We are kicking off a new interview series that will run through Black History Month and Women’s History Month where we highlight and celebrate the contributions of leaders in the nonprofit sector. Tune in with us this February and March to meet the incredible leaders we got to speak with.
This week, we spoke to Yolanda Wells. We are lucky to have the opportunity to work closely with Yolanda through our client, College Mentoring Experience (CME), where she serves as Vice President of the Board.
Tell us how you got involved with CME. What is your current role?
I am a founding member of CME from many perspectives. I started with our Founder when he was still working out the kinks in his head. At that time, I knew I wanted to volunteer so I asked him to let me help. I told him I’d be the secretary, and a few months later, he took me up on it.
I was boots on the ground when CME first started in 2014. The staff was me and one other person. Now, my role has expanded and I work on bigger items like our compliance.
I am also a mentor within the program. My mentee and I have been together since her junior year of high school. She is now in her 5th year of college getting her CPA from my alma mater. I love her dearly and have a great relationship with her and her family.
Finally, now that my son is of age, I am also a CME parent. My child has a mentor and I absolutely love him. CME does an amazing job matching mentors and mentees with similar personalities and hopes for their experience.
How does being a board member of CME allow you to give back?
CME is in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, where I was born and raised. I lived there for 40 years and it is not the same as when I was growing up. I see the disenfranchisement in the neighborhood and children who are lost; that’s why the work of CME is so important. It gives them a real life view of what could be, not just what you see on the internet. It shows them that there are people who look like you who are productive citizens – they’re judges, lawyers, doctors, barbers, plumbers, entrepreneurs. Social media can’t raise our kids; it’s unrealistic.
Being on the board allows me to ensure that CME’s vision is put into action. We get to make sure the organization stays true to its heart. Especially as we grow, I never lose sight of the youth we serve.
How does your identity as an African American woman impact you and the organizations you choose to support?
Today I live and work in environments that are predominantly caucasian, and I went to a predominantly Caucasian school. But I was raised in an all African American environment. It’s important to me that our children can navigate and be comfortable in both of those situations.
You can see our children uncomfortable in primarily caucasian spaces and I want them to know they are qualified to be at the table. They can walk in the room and be themselves.
For me, I am fortunate to have come from a two parent household and have always had that sense of stability. Growing up, I knew I could do anything. It is vital that I represent that to young girls. I try to be the role model that I think they should see. Take proper care of yourself so that you can always do things in a decent and orderly fashion. I want to best represent my mom, and my son, my mentee. I hold myself to those expectations.
All of that is to say that CME is an organization that focuses on providing positive role models for our children, and there’s nothing I believe in more.
How do you think the nonprofit sector can become more equitable and inclusive?
I feel that people are so much better on an individual level than collectively. If you talk to one person, you can change perceptions through a conversation. But if you have a group, it becomes harder and situations can escalate.
So, I’d like to see more people who have power in this industry take the initiative to have those conversations. I’d like to see decision-makers asking questions to get better information – the information needed to make different choices. This is how you see the value of an organization on an individual level and understand how it impacts people.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would say pay more attention to opportunities. As I’ve gotten older, I think about the things I didn’t do because I was afraid. I still ended up in a great place, but I could have gone for it more.
One of the things I love about my mentee is that she is not afraid of opportunities. She works hard and takes advantage of everything. That makes me so proud.