The people who know best how to serve the complex needs of any community are the very people within it, as Friends of Yates and its director and chief executive officer LaDora Lattimore know well. As the season of Giving Tuesday nears, encouraging communities to celebrate and give back to the organizations which serve them, Lattimore sat for an interview with Grace to share the powerful passion behind Friends of Yates’ work.
Friends of Yates is a non-for-profit organization that was born out of racism in the era when Black individuals could not go to the YWCA. Friends of Yates is a metamorphosis of Yates Friends YWCA. The organization was a branch of the Y for 69 years and severed ties in 1982 as Friends of Yates, when Lattimore was recruited to be the branch director of the Y.
“I worked for nine years at the mental health center prior to taking this position, and there were some things that I felt like needed to happen before I left my comfortable position with the mental health center,” Lattimore said.
They transitioned away from the YWCA, and Friends of Yates became the legal entity of their journey. In 1979, she organized Friends of Yates, although the group did not break away until 1982. Friends of Yates started the first battered women’s shelter in 1980 when they were still part of the Y. “I grew up in Yates Branch YWCA as a child,” Lattimore said. “I went to their summer camp. My grandmother was on the founding board of Yates Branch YWCA, so as a little girl, she and my mom kept us involved in Yates, and then I grew up, went on away to college, came back, and still was involved with Yates Branch YWCA, but as a volunteer.” Although the organization broke away in 1982 as a part of the YWCA, it still remains a part of the rich history of what Friends of Yates stands for today.
Programs of Friends of Yates
Friends of Yates created the first and only comprehensive battered women’s program in Kansas City, Kansas. The battered women’s program features court advocacy, economic advocacy, health advocacy, education advocacy, and comp housing advocacy, among other things — a truly comprehensive wraparound set of services.
When the program started in 1982, it succeeded in offering a safe haven, but Friends of Yates found that to cut down on the recidivism rate of the individuals in their care, survivors had to be prepared with tools to be successful and empowered in their journey forward. That realization prompted the organization to develop its array of related supportive programs. “The Governor’s Grants Program and PFA, which is under the Kansas Attorney General’s Office—we get a lot of funding, but they have been very clear on giving programs opportunities to respond to community needs,” Lattimore said. “Battered women in urban communities versus rural communities is a different approach, and they allow programs to do what’s best for their communities. The services that I just named are what we felt was very important to our community: child care, nutritious feeding, all of that.”
In addition to the domestic violence program, because domestic violence is connected to crime, Friends of Yates has a crime awareness program that they do every April or May which includes a candlelight service for those that have fallen by homicide and other tragic means, and a panel.
“My thing is it’s not all ceremonial, but what do we get out of this lesson?” Lattimore said. They host a panel that usually features the chiefs of police, the district attorney’s office, KBI, elected officials, and their program, and talk to the community in a safe setting about crime, their loved ones, what can be done to prevent and slow crime down in the community, and the status of each family’s particular case. “Their family member who has died by homicide, the chief of police and those representing the police department can talk, and they also have detectives in the audience, so if everything can’t be said or heard during the panel discussion, families have the opportunity to meet with the detectives to find out what the status of their case is,” Lattimore explained.
This year also marks the 25th annual domestic violence awards luncheon, where Friends of Yates honors exceptional people that have led the charge or acted in a positive way through service or deed to enhance the movement of domestic violence that wraps around survivors.
They also have a Black Men and Women of Distinction program that commemorates Black History Month. “We lift up outstanding Black men and women who have contributed to not just a Black community, but to the community,” said Lattimore.
The people the program commemorates can be international. “We have several prominent Blacks that have moved through their jobs to other countries, other states, and right here at home, we lift them up, different ones every year. People always say, ‘Where do you get these people from? Look at how many!’” The program runs the full list of people every year in their souvenir book. “That’s something that I look forward to every year,” Lattimore said. “I love embracing the major contributions Black people have made to the community, often unsung, and this is our way through Black History Month of promoting all of this great talent and just being as a human being. Not just given to the Black community, but to the community at large, whether it’s here or abroad.”
