YWCA Bergen County CEO Helen Archontou was honored by Tanisha Russell Day and Key HR Consulting at the organization’s March 25, 2017 Women Empowering Women Brunch. Helen was recognized for her work with YWCA Bergen County to live our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. This blog is based on Helen’s remarks at the event.
Central to our mission at YWCA Bergen County is eliminating racism and empowering women and girls, which we accomplish thorough programs like our: WEN is Now, a women’s empowerment network to connect and inform women personally and professionally; Start Up to educate and help launch women entrepreneurs; Courageous Conversations to bring together thought leaders and our community to discuss and challenge our thinking and move toward action on racial equity; and healingSPACE, our sexual violence resource center that provides 24-hour hotline support, counseling, and community education.
What these and our other mission-based programs have in common is that they empower through a basic model:
- Provide resources and linkages
- Promote discussion and understanding
- Develop capacity and skills
- Build relationships, networks, and community
- Share experiences
- Celebrate milestones – challenges & successes alike
One key to empowerment—and also infused in all of our programs—is developing one’s voice. We need to learn to listen and shape our internal dialogue so it is honest and uplifting. We need to develop our external voice so that it is confident and strong. We need to align with like voices to develop mass power. Through our voices, we WILL create equality for women, and address the even greater disparities for women of color.
Empowerment is really about lifting each other up. This is why events like Women Empowering Women are so important. We will leave here feeling blessed and strong. That’s because when it comes to lifting each other up, Tanisha Russell Day has some of the strongest arms I know.
Tanisha has been instrumental in helping women in so many ways. Her involvement in Moving Ahead—our program designed to get long-term unemployed women back in the workforce—was not only about finding them employment, but about helping them realize their worth. Tanisha also embodied our vision of a woman of influence and was honored for her inspiration at our 2016 TWIN Awards.
I may be named as an honoree today, but I really accept this recognition on behalf of all of us at YWCA Bergen County. It is our staff and volunteers, many of them here today, whose service collectively allows us to put our mission in action. Among our impressive volunteers is our Board of Directors, who create the vision for our important work. The relationship between a board president and a CEO is a unique one. I am grateful for the leadership, grace, and support of our Board President Sonya Collins who creates the space for me to lead this organization.
I’d like to close with a short story of one of our Empower U participants. Empower U is a 10-month mentorship and empowerment experience designed to give a diverse group of high school sophomore girls the tools they need to balance themselves physically, emotionally, and intellectually.
“Jamie” was struggling with school and home responsibilities when she was invited by her guidance counselor to apply to Empower U. She was accepted, and during the year with us found the inspiration and courage to share her love of writing poetry and present her idea for a new writing club in front of her entire school.
After finishing our program and during her junior year, Jamie managed this new creative writing club for her school that she conceived, and also started entering (and winning!) poetry contests.
Jamie credits Empower U with “direct(ing) her on a path” by creating a “safe space” where girls like her could talk freely about their lives, their concerns, and their futures.
Every day, we see the energy and power in bringing women and girls together, and the beauty of them finding their voices. When we feel confident in sharing our voices and join forces collectively, great change is possible. There is nothing more empowering than that!
Helen Archontou was named Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA Bergen County in July 2011, and her focus has been on guiding the organization towards living its name and its mission. Helen brings nearly 20 years of executive management experience in the not-for-profit sector, which included heading up programs for St. Clare’s Hospital for the Protection of Children in Denville; founding and leading Wynona’s House, a treatment center of child abuse in Newark; and serving as executive director of the Bergen County Literacy Volunteers of America chapter. Under Helen’s leadership, YWCA Bergen County has expanded program offerings, deepening the YW’s commitment to its mission: eliminating racism, empowering women, standing up for social justice, and helping families and strengthening communities. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance Committee of Bergen County awarded the YWCA Bergen County the 2016 Lee Reid Award for the organization’s work in promoting racial and social justice. In 2016, state leaders appointed Helen to serve on the State Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault. The Bergen County Commission on the Status of Women honored Helen at their Women’s History Month event Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government. In 2017, Helen was honored with a Women Empowering Women award by Key HR Consulting. Helen is often sought after by the media for her expertise in several areas such as gender pay equity for women of color (interview on FOX 5 NY), reporting of sexual assaults on college campuses (interview by NJTV News), and campus sexual violence (NJ Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault Report). Helen has been an adjunct professor in the Master’s Degree program for the Center for Child Advocacy at Montclair State University since 2005. She is also a Board Member of the Bergen Community College Women’s Institute since 2012. She holds a Masters of Social Work from Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Montclair State University.