Gio Forrest

In January 2021, the YMCA of Metro Denver shared its commitment to racial equity and a framework for how we will approach change in our internal organization, in the communities we serve and in the society we live in. In the first of a series with YMCA staff, volunteers and supporters, we are having some candid conversations about our journey. 

A Conversation with Giovanni Forrest - Experience Director, Downtown YMCA and Chair, Staff Racial Equity Committee 

The senseless shootings and killing of black men and women in 2020 compelled the YMCA of Metro Denver to look at its own history and internal culture and there were some tough realizations. Collectively, we knew there was more work to be done, specifically in building greater trust between staff of color and leadership. 

After hosting listening tours, one-on-one conversations with staff and input through a staff survey, the Y’s Staff Racial Equity Committee was created. Giovanni (Gio) Forrest took on the role of leading the committee with more than a decade of experience working with the Y (Missouri, Y of the Rockies, and the Denver Y).  

The Beginning of Change 

After the killing of George Floyd and the Y’s message speaking out against the injustice, there was also a moment of internal reflection. When President and CEO Sue Glass and the Y Board of Directors began a series of listening tours with the staff only two staff members of color (Forrest included) showed up for the first meeting. 

“We spend our entire lives educating ourselves about white culture because that’s the only way we can move up, but when the tides switched, everyone turned to us. The staff didn’t think anything would come from it at first,” said Forrest.  

Progress has been incremental, but hopeful. Forrest’s leadership has proved crucial to the success of the committee. With her at the helm, the committee is now 12 members strong.  

“I’ve never chaired a committee before. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I’m feeling that. But I’m willing to take it on. I can’t allow this to fade away.” 

Moving Forward 

While there was some doubt when first forming the committee, Forrest says things feel different now. “There is both a sincere effort by senior leadership to listen combined with the participation of experienced Y staff who want to use their voices and their leadership positions to influence action.” 

The latter took some work from both an application process for the Staff Racial Equity Committee and personal appeals by Forrest to specific staff members. She approached people who she had observed had influence at the Y and asked for their trust. She says that each of the staff members on the committee are mentors for future Y leaders and changemakers for racial equity and inclusion. 

Gio’s Why  

Leading the Staff Racial Equity Committee is personal for Forrest. She talks about a mentor she had at her very first Y. This mentor showed her the importance of being genuine, hardworking and true to yourself.  She wants to instill that confidence and influence in other Y staff members.  

“There are people on this committee who are passionate, and they will be the mentors for the group of people coming up. I want them to know that they have influence. You are bigger than you think you are at this Y.”  

Forrest hopes for open conversations, collaboration on the priorities to tackle and for the progress to be owned by the committee who bring their passion to this work. Looking forward, Forrest is hopeful that this staff led committee can make a difference at the Y.  

“I want the ideas and action to be authentic and organic. I want it to be theirs,” she says. 

Photo: Gio and Oliver run the PRIDE 5K every year, even when Oliver was in utero!

Stay tuned for more conversations about the Y’s commitment to racial equity and diversity and inclusion