows it was kind of nice to have something that I could stand out with and so that was a confidence booster oddly enough and that name stuck with me pretty much through grad school.

All right but stopped after grad school?

I can't call you Chuck now?

Yeah, I couldn’t be a professional in the environment of DC walking around with some friends.

Why your passion, Charisse, for children and families and why the niche of domestic and sexual-abuse violence?

I think it pretty much I come from a strong family rooted in a kind of understanding and responsibility for each other and so I was so blessed to have a strong family that connection and a very matriarchal focus where women in my family were seen and heard and followed and powerful and so I think I was just kind of born with it.

Let's talk about your journey, what did it take what route did it take to leading an organization goodness gracious a $5 million budget service of more than 4,000 souls, annually?

I think professionally academically it was a bit of a stumbling through is like most kids in college that I wanted to do something else and explored something new but I think my career path really started with women who are mentoring me from the very beginning so having teachers in high school and particularly an advisor in college who just I marveled

she had a beautiful family she had a fantastic career she was writing she was teaching she was consulting and I just thought she was so grounded in herself and knew herself so well and she was just credibly inspiring and so she would constantly ask what do you want to do what do you want to do it's time for you to move on and she actually convince one of my bosses in college to fire me because he said it's time for you to do something else you've done this long enough you can't stay here move on and it was absolutely brilliant and I still connect with her periodic which is an amazing woman.

and here you are, leading and I ask you how do you lead what is working to make you powerful.

When I saw that question I was I never really considered myself powerful other than in my own spirit, which means a lot to me but I think I lead with empathy it's just really important for me to feel like I can connect with the people that I'm working with because I'm inspired by them every day and so I can't find a way to be with them when times are hard and be with them when times are opportunities for celebration but just being able to connect on a human level and being authentic telling people when I don't know things I know what I know, and I know what I don't know.

I surround myself with people who are brilliant and inspired and can teach me something along the way

And what are leadership traits you like to see in your leaders?

I, I think the empathy is extremely important, patience, and oddly enough a sense of humor taking our work seriously is incredibly important.

But if we take ourselves too seriously then we start to focus on ourselves instead of the work.

So if we can move our egos out of the way and say this is about what we're doing and who were helping then we're on the right path.

Charisse, talk about the power of today's woman, take me there

it is just an amazing time and space for women and I think we're starting to realize how critical.

We are as a part of rebuilding and building communities mean the majority of women are the majority of health care workers on the front lines or nurses, there's a lot of women out there saving lives and taking care of their families, those essential workers who are being called back

to work in grocery stores in service areas there there are women who are stepping up despite some really difficult odds and they're doing it with enthusiasm and a spirit, I'm seeing spaces where when people are talking about police if you want to include improved police departments hire more women.

When we look at all of the communities where the emergency response to the covid pandemic has been most powerful and most effective.

Often those are communities and countries being led by women so I am inspired by all that they are doing in the midst of everything that is happening social change movements in anti-racism are often led by and started by women and women of color and the power that we have is becoming more and more apparent in daily lives and national stages and I'm just thrilled to see it and I hope that we continue to honor that space that that women occupy.

Can you or do you bring that power into your work space?

I absolutely do and I think that's because I've been so inspired by women whose names we never know my grandmother had a 6th grade education, she raised 5 kids raise half of her community everyone in the community knows who Claire Smith is and that's because she took it upon herself to take the gifts that she had and share them and lead with them in her own way in her own voice.

She didn't need multiple degrees and positions of power to do what she did she changed lives in her community and there's no way I can't carry that into my own work.

What’s it take to find your own voice? I’ll reword that, owning your own owning your own voice?

I think part of it is just listening finding time and space to hear what your inner self is telling you what your body what your mind what your spirit is telling you is important and then finding people who you trust that you can share that with that can support you as you start to say what may be some hard truths for yourself or for others and know that when I step out and say something that may be uncomfortable or  unpopular that I have a community of people who will support me in that and then just standing in it standing in your truth I think is incredibly important.

I know back to your youth, the voices of your parents were

educators of course you educate with your Y W C A responsibilities but

was there a pressure to teach first grade and follow the lead?

No actually I was pretty clear early on.

As I watch my mom teach kindergartners and first graders and seeing just the organized chaos that that was I thought you know that's probably not in my wheelhouse um I was incredibly supported by my parents he said Well if teaching isn't what you want to do find something else and we can't tell you what that something else has yet to find out for yourself in our job is to support you in that exploration, I feel the answer to my next question where does balance play its role.

