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August 25, 1999


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Ms Y!

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Linda Linguvic in New York

Coughing discretely behind her hand, Prema Mathai-Davis refuses to give in to the fever and flu symptoms that have been plaguing her all week.

Seated behind her large wooden desk, she takes a small sip of water from a tall clear glass, and speaks not only of the Young Women's Christian Association she leads but also of her home state of Kerala, where Christians have lived since 52 AD.

This was a natural birthplace for the expansion of the YWCA in the early part of the 20th century. As a child, Mathai-Davis, now a US citizen in her late forties, remembers her great-grandmother with her long white hair as the woman who helped to organize two YWCAs in that region. Her grandmother, mother and two great-aunts were also active. Even now, an aunt, Susie Mathai, is the Y's vice-president for western India.

"A special Y chromosome," was the way The New York Times described her unique background when, in 1994 she became Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA in the USA, the first Asian woman to hold that position in its 135-year history.

The Y is the largest provider of shelter services for women and their families in the country. A leader in violence prevention, it offers programs and services to more than 700,000 women and children annually. It is also America's largest non-profit provider of childcare services, with 750,000 children participating in childcare and after-school programs annually.

It runs a comprehensive employment training and placement services agency, enrolling some 100,000 women annually, and is a leader in sports and physical fitness programs for women and girls.

Mathai-Davis has had many professional accomplishments, but her most recent recognition by Working Woman magazine as one of the 25 most influential working moms in their December/January 1999 edition is perhaps her favorite.

Her work in streamlining the Y's operations have also come in for high praise. The December 1998 issue of Your Money magazine published by Consumers Digest featured the YWCA as one of the 10 most popular and effective national charities. The article described the YWCA's range of program activities and highlighted its excellent low ratio of administrative expenses to total budget -- 81 per cent of money raised goes to programs and services.

Ann Stallard, the previous national president of the YWCA (USA), saw Mathai-Davis as a "natural choice to lead us in tailoring programs to the needs of a nation becoming increasingly multi-cultural".

Wasting no time in launching the YWCA Week Without Violence in October 1995 and held annually since then, Mathai-Davis has worked tirelessly to lead coalitions of community groups which offer programs that keep the women away from violent surroundings. Her example is emulated is more than 30 countries.

The activities during the week have included rallies with local media personalities, such as poet Maya Angelou and LA Sparks basketball star Rhonda Windheim; churches mobilizing volunteers to talk to people hanging out on street corners in drug-ridden neighborhoods; children making and wearing rabbit ears at a "Hop to Stop Violence" event and talking about ways to express themselves without fighting; and a program sponsored by The Body Shop called "Recreational Alternatives to Violence", including demonstrations of t'ai chi, line dancing, face painting and therapeutic massage held at local shopping malls.

She chuckles when she describes how, as part of the weekly activities, she stood with a group of women on a busy Manhattan street and handed out cards to men that read, "The next time you see or hear one of us in trouble, pay attention. We can't stop violence by ourselves."

Her dark eyes set deep in her smiling face were unwavering as they met the eyes of the men and placed the cards in their hands. And they must have been surprised by the message handed them by the woman whose wardrobe expresses her preference for a palate of brightly-colored tailored business suits and gently flowing dresses chosen carefully to enhance her solid roundness.

"It was fun, "she says, "and none of the men threw the card away."

Mathai-Davis holds a Ph D from Harvard University in Human Development and is no stranger to being willing to get strong reactions. Her doctoral thesis was The Myth of the Self-Sufficient Yankee -- a look at the Boston Brahmins through the eyes of a brown Brahmin. She has always preferred to herself as a "person of color".

Mathai-Davis runs the YWCA with a forceful hand. The staff has been downsized several times and is a strong, streamlined and focussed group.

She is demanding and proud of it. "I am tough," she says. Her staff responds by giving her the respect she warrants. They accept her meticulousness with a sense of humor. They roll their eyes upwards when talking about the many small tasks she demands, such as typing labels for colored folders or serving her sliced fruit, but they all agree that she is an effective leader.

"She gets things done," they say.

She bears an affection and respect for the staff too. The new quarters in the Empire State building might be cramped, but the space is neat, cheerful and attractive. Mathai-Davis gives her staff credit for that.

Carmen Rivera, training director at the YWCA, has been a staff member for 10 years. "The way we train the presidents and executives of member YWCAs has changed," she says.

A recent pilot program held in New York City in collaboration with the New School's Milano Graduate School for Not-For-Profit-Management emphasized transformational leadership and organizational change and has already received some sponsorship by American Express.

The YWCA is the only women's organization in the US Olympic Committee's community-based Multi-Sport Organization and Mathai-Davis follows women's sports closely. She's interested in women's soccer and women's basketball and is happy to say that one of her daughters plays soccer on a school team.

As a co-sponsor of the Feminist Expo of 96, the YWCA joined forces with the Feminist Majority Foundation and 299 other women's groups to define the agenda of women's issues for the future.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, has worked closely with her on protecting civil rights for women and minorities. During the campaign to stop anti-affirmation action legislation Mathai-Davis impressed her colleagues by her ability to move quickly and forcefully.

"She was able to make sure the YWCA came on board in a matter of days," says Smeal, with admiration in her voice.

Married to an investment banker of European heritage, Mathai-Davis lives in a three-generation household with her husband, her parents, and her three children. Her son, now 18, will start his studies at Johns Hopkins University in September.

Her twin daughters, aged 14, attend private school in Manhattan. She believes in raising her children to believe that there is no career option or task that is inherently a man or a woman's and enjoys having her family see what she does for a living.

They were all present when she was one of the recipients of the Ms magazine Women of the Year awards in 1996 which she hosted in her Manhattan apartment. And her children are part of the Y just as so many members of family have been associated with the organization.

As Mathai-Davis takes another small sip of water, one feels that a flu is hardly something to keep her down.

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