For a woman with a very serious mission, Grace Lubwama can win you over with her infectious laugh.
At the helm of the YWCA of Kalamazoo, the 44-year-old Lubwama oversees an agency addressing some of the most critical problems in our community — poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault and infant mortality. These are weighty issues that Lubwama, a Ugandan native, discusses with intensity and passion, but always with an optimistic and positive demeanor. When asked how she can be so upbeat, she laughs.
“I love people and I love laughing,” she says. “It makes life so much easier.”
How did you end up in Kalamazoo?
I always tell people, “I don’t even know how I ended up in Kalamazoo,” because I had never heard of it before I came here. I was working for World Vision in Los Angeles, which was going through a downsizing. I got a letter about the YWCA job from an executive recruiter, who said, “Grace, I think this is a good fit for you.” I don’t remember even filling out the application. I was interviewing for two other jobs, and when the board of the YWCA wanted to fly me out for an interview, I almost didn’t come. But inside of my spirit, there was something pushing me to come.
What brought you to the U.S. in the first place?
I was born and raised in Uganda, but I have been in the U.S. for the last 20 years. I came to Boston University for graduate school and then moved to Los Angeles.
I grew up during the civil war in Uganda and the reign of Idi Amin, and my childhood experiences are from when Uganda was going through a lot of stuff. That was really key to why my parents pushed education. Education wasn’t free in Uganda. Even though they didn’t have money, my parents sold everything they had, slept on floors and didn’t wear shoes to make sure their six children went to the best schools. My parents believed education was the way for us to get out of poverty.
I came here saying once I was done I would go back to Uganda. But what made me stay is that the public health issues happening in my country and in the U.S. are very similar, especially for the most vulnerable families. I felt I could make a difference and gain experience.
Have you had any challenges living here?
I have been here for two years and would say, as a person of color moving to the Midwest from a big city like Los Angeles, it’s easier to feel you are different here. Even though I have opportunities such as my education, position and networks that help me overcome barriers people of color experience, I still feel different.
I have to find ways to navigate that because at the end of the day I am still a mother of two black boys (ages 7 and 9), and I have to remember that in spite of all the things I have in my favor, I have to raise my sons as two black boys in a country now where that can be hard. I want them to be trained well and have all the opportunities they need to excel.
Do you feel your parents were right about education as a way out of poverty?
Yes, my parents were perfectly right. That’s why I love The Kalamazoo Promise. This community has made a goal of looking at education as a foundation for economic development and addressing all the other determinants of social health. If we all aligned our strategies with The Promise — where we push educational opportunities and access and resources for the most vulnerable families that live in Kalamazoo — I think in 10 to 20 years we will see the benefit of education being key for families to get out of poverty. But it’s going to take the village. If the village bombards resources to families that live in poverty, aligns those resources to The Promise and removes barriers, I think Kalamazoo will be a community that the nation will look to and ask, “How did you create that transformation for those families?”
What kind of work does the YWCA do?
The YWCA’s mission is to eliminate racism and empower women and can be broken down into three areas: improving lives of children, caring for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and advancing women’s issues of public policy.
We are the only provider of a domestic violence shelter and sexual assault nurse examinations in Kalamazoo County. We are also leading the infant mortality initiative in Kalamazoo, where black babies die four times more than white babies; in 2013, our infant mortality for African-American babies was the second highest in the state.
It seems like the YWCA is taking on our community’s toughest issues.
We are, but knowing the history of leadership at the YWCA of Kalamazoo, I think we are positioned to get the community to address these issues. Does that mean we can do it by ourselves? No. Our goal is to be a convener to address these issues and help elevate best practices to address the issues the YWCA cares about.