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Debbie Pope: “We need to remind ourselves of our privilege”

I think that it is incredibly important to remain hopeful. But hope is not a strategy and it is important to not get into a trap of thinking maybe next month will be better and there will be a vaccine. I think it is important to figure out how to set milestones to look forward […]

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I think that it is incredibly important to remain hopeful. But hope is not a strategy and it is important to not get into a trap of thinking maybe next month will be better and there will be a vaccine. I think it is important to figure out how to set milestones to look forward to along the way.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Debbie Pope who has nearly 20 years of non-profit management experience. She has led efforts to expand and strengthen revenue development, strategic marketing, community engagement, advocacy, and services to expand and strengthen support for families battling the debilitating social and physical challenges of multiple sclerosis. Most recently, Debbie was the National Executive Vice President for the National MS Society, leading a diversified revenue plan and engaging donors, communities, and corporate partners to raise 172M dollars in annual fundraising.

Prior to her work with the National MS Society and throughout her career, she was a strong advocate and personal supporter of critical social justice issues related to ending racism, empowering women, and tackling other injustices including poverty and homelessness of women and children. As a broadcast journalist for all three major network affiliates from 1994–2000, Debbie was recognized for tackling challenging community issues and bringing awareness to the rising number of homeless women and children, infringed rights for impoverished families and unjust laws and policies. She graduated with a B.A. in Speech Communication from the University of Minnesota. Debbie was accepted into the prestigious Washington political journalism internship program receiving credit for her work with the ABC news program, “This Week with David Brinkley”. She is a mother to four dynamic and energetic children. In her spare time, she enjoys painting, hiking “14ers” and enjoying time cooking with her husband, Chris.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

The road to my current role as CEO of YWCA Boulder County is filled with many twists and turns, not uncommon to all of our journeys. I started as a broadcast journalist determined to educate the public about social justice. After working with all three network affiliates, and as a young woman in a very sexist industry, I found myself searching for how I could create greater impact. My mother, Luanne, had multiple sclerosis and as a morning show anchor I found myself championing the National MS Society as a board member. At a board meeting, they shared they were looking for someone to do their fundraising and marketing work. I jumped at the opportunity and essentially started my career over in the non-profit space. Nearly twenty years of my non-profit executive experience was gained at the National MS Society. I moved four times during that time and realigned the organization first with regions and eventually as the EVP, Development for the national organization. During my time with the Society, I led teams to raise 500+ million dollars to help fund the research for a cure. I started to feel a greater pull back to social justice and advocacy three years ago. Being a mother of four, commuting to Denver from my home in Boulder, also made me start exploring what the next chapter needed to look like. I found the YWCA’s mission of eliminating racism and empowering women incredibly compelling. I started as the CEO for the Boulder County organization in 2018.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

The social justice space has been anything but quiet during the past three years so everyday seems to hold a challenge or adventure. I continue to be inspired by the strength of the women and girls we work with each day. I have especially enjoyed working as one of two pilot markets in partnership with Google to create a STEM program for girls of color between 5–8th grades. In less than a year we have seen nearly 400 young girls of color complete programs related to the professions of future in computer science and coding. I think it is so interesting to see young girls start to build confidence and see a future that has not been presented before. We are still early in forming the program, but I can already see the ripples of impact which is incredibly exciting.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m very excited about our STEM program for girls of color, and we also have several direct service programs that are focused on racial justice, economic empowerment, health and safety for all women and girls. One very timely project right now is our Get Out the Vote initiative. In this year of the 100th commemoration of the 19th Amendment giving some women the right to vote and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, we are delving into the full story of voting and lifting up the voices and stories of women of color. I believe that this type of programming, awareness and discussion will make it possible for all women to see themselves in our movement and recognize the collective work we still need to accomplish to equity of ALL women.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I have been fortunate to have some incredible mentors every step of the way. Early in my career I was also mentored by strong and wise women whose advice and support stayed with me during the highs and lows. The one person who most shaped my life most profoundly was my mom, Luanne Harff-Burchinal. She knew there were boundaries, but she didn’t ever let me fear them or let them get in the way. At the age of 14 I told her I wanted to be a broadcast journalist and she set up appointments with women anchors from Milwaukee to Green Bay and drove me to interview each of them. Even when no one else believed I could achieve my lofty goals she was always cheering me on and being that one voice that keeps you going. We lost her last year to complications with MS, but the grace she demonstrated during her vigilant battle with the disease makes me look at each day very differently.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

I think as women we naturally work to find solutions and support for our families, community and friends. It can feel exhausting when our already very full plates suddenly are taking on the challenges of a pandemic, and the individuals around us requiring more nurturing, support and care. As a leader of a non-profit, I have felt great responsibility and heaviness to ensure the families we work with during this time have what they need. That I can keep a business moving forward to provide the vital services needed in our community and provide the security to our staff so their livelihood and health is intact. Then, my blended family, including four children is experiencing so many new challenges with virtual learning, social distancing and navigating the emotional challenges of this time.

