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VOL. 43 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 5, 2019

Punzalan-Randle comes home to lead YWCA

New CEO dives into the deep end where she learned to swim

By Nancy Henderson

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Alizza Punzalan-Randle’s classmates had only shown “Southern hospitality” when she and her Filipino family moved to Knoxville from Detroit – until the day the sixth-grader opened her locker and found herself staring at a collage of photos apparently snipped from the pages of National Geographic.

“I didn’t know what it was until I looked closer and it looked like they were Asian refugees,” says Punzalan-Randle, 42, who became CEO of YWCA Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley last August. “I remember thinking, ‘What’s this about?’”

Later, an older friend explained, “Alizza, they were making fun of you. They were saying that this is what your family is like.”

“I remember being so shocked by that because these were people I went to school with and people I’d been friends with,” says Punzalan-Randle, noting that she was the only student of Asian descent in her school at the time. When the principal called a meeting with her parents and others, “That was the first time I ever saw my parents, especially my dad, say exactly what was on his mind: ‘I may look different than all of you sitting in here. But I work hard. I am a citizen. I pay my taxes. You need to teach your children that someone like my daughter is always going to be in their world and they need to learn how to respect people like her.’

“It was one of those big moments,” she says. “I don’t know if I sat there and had a light go off in my head of, ‘Oh, I’m going to now pursue this work.’ But I know it’s definitely contributed to how I feel now.”

After two decades of experience in leadership, community outreach and inclusion advocacy in pediatric health care, higher education, the arts, social services and social justice issues, Punzalan-Randle took the helm in August of the same YWCA where she learned to swim as a child.

Outgoing and friendly, but also calm and thoughtful, her colleagues say, she took to the YW’s mission – “eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all” – like a duck to water.

Her mom, a nurse, and her dad, who worked for General Motors, immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines in the late 1960s, then moved to the unincorporated community of Powell, just north of Knoxville, to be closer to her mom’s family when Punzalan-Randle was 6. Right away, she and her older sister started taking swimming lessons at the YW in what “looked like the biggest pool in the world to me.”

After each instruction, Punzalan-Randle would walk across the street to the Lawson McGhee Library to study. When she was old enough, she joined Y-Teens, a leadership development program for girls in middle and high school. It was there that she learned how to write a board agenda, something she would use quite often in later years.

Armed with a music degree from Rhodes College in Memphis, Punzalan-Randle sold

The pool in the basement of the YWCA is where Punzalan-Randle learned to swim as a child. Now she’s back as CEO.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Steinway pianos at a local music store and worked as director of public relations for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She also discovered a knack for building relationships with customers and other members of the community.

In 2000, she followed her then-boyfriend to St. Petersburg, Florida, where she briefly sold pianos again before joining the local PBS station as a corporate underwriting representative, a role that introduced her to nonprofit work.

One of the first things she did when she moved to Florida was volunteer to mentor elementary and middle school girls at the YWCA of Tampa Bay. It wasn’t long before she was asked to serve on the board of directors and was later elected to the coordinating board of the national organization. Despite her humble upbringing – “My parents are obviously of another generation, where you just put your head down and you work hard, you don’t complain, and I also think that is part of the Filipino culture,” she says – she emerged as a fearless, confident young leader.

In 2002, Punzalan-Randle accepted an offer to become director of resources at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which provided free medical care, rent payments and a food bank for people in need. “That was my first glimpse into the daily life of someone who maybe all of a sudden lost their job, who considered themselves middle class and now they have two options: pay the utility bill or put food on the table,” she recalls.

She chuckles when asked about her tendency to migrate from job to job, something, she points out, that is now common among millennials.

“I was always given another opportunity, where they came to me or sought me out,” she adds. “It has been very rare that I was seeking something else out.” Plus, she says, “I’ve pretty much been curious and interested about everything my entire life.”

So, when recruiters at St. Petersburg’s Eckerd College offered her a job in 2003 as director of community and media relations, she accepted. For the next 10 years, she represented the school through fundraising and special events. “I got to meet Gloria Steinem and Anderson Cooper and Dan Rather, and musical performers that I don’t think I ever would have crossed paths with, writers and journalists and humanitarians that really changed my world,” she says.

As part of Eckerd’s leadership and team-building course, in 2006 Punzalan-Randle, who had never climbed a mountain before, helped chaperone 22 students to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

“I’ll never forget those 19,345 feet,” she explains. “Having lived in Florida for seven years, where the world is flat, you don’t really get to prepare for what altitude does to you at that level. So, I had all these grand ideas and even from that movie (“The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’’ starring Gregory Peck) this very romantic notion of climbing the mountain, when it’s a very real and dirty process.

Punzalan-Randle plays an out-of-tune grand piano that resides in the lobby of the YWCA.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

“You’re not showering for a week,” she continues. “You’re figuring out how to chaperone and live with college kids who all have very different ways of dealing with change, physically and emotionally, as they’re climbing this mountain.”

Scaling several thousand feet, then resting before moving on to the next leg of the journey, the students and the four adult chaperones kept trudging toward the top. More than halfway through their journey, some were having trouble breathing while others were simply exhausted.

At one of the base camps, where clusters of climbers stopped to catch their breath, members of the Eckerd group were lamenting the hardship.

