Office Doors: A Day with Debbie Esparza

CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Phoenix


I have made an effort to start my day more slowly. At this stage of my life, I’m trying to be intentional, so I don’t jump out of bed and zoom around the house. I wake up slowly and greet the day. My blinds are up so I can see the flowers outside as I wake, and the sun comes in the window with a natural greeting of the morning. Once I get ready, I move to my living room, where I spend 20 to 30 minutes in my chair reflecting, meditating and pondering. I watch the little critters in the backyard — the hummingbirds, lizards crawling around, bees buzzing and the flowers and bushes flowing back and forth in the wind while the wind chime sings to me. I slide very slowly into the day as peacefully as I can. Doing so helps with balance, because once I get into work, that piece is harder to maintain.


The YWCA has two important components of its mission — eliminating racism and empowering women. Both intersect and influence how we see situations in our community. I’m always bringing the lens of race and gender to bear in everything I do and with the people I talk to, whether it’s a conversation with a donor, community partner or an audience. Our work is multilayered. We provide direct services but are doing more work in the advocacy and systems change spaces because there’s usually a system that’s broken, causing a barrier for women, people of color, older adults, those with different abilities or LGBTQ. This barrier keeps people from thriving. Then, direct service programs are needed, such as food or access to education. We’re trying to change the systems and adjust and disrupt those barriers, so we get to a more equitable space with greater justice.

Debbie Esparza performed at Dancing for one•n•ten in support of their mission to serve LGBTQ youth and young adults.


Our Systems Change Initiative, in partnership with Maricopa County, works with 10 West Valley communities to determine the barriers to accessing healthcare, particularly mental health, for adults ages 60 and older as well as LGBTQ youth ages 18 to 24. We’re holding listening sessions to get to the ground truth with the impacted individuals and the people who care for them because they can see the barriers.

We’re also talking to providers to help them see how doing business the same as always creates a barrier. It’s been eye-opening because these institutions don’t want to see they’re part of the challenge. They’re doing their best to deliver services, but there could be something they could do just a little differently that will create better access and connection with the populations they’re trying to serve. Change happens in tiny increments because the systems are well-established.

Our Prosperity Programs offer workshops to help people with budgeting and saving. There is a long history of financial institutions and lenders keeping certain people from accessing capital and creating wealth. We’re going to expand and lean into the concept of prosperity and that it’s not just about money, but abundance and joy. We will look at the systems to see what the YWCA can do so more individuals can bank instead of using payday or title loans that take more of their money. We want to work with banks and lending institutions in thinking about a new market of customers.


Owning one’s identities and their intersections is an important part of being able to do your own social and racial justice work. When I present at speaking gigs, I try to offer a wider frame for people to see themselves in. I identify as Latina, lesbian and a boomer with certain lived experience. Not everyone has my background or identities, but they bring their own, so I talk about things in a way that allows them to go down that path for themselves.

I’m an educated Latina, have a good job and own a home. And that’s privilege. I can choose to use my privilege for myself, or use it to benefit community. I am making sure I use my privilege for the betterment of community, particularly women and people of color, because I identify as such, and that’s our mission. This role is a perfect fit for me because I love the work, its purpose and meaning. It gets me excited, and I wish I had had this job 20 years ago!


My head is always thinking about what else I need to raise up and shine the light on. To help turn it off, I take ballroom dance lessons twice a week and compete in ballroom dancing. I dance with a woman and start out as the lead, and then we switch leads as part of our choreography. This also plays out in how I lead the YWCA and is an analogy for how cooperative leadership can happen in an organization when I let go of the lead, someone else takes the lead, and then I move in to follow.

I also consider myself a philanthropist. I serve on the boards of the YWCA USA and the North American Same-Sex Partner Dance Association and am actively involved in the Latina Giving Circle, a group of Latinas who pool their resources for the benefit of local nonprofits serving Latinx communities, as well as the Kellenberger + Tollefson Center for LGBTQ Philanthropy at the Arizona Community Foundation. I lead my life and this organization with the concept of abundance; that there’s enough to give freely. This is how we build our partnerships, and it all comes back tenfold.

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About Julie Coleman

Julie Coleman is a contributing writer for Frontdoors Media. She is Principal of Julie Coleman Consulting, providing strategic philanthropy consulting services for individuals, families, businesses, foundations and nonprofit organizations.

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