Women in our leadership is more vital now than maybe ever in our history related to bringing communities together to face social justice inequities and a pandemic in tandem. Still, we need to intentionally make time and space to recharge and have a moment for wellness. I recognize that is a great privilege during this time but we need to advocate for that need especially with those who love us most.

Can you share what you have done to address those challenges?

I have been trying to find just one hour a day when I can turn off NPR, my computer, and my phone and just hike or walk outside. Some days that means running from a trail to join a Zoom meeting but that really gives me a space to clear my mind and be thoughtful about the decisions I am making and how I am being in my life.

Can you share the biggest work-related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

Leading a non-profit during this time requires great ability to change and maneuver quickly. It is a balance of taking one day and challenge at a time while still staying focused on a future that can feel ambiguous. It is taking charge of what we can control and knowledge we have in this moment to keep moving forward. It is imperative to keep moving forward no matter how hard that feels right now. Specifically, we were embarking on an expansion project before COVID-19 to build new classrooms and create a reimagined outdoor learning space to provide several new affordable, quality childcare spots for our community. Affordable, quality childcare was already a big issue before the pandemic so it was critical for us to keep the project moving forward. It required navigating permitting, construction and fundraising during a very uncertain time. Our team feels such pride that we kept moving forward and in September we will open our doors to dozens of new families and children.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Stay focused, positive and forward facing. I believe communication and vulnerability as a leader is required. Sharing that based on what you in this moment this is the direction you will be going. I believe leaders need to provide a road map during this time. Even if that changes it builds confidence and reassurance for staff, donors, volunteers and most important the people we serve.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

If I had the answer to this, I would be sharing it from the roof tops. I think creating time and space for the kids and sharing that plan with them each is immensely helpful. We were not doing this, and I found myself and my children getting frustrated. When I could start to plan my day with an hour at lunch time or planned time to be outside later in the day, then my kids knew what to expect and the time when I will be there. I also think remembering that it isn’t about perfection and forgiveness of oneself and others is necessary.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

We have a full house with six of us in a relatively small Boulder home. There are not many spaces for privacy. Even though the weather was still a bit chilly in March, I created my home office and sanctuary on our deck outside. One umbrella table later I had a space with fresh air, only outdoor element noises and what felt like a defining line between work and home. Once I walk into the house, I am back in family zone.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons to Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

I think that it is incredibly important to remain hopeful. But hope is not a strategy and it is important to not get into a trap of thinking maybe next month will be better and there will be a vaccine. I think it is important to figure out how to set milestones to look forward to along the way.

It is important to put into perspective what we still do have. In Colorado, I can still go out and hike, camp and many other activities that allow for social distancing. Focus on what you can do.

We need to remind ourselves of our privilege. I think about this every day. What am I complaining about? I have all my basic needs met, health insurance and a job that I can remain safe at, even though some days I am in the office. Families facing poverty, health issues or the multitude of other challenges are having to overcome more than I can even imagine. It is important to check ourselves daily.

This also does not mean it’s not okay to feel loss or sadness during this time. I believe it is important to have a balance. If we never take time to reflect on the challenges and sadness during this time, that is not being authentic to ourselves either.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

As a former news reporter, I think it is extremely important to balance being informed to spending too much time listening to the news. The news highlights the most dramatic stories because that is what makes it feel unique or interesting. Especially for children or loved ones who are feeling anxious this will only compound it.

Also, finding wellness opportunities for creating a peaceful and enjoyable space I believe is important. Turn off the phones, television and get outside. I also believe understanding what we can control and what is out of our control is important. Those things we can control we need to grab onto and make good decisions but what is out of our control, which is a lot, we need to find ways to make peace with that. I’m a true advocate at heart so I always believe that if there are decisions being made by our elected officials, they work for us so write a letter, call them and make sure they are hearing your voice. That can feel empowering during this time too.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Reach for the stars and the worst thing that will happen is you land on a cloud”.

I believe we let fear hinder us reaching our fullest potential. When I think of this quote, it makes everything seem a little less scary. What is the worst thing that could happen? Landing on a cloud doesn’t sound so bad to me.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow our work at ywcaboulder.org or on Facebook and Twitter. YWCA Boulder County is the key word.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!


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