“And all of a sudden, we all stop talking because we see this older gentleman coming down the mountain at this very slow and steady pace. … He just calmly passes us, smiling. He must have been about 75. We all stopped complaining. We were just looking at each other. All the college kids just zipped it. The adults said, ‘OK, let’s go.’ The entire group, with the exception of maybe two college kids, were able to get to the top. It was astounding.”

The following year, she traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she participated in the World YWCA’s International Women’s Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS. In 2010, Eckerd dedicated the entire year to bringing in guest lecturers, exhibits and performances related to Africa, prompting Punzalan-Randle to travel to Uganda with two other young women during the World Cup soccer tournament. The trip, however, was cut short by a bombing in Kampala, the nation’s capital, about a mile away.

Throughout her Florida-based career, Punzalan-Randle spearheaded local efforts to bring about social justice. In 2007, she chaired the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Pinellas County, organizing roundtable discussions at Eckerd. “I’ve always enjoyed bringing individuals together for hard conversations,” she says. “These are not the kind of people who sit around their living room wanting to talk about things all the time.”

In 2013, the YWCA of Tampa Bay honored her with its Racial Justice Award for her involvement in the Stand Against Racism program. That year, Punzalan-Randle left the college to join Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg as community engagement manager. Soliciting input about the pediatric health needs of the community from physicians, social workers and others was “my baby,” she notes.

Punzalan-Randle was still employed at Johns Hopkins and serving as state president for the Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Inc. last year when she and husband Jason admitted they were homesick for Tennessee and its four seasons. Jason was the one who spotted the job opening at YWCA Knoxville, forwarding it to his wife with a note that read, “Hey, isn’t this your old YW?”

Punzalan-Randle stands in the gym in front of a YWCA banner that echos part of her mission.

-- Photos By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

Because she hadn’t held a CEO position before, Punzalan-Randle assumed she wasn’t ready. But she threw her hat in the ring anyway.

Board president Julia Bentley sat on the search committee that hired Punzalan-Randle. “From the first interview, Alizza stood out,” Bentley says. “She was very poised and confident and possessed many of the qualifications we were looking for: a strong background in leadership, nonprofits, development, strategy and community relations, to name a few. But most impressive was her knowledge of and love for the YWCA and its mission.”

Coincidentally, the Randles’ search for the perfect house led them to one a half-mile from Punzalan-Randle’s parents. “I moved back to my old neighborhood, something I thought I would never do,” she admits. “It is literally a 65-second drive from door to door.”

The downtown YWCA building, built in 1925 to serve women and girls with housing, an employment bureau, gym glasses, a sewing room and transit services, had hardly changed since Punzalan-Randle left 25 years ago.

“When I came in for my final interview, I felt like I was 16 again,” Punzalan-Randle recalls. “My parents dropped me off in front because I was only here briefly, so I didn’t have a car. I opened the doors, I walked up the stairs and immediately I smelled the chlorine from the swimming pool and I could smell the old building, the lobby and the paint on the walls.”

When it comes to services, however, a lot has changed. The transitional housing program provides a safe haven for up to 58 women at a time. The Phyllis Wheatley Community Center, built as a facility for black women in the 1920s, now offers youth development programs, education, and health and fitness programs. Housing options for victims of domestic violence have expanded to Anderson, Blount, Loudon, Sevier and Roane counties, where partnering landlords provide safe places for the women to live while the YW pays the rent for a few months.

Plans are underway to conduct a capital campaign to raise funds for a

long-overdue renovation of the four-story facility at the corner of Clinch and Walnut streets, which officially changed its name from YWCA Knoxville to YWCA Knoxville and the Tennessee Valley in 2017.

In her new post, Punzalan-Randle works with board members, employees and other nonprofit organizations that could potentially join the YW in its mission of eliminating racism. She says she is a believer in mentoring and taking a chance on young staff members “because people have certainly given me a chance in this role as a 42-year-old CEO. That may be more common now, but I don’t run into a lot of them, especially for an organization like the YW that’s been around here since [its formation in] 1899.”

From her second-floor office, Punzalan-Randle can mingle with the Y clients as they come and go. “I feel like that’s sometimes the only way you can be really genuine about why you’re in this nonprofit business,” she says.

Strategizing is one of her managerial strengths. “I love figuring out how everyone could be connected because oftentimes people will come to a table and say, ‘I don’t need to work with them. We’ve never worked with them. We don’t have anything in common. Our missions don’t align.’ But that’s the challenge that I love, figuring it out.”

Punzalan-Randle, who has gone skydiving in California and traveled alone in Africa, refers to herself as a “bold” woman.

“I’ll try most anything if I don’t think it’s going to physically kill me,” she says. “I don’t cower in the corner, where I might have in the past because I didn’t want to be loud and proud and I didn’t want to be that person drawing too much attention.”

For now, Punzalan-Randle is spending most of her after-work hours “reclaiming time” with her husband and daughters Jade, 7, and Ava Jaslyn, 2. “That is a huge priority to me because I know I work too much and work too hard,” she adds. “I feel like I’m in my dream job because I get to not only marry what I have always felt very strongly about – my belief system, my values –with what I do, but it’s also for the organization that helped raise me. And I get to be back in my hometown.”

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