Nora Karena

Leading By Example

Every time she walked into the YWCA in downtown Seattle, Nora Karena never once forgot her deep personal connection to “the mothership.” The more than 100-year-old facility wasn’t just where Nora developed life-changing career skills between 2011-2018; it had, at one point, been home to her mother and aunt. “My mother lived there at age 18 in 1961, after graduating high school in Port Townsend,” she says. “Like many working-class young women, they had moved to into the city and were trying to start their lives.”

Nora started her own story at YWCA Seattle as a case manager, after working in human services throughout Washington state for seven years. She had recently graduated with a B.A. from Linfield College in her home state of Oregon. “My first stop was the YWCA.”

Though she had gone back to school at 40, Nora wasn’t quite done. She began a Master’s program three years later, but was able to remain fully committed to her role at the YWCA. “I was so thankful for the flexibility – to be able to work full-time in an intense job and pursue my graduate work.”

Nora rose to leadership through her racial and social justice work, supporting the development initiatives and training programs that ensured YWCA Seattle walked the walk behind every aspect of its organizational mission. As Snohomish County Regional Director of Housing Services, she oversaw a portfolio of supportive housing programs including Pathways for Women Homeless Shelter in Lynnwood.

The latter is especially close to Nora’s heart. She was homeless as a teenager, in the wake of her parents’ divorce. The family just disintegrated,” she says. “I was on my own at 14 and I was trying to pull my life together. Lived experience is so valuable.”

With that in mind, Nora worked closely with Human Resources throughout her tenure to usher in significant change. She passed the leadership baton in 2018, having worked to build a staff that better reflects the community it serves – with the tools and skills to do so. “Barriers to service are lower and there are more equitable outcomes for clients,” she says. “I got to be involved in all of that, while building my own competencies in directing, budget- and grant-writing, all with a deepening commitment to antiracism."

Nora first took these passions home to Oregon, for an opportunity with FosterClub. Working in youth advocacy was a satisfying continuation of her YWCA skills. But when COVID-19 all but halted that work, Nora, in partnership with colleagues from her time in Seattle, had a new idea: building a consulting business to support antiracist institutional transformation.

With the help of the YWCA Retirement Fund, Nora is now an independent contractor who splits her time between teaching Sociology at a community college, and consulting on racial equity strategies. “The Fund is how I can afford to do this,” she says. “By the time I left the YWCA, I had the funds to help me move. And when the economy tanked, I was able to use my retirement as operating capital. It means I can do my dream.”

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