I think balance is important but I I struggle with that I often call it more integration because balance to me sometimes suggest that you have to sacrifice one for for the other that they're in fact separate and I find myself at my best when I can bring my whole self to my work and that means elements of my family elements of things that my parents and my grandparents and great grandparents have have taught me and on the personal side when I'm talking about engaging with my family there are things that I've learned professionally that that are part of me now so just knowing how to integrate parts of my life,

but still at the end of the day reserving something for myself how do you build community relationships very important for our YWCA.

Hugely important. I think one of the biggest things is just listening and paying attention. we can often be compelled to urgently right now do something and I want to be mindful of what we do as an organization and know that there are grassroots organizations mobilizing motivating people who have been doing the work who have generated movements.

Long before our organization came along.

So I want to be really intentional about learning what others are doing and finding opportunities to support and amplify their work and leading when called to lead in following when that's necessary as well.

How do you stay strong in your, in your chosen niche of of dealing with violence and domestic abuse daily?

It's really a a challenge, but I think staying grounded and hopeful I someone once asked me how would you describe yourself, and I said I think I would call myself a resilient optimist optimist believing that change is possible, but resilient in the time it takes to get there.

So just being really grounded and centered and focused on what it is we're trying to do letting go of what I can't control but being really intentional about what I can

at the end of the day asking myself what did you do with the gifts you are given and if I can answer something in the positive that I have enough to get started the next day to balance that question

What do you do for fun?

What do I do for fun, well, I used to shopping is a sport for me so I'm feeling a little deprived of that now because online shopping is not my thing I'd like to be in space if i can't do that I think just listening to music and finding new opportunities to find as a game that I've never heard before and just sit with it

and have fun with it as a family game night every once in awhile comes in handy, too

I'm going to stick with those two topics.

This breaking records for buying new work outfit expand on that a little birdie says

yeah I for some reason when I was in Washington, I used we had a lot of luncheons and activities and things that we needed and I didn't have much of a wardrobe so as they started to shop and build that wardrobe, I started to be really fun and I would challenge myself in saying if I have a luncheon tomorrow, how close to that luncheon can I get in purchasing something and trying something on and it just started to become this bizarre. Adrenaline rush.

So my my record is having a luncheon and having purchased something I had intended to wear two hours before little that we know, sick, I know.

I want to also touch on the role of music in in your life, there's something about music that just spills your soul you say how does music. Move you.

I don't know that I can explain it, I think they I've just noticed that in times when I'm sad when I'm angry when I'm stressed when I'm happy that things that I'm turning to music and I think maybe it's because I grew up with music in my in my house, my dad was grading papers for the courses, he was teaching he always had the classical music or jazz playing and I just love sitting with him and being in that space and having that that sound fill and touch me in ways I have no musical talent whatsoever so maybe I appreciate more but I don't have and so that just seems to be my my goal to medicine for the day.

Does Faith play its role in your life?

Absolutely um I grew up with faith being a kind of that the bedrock of our family and in fact our family Crest part of what our family Crest is a bible because we are very much rooted in our faith and that has gotten through us through some really difficult times for generations, so however, that faith is expressed for people I have a great deal of respect for that because I know how important it's been for me and I lean on that quite a bit.

So what’s your recommended motto or or good book for me to take away.

Motto would be something that is always printed on our family reunion T shirts, almost every year and something my I'm sure he stole it from somewhere but my great grandfather James Ulysses Dyson used to say give the world your best and the best will come back to you and so that's a model I really do try to live by.

And dare I ask your advice to the 16 year-old Charisse or maybe back then the Chuck Michelle yet?

What would you do would you do differently or the same,

I don't know that I would do anything differently I would just say to pay attention pay attention to what's going on around you ask yourself how it's impacting you and know that you have an opportunity to change what you don't like embrace what you like, but that you are  a powerful spirit, even as you're trying to figure out your own way in the world that your time is coming that would be my advice to my 16 year-old self.

Would you go back there again.?

I don't think so, I think I would, I tend to be a person who looks forward , I enjoyed the time that I had and a great appreciation for what I learned, but I don't need to relive it didn't once and I would be much more interested in what I'm doing with my time now and preparing for the future and having an appreciation for who I was then but I'm a different person now so I don't know that I would want to revisit any of that just move forward and be happy for the time I had and keep going.

Thank you for your time Charisse Mitchell, CEO Y W C A West central Michigan, thanks for joining us

that does it for this edition of powerful women, let's talk. I’m Shelley Irwin

Produced by women about women, these powerful podcast focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live want to hear more powerful women, let's talk

get additional interviews at WGVU dot org or wherever you get your pot casts please rate and subscribe powerful women, let's talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer public broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University, the views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters, or Grand Valley State University.