Domestic Violence in Kansas City, Kansas
“Domestic violence is an overwhelming social ill in our community,” Lattimore said. Friends of Yates is in a predominantly Black community, but they serve all of Kansas City. Lattimore shared the story of a time when Friends of Yates was not at their current location, but instead were on a main throughway. A girl Lattimore knew and her husband were both professionals, and she ran up to the door, beating it and saying, “I need help, I need help!” She was Black, but she saw me and she just took off running. “What that said to me was that she didn’t want to identify with me, because I went to school with her, that she was in a situation like this,” Lattimore said. The program’s first hundred and more women and children that they saw 45 years ago were nearly all non-Black; they were white and Hispanic. “But when the situation happened with Nicole Simpson, that said to all women, ‘This can happen to anyone and so you don’t have to be ashamed to reach out for help.’ After that, our numbers grew in terms of Black women,” Lattimore said. Initially, the program served perhaps only one Black woman out of around a hundred individuals. Now, the program’s service demographic is closer to 50% Black. “I know it’s very prevalent in our community, and now we can actually come up with stats and data proving that, but it was only when women felt comfortable that they could come and not be judged.”
“I personally feel we do a magnificent job, second to none,” Lattimore said. Friends of Yates is Black-led, but often the perception of white leaders can be that Black individuals are not capable of the same leadership as others. That racism has always been a stifling barrier for Friends of Yates, as Lattimore described.
“I’ve always been at key tables, and I always let people know that I don’t want anything special; I just want to be a member of the table. Being a member at the table affords me the opportunity to share my knowledge and expertise and not have to get permission to be at the table and respected as a person at the table, because when you don’t, you’re missing out on valuable information that could help make the picture a more inclusive global situation for our communities across the state of Kansas. So foundations and other funders have opened up to that opportunity to allow inclusiveness and to address equality. Equity and equality are things that they’re open to hearing now, and addressing their biases. It’s becoming a new kind of day, and I’m so proud. I feel like I’ve had some impact on helping non-minority changemakers and funders understand the differences, respect the differences, and appreciate that it’s alright to be different. Everybody has something to bring to the table. They are funding Black-led organizations, specifically reaching out to Black-led organizations. We saw during the George Floyd situation people were making policy changes and everything, and things just stopped because that was such a horrendous situation. And then, when people came back, focuses started changing on addressing implicit and explicit biases and things like that. I’m just happy to be at the table. I feel Friends of Yates and other Black-led organizations are being heard now in a professional way and not a token way.”
When Lattimore first began working with Friends of Yates, back when they severed ties with the YWCA, Black individuals had bought the two buildings they were using by raising money through chicken dinners, fish dinners, and similar community activities, but the board of directors of the Y held the deeds of that property. When they deeded the property back to Friends of Yates, the organization sold those two properties to buy a building. They paid cash for the building and completely renovated that facility to make it the new home of Yates. “That was major,” Lattimore said. “When we finished the renovations, we didn’t owe a dime.”
Then, years later, they purchased another facility and completely renovated it for the battered women’s program. “It is a wonderful facility and we don’t owe a dime on that, and we have the help and support of our county commissioners, the community development department, so those are major milestones,” Lattimore said. “You can, at peace, serve your population without worrying about ‘How do I pay the mortgage on this facility?’ and things like that.”
Although that concern is managed, the program self-generates many kinds of needs, such as clothing for the residents if they have to pay for uniforms for their job. The program helps their residents find a new home and a job, and assists them with any services they may need. That ensures the residents don’t have to worry about breaking down barriers themselves so that they can be empowered for independent living.
“Those kinds of things are real milestones and successes from the programs that we have developed out of innovative approaches: what it is to go beyond fear to comfort in your own skin, loving yourself, and helping you get from point A to point B,” Lattimore said. “I’m so excited because of the wraparound services.”
She says the program’s recidivism rate is down. Often, residents would wind up returning to the program many times, trapped in a cycle of abuse that made it extremely difficult to achieve true independent living. Now, if a resident comes back just one time, the program adds on to their toolbox of resources to ensure they don’t have to come back again. “We want them to know it’s just like being on drugs. If you slip, you need to have somebody to talk to to encourage you,” Lattimore said. “I’m a firm believer that we all fall down; the thing is, do we get back up? We are here to make sure that even if you fall, you have that supportive hand to help you back up. That’s where I am in the journey.”
The Experience of Being a Black Leader
Lattimore told the story of belonging to a state organization that has a number of programs like the domestic violence program. She was an officer in that organization. “I would always say, ‘Well, I have some issues that no one is at this table that looks like me, but you’re serving people that look like me, so can you help me understand that?’” Lattimore said.
