Interview with Dorri McWhorter, CEO of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago & Pet Parent
“Dogs are about as close to pure love energy as you can find, and that is why I need their presence. I need that vibration dogs bring to you. I need the fluff in my life.” — Dorri McWhorter
By anyone’s definition, Dorri McWhorter is a powerhouse. As the CEO of the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago since 2013, she has modernized and transformed the 140-year old service agency into an impactful social enterprise–dedicating tremendous intellectual and emotional energy to meaningfully supporting women and girls so they can reach their full potential. As a socially-conscious business leader, she finds innovative ways to create an inclusive marketplace where “we can help each other, and exchange and co-create value together to continue to advance society”. Fueled by a passion for equality and a reigning philosophy that“everyone and everything has a value”–she works tirelessly to realize the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s mission to eliminate racism, empower women, and promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all; and to advocate for community action and public policy that advances economic security, promotes equality and human rights, and improves safety and wellness for women and families. Her impressive professional accomplishments, integrity, brilliance, compassion, leadership expertise, and generosity of spirit have garnered widespread recognition and praise, including an induction to the Chicago Innovation Hall of Fame in 2019.
While Dorri has dedicated her life to helping women and girls–through the YWCA and by serving as a member of the Women in Entrepreneurship Institute at DePaul University and Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University–she is also an enthusiastic dog mom, animal lover, and early supporter of the aapp! She made time to chat with us about her lifelong love of dogs, her current pup, Tuesday–a beagle mix she rescued from the Anti-Cruelty Society in Chicago–what she’s reading, and how we can better support the human-animal bond. Grab a cup of tea or a glass of wine and get cozy–let’s get to know Dorri in this 3-part series. — Courtney Wenenrstrom, aapp Content & Contributing Editor
Dorri McWhorter aapp Interview – Part 1. “The Kitchen is Sacred Space–It’s right up there with Potato Salad!”
The instant I met Dorri over Zoom, she was already beaming: “I’ve been so excited about this interview that I picked out my outfit last night. I didn’t know exactly what we would discuss, other than the topic was dogs! And I could talk about dogs all day, forever and ever!” Sporting black, dog bone-shaped earrings and a black t-shirt that reads “Save All the Dogs,” she instantly won my heart. At 47 years old, she has had canine companions almost all of her life–a love affair sparked by her father, Willie McGhee, who adored German Shepherds. As a result, Dorri grew up in a household that usually had at least 2 dogs in it, so surrounding herself with canines is a family tradition and an homage to her dad, who died of cancer 5 years ago.
Like most pet parents, being a dog mom to Tuesday, her beloved beagle mix, is an important part of Dorri’s identity. Despite her numerous professional responsibilities and engagements, she invests time in thinking about how to be the best possible parent. To this end, she belongs to a Facebook group called Black Girls Who Love Fur Babies, which has nearly 8,000 members. She says it’s her go-to place to connect and laugh with other dog moms.
Dorri and P.J.
C: Do you think it’s important for black women to unite over their shared love of animals?
D: Yes, because stereotypically, black people aren’t necessarily considered dog lovers…mostly because they were used against us, quite frankly. You will hear a lot of people from older generations talk about their fear of dogs. Literally, when you look at the civil rights movement you see water hoses and German Shepherds, and there is such a fear because they were weaponized against us.
C: That makes a lot of sense to me. You make me think about Melvin Van Peebles–one of my favorite black filmmakers and cultural critics–and his revolutionary 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which became required viewing for the Black Panther Party. In the movie–which he refers to as a “no holds barred political manifesto”–he flees police brutality and is forced to stab the German Shepherds they’ve sent to apprehend him, so he can get to Mexico. Killing the dogs comes to symbolize his liberation and acts of a critique of how dogs have been weaponized against BIPOC communities. So I am really glad that you have a space where you can celebrate the positive relationships you have with your fur babies. What other kinds of things do you talk about in that group?
