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In My Words: Why the Y is the 'true America'

A newspaper column by Professor Tom Arcaro reflects on the YMCA's first national advertising campaign, "The Y. For a better us," and contrasts the Y's mission with rhetoric in the 2016 presidential election cycle.

The following column appeared recently in the Statesville Record & Landmark, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Gaston Gazette, the Shelby Star and the Ashtabula Star-Beacon via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.


Professor Tom Arcaro

Why the Y is the 'true America'
By Tom Arcaro - arcaro@elon.edu

Although the last Republican debate before the primaries did not feature that party’s frontrunner, it did include something that may have gone unnoticed. One commercial break included a public service announcement for the YMCA, just now embarking on its first national advertising campaign with its message:

“The Y. For a better us.”

 As a nonprofit, the Y must continuously generate operating funds and needs to get its message out ever more broadly. Though unintentionally so, this message was ironic in the context of the debate. 

Our local Y is a place, which in the most thorough and thoughtful manner possible, fully embodies the founding principle of the Y and I daresay those of our nation. 

The short version of the Y’s mission is just three lines: For youth development, for healthy living, for social responsibility. Notice there are no qualifications, no equivocation. This is by design; the Y is all about inclusiveness, embracing and building stronger communities.

There are communities all over the United States where the Y is a social hub, bringing together all ages, races, religions and genders. The people who visit their local Y are, well, America, and the Y is American values at their best. 

The message that you get when you walk into the Y is that everyone is welcomed, regardless of age, ability, race, ethnicity, religion or social class.  Much programming in fact is done specifically to make it possible that all are reached. The winter basketball Saturdays at my local Y are an amazing clustering of all these demographics; all are invited, all are made to feel welcome.

My strongest memories from growing up are the countless hours I spent at our local Y in Ashtabula, Ohio. It was, in fact, my second home where I learned to swim, play basketball, and generally hang out with new and old friends and, in retrospect, get mentored by some amazing staff. I came from one of the poorest families in town but when I was at the Y I felt embraced, nurtured and accepted; not so in other parts of my life where the stigma of being on welfare was very real.

I strongly suspect that my local Y today welcomes many young boys and girls who could relate to my story.

Founded over 160 years ago, there are now thousands of Y’s across the United States touching the lives of tens of millions of youth and adults in all stations in life. In fact, those who use the Y are the real America. 

 The harsh and strident words that we are now hearing from some politicians this primary season stand in stark contrast to the compassionate and intentionally inclusive messaging that we hear from the Y both locally and nationally. Words and rhetoric matter, to be sure, but what is so impressive is that the actions – day after day, decade after decade - that one witnesses at their local Y are a living example of the charge to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Unlike our politicians, staff members at the Y are not pushing any dogma, political, religious or otherwise. Just the opposite. They are just living the message that our strength is our community and doing the hard work that makes for a “better us.”   

As the polarizing swirl of political debates makes me increasingly dizzy and nauseated, I find comfort and sanity at the Y. 

Searching for the ‘real’ America? Go to your local Y. Looking for a candidate to back in this year’s election? Ask which one you’re most likely to find on the Y’s treadmills or shooting hoops in its gyms.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.


Eric Townsend,
2/15/2016 2:50 PM