“And then somebody will say under their breath, ‘There she goes again. There she goes again.’ And I said, ‘I hear you, and yes I am going again. I need you to explain to me why I’m the only person at this table that looks like me.’ Then the leader or the executive director would take me to the side and say, ‘LaDora, I think you could tone it down a notch.’” As the only Black person at the table, her concerns were treated as complaints rather than legitimate problems. “It is based on how I feel and what is real. It is real that nobody looks like me at this table and it is painful, and you cannot tell me how to express my pain.” Lattimore said that being a Black leader means constantly clarifying for the larger society that it is not their place to tell her how to do her work.
When Lattimore pointed out to another executive director that she was the only Black individual at their table or in leadership in their organization, the director at first seemed to react positively. However, their actions showed that they still failed to understand the problem inherent to the situation. “When I came to a meeting a month or two later, he said, ‘You’re gonna be so excited! We’re going to do a leadership program for Blacks to prepare them to be leaders.’ That’s racist. Your assumption is that Blacks are not leaders, or you have to train them how to be leaders. No, we could train you how it needs to be to open up the floodgate for Black leadership.”
Lattimore said she is always one of very few, if not the only, Black individuals at the table or in leadership wherever she goes. While she was at another agency, she planned a Black family conference that was very successful. Even though the conference was packed, there was no one there from her agency. When she spoke with her supervisor later, she pointed out the absence of her coworkers and even her supervisor himself. “He said, ‘Well, LaDora, you didn’t ask us to be part of the planning.’ I said, ‘That was the whole purpose. This was Black family life in white America, so what were you gonna plan? We are trying to show you how we feel when you all do as you deal with Black folk in this mental health setting.’ He said, ‘I never looked at it that way.’” This type of implicit bias impacts programs like hers all over the country. “Sometimes the larger society just doesn’t get it, and so you just have to keep sharing with them and helping them understand. Eventually they get it.”
Lattimore served 29 years on the Housing Authority board, which was in charge of a predominantly Black area. The other board members, who were predominantly white, wanted to get rid of that area—despite the fact that that area was the oldest area in public housing. “I said, ‘See, this is racist. You chose not to upkeep that area. All these new developments that are 10 and 15 years old, you’re putting millions of dollars in renovating them. This is about 50 years old and you’ve not put a dime there. What does that say? And what are you all talking about on this board? The board are the policy makers. We need to be looking at issues like this and addressing them.” The lack of commitment to the inner city and the lack of investment in Black neighborhoods is just one of the many challenges born of racism that Lattimore has faced over her years of service to Kansas City.
Friends of Yates’ programs are a proven success, but many non-Black individuals see that success as an exception rather than a representative example of the work of an organization with Black leadership. Instead of opening their eyes to the other Black leaders making an impact around them, these leaders often instead request Lattimore’s help specifically or ask her for recommendations about who to invite. “That’s insulting,” Lattimore said. “Are you telling me of all the Black people you interface with, none of them are worthy of you reaching out to them and saying, ‘Would you like to serve on the board, or can you serve on this committee?’ Do you see them but not see them? I shouldn’t have to be the one. If you pay attention to all people, you will see the talent all around you.”
Lattimore’s words of advice to her non-Black colleagues are simple. “Just be open, because if I wouldn’t bring it up, you would always not see. It’s just opening your eyes.” She said that the state organization is much more conscious of how they think now, all inclusive in a much more genuine way. “I truly believe genuine real impact has been made throughout the years,” Lattimore said. Although the fight against racism and implicit biases is an uphill battle, she said she has seen a significant amount of progress over her years of service.
Giving Tuesday, which falls on November 28 this year, is a unique opportunity for communities to muster their gratitude for the organizations that serve them in a tangible way. “Giving Tuesday, to me, is responding to particular needs of the organizations or the groups that they support, that they want to give to. Or if they’ve never supported the organization, what about that organization would make them want to give?” Lattimore said, adding that Friends of Yates would benefit from every kind of donation.
The broad spectrum of work done by Friends of Yates is as demonstrative of what they are as of how the community can give back and spread the word about their work. The organization continues to grow as they add more programs and services to better serve their community, and as they grow, so does their need for money and other resources like volunteerism.
“As we’re moving into winter, we need coats for children, boots, mittens, hats, what the shelter would need and the individuals we serve. We serve families that have been ending up homeless because of fires and things like that, so they need clothing,” Lattimore said. Friends of Yates is in need of a truck, a van, and a car, for example, to facilitate transportation for their many programs. “That’s what I would hope: that those that are willing to give hone in on what our needs are, and give.”