In The Last Word, we sit down with an industry expert to share their wealth of knowledge. This issue, the conversation features Bertram L. Lawson II, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Central New York.
1. How did you get started in the community recreation industry?
I started working for the Greater Philadelphia YMCA in June 1998 as a camp counselor. I saw a job posting for executive director of the Columbia North Branch in the Greater Philadelphia Y Association. I applied but got hired as a camp counselor.
2. What’s been a key to your organization’s success? What are you most proud of?
Identifying gaps in organizations, sharpening my skills, asking for guidance from experts — always remaining a student — and performing at a high level to accomplish goals. My follow through and passion pays major dividends because it keeps me focused and determined.
I am most proud of working with an amazing group of leaders while serving as the vice president of operations for the Greater Philadelphia Y. Together we turned five city YMCAs into financially sound operating units. Everyone won in this scenario: the members got more services and programming, a majority of staff received promotions, the community got better performing Y branches that deepened our impact, and the overall morale was amazing across all locations.
3. What has been one of the biggest accomplishments of your career?
Prior to the pandemic, it was opening a new YMCA that was partnering facilities and programming with a major hospital system, another nonprofit and the City of Philadelphia. Since the pandemic, it was transitioning 24 K-12 charter schools operationally when I served as chief operating officer for Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia/Camden to ensure students received education, providing over 10,000 Chromebooks to students and more than 1 million meals, as well as recommissioning air circulation systems at some of these schools to make sure they were prepared to reopen by March 2021.
4. What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
Leaving the Y after 21 years for a different industry, Charter School Management. This was a huge step to see if my talents were transferable and if they would assist me with achieving my goal to be the president and CEO of a YMCA organization.
5. What is one lesson you have learned that other community recreation professionals can learn from?
It’s not about how long you hold a seat but how much impact you make while in the seat.
6. Tell us one fact about yourself others may not know.
I am an introvert by nature but adapt to my environment as needed. I also have lots of twins in my family: My father was a twin — my uncle and father are deceased now. I have twin sons, twin nieces and my paternal grandmother had a twin.