D: (Smiling and giggling) Really everything, from dog mom tips to cultural jokes…we make a lot of those, which are funny…especially jokes about what members of our group refuse to let their dogs do that other people do allow. I didn’t realize how many black people don’t let their dogs in the kitchen, for example, and I let my dogs in the kitchen. So, like, I realized that the kitchen space is sacred space. It’s right up there with potato salad! Right up there! There is a lot of, for lack of a better word, puppy porn too–like “look how cute my dog is, or my guinea pig, or even my Iguana”. The fact that the group is all women means that there are also a lot of, “I would choose my dog over my man” comments…I enjoy just laughing with other dog moms. Everyone in the group are aunties, and all the pets are nieces and nephews, so it’s a lot of “come get your nephew or come get your niece”–that sort of thing. We help each other and have a lot of fun doing so.
C: (laughing and nodding) I love this! I had no idea about the kitchen! Also, I mean, these are two of your favorite things–empowering women and animals–all in one group. It’s playful and as you said, a real community.
D: Yeah, it really is. There is a lot of pet health information sharing too, and products, but it’s also very supportive. I posted about the american association of pet parents on there–because I am excited to support your work.
C: THANK YOU! I really appreciate that.
The Takeaway: Dorri celebrates the human-animal bond with an intimate group of black women who are challenging stereotypes about pet parenting through comedy and connection.
By offering family support service and programs such as TechGYRLS, which develops STEM awareness for girls ages 9 through 14, and Creating IL Talent, which provides web and mobile application development training to adult women, Dorri works diligently to lift up women and girls. Given this focus, I wanted to run some fascinating research by her.
C: So, I want to change subjects and talk about a recent study I just read about that is relevant to International Women’s Day. It’s out of Washington State University, and is based on a cross-cultural analysis of the data of 844 ethnographers. The research shows that women are more responsible for human-dog coevolution than men. Let me read the quote and tell me what you think: “Humans were more likely to regard dogs as a type of person if the dogs had a special relationship with women. They were more likely to be included in family life, treated as subjects of affection and generally, people had greater regard for them.”
D: (very slight pause) That’s not surprising. When I think about history and how men have used dogs so utilitarian-ish in our society, they were weaponized, as we discussed earlier, and they were working dogs, all of these things…whereas with women, I can see how they come in and embrace animals as the beautiful, loving beings that they are. SO I could totally see that.
C: I love how you put that. It surprised me, but only in the sense that I hadn’t thought about this connection before. It is so interesting that women somehow have the power to decide subjectivity and personhood when it comes to dogs, given how often we are not allowed to make those decisions at all. There is a real difference, like you said, between seeing a sentient being as a tool, and seeing them as an individual who has their own things to bring to a relationship. The idea that we have domesticated dogs fascinates me because sometimes my dogs look at me, and they get me to do whatever they want, like I’m hypnotized and have no power! They transfix me and I’m pretty sure they have domesticated us as well.
D: I hear you! It’s so fascinating, everything you just said, because I do feel like dogs are just so in tune. I keep focusing on my dog, but I should have said all animals, since you can just learn so much about how life is supposed to be lived just by being around them.
The Takeaway: We need to rethink outdated notions of evolution and domestication–especially assumptions that humans have historically had all of the agency in our interactions with animals–to understand the strong social ties and mutually-beneficial relationships we (especially women) have cultivated with dogs over time. As Karalyn Kendall-Morwick writes in Canis Modernis, Human/Dog Coevolution in Modernist Literature[c] (2021): “humans tend to think of domestication as something that happens to animals; that is, humans actively seek out potentially useful species whose members passively adapt to meet human needs by submitting to selective breeding programs”. Instead, as she points out, “evolution is always co-evolution” since our most meaningful partnerships with dogs are grounded in embracing animals as the beautiful, loving beings that they are, to use McWhorter’s perfect phrasing.
In Part 2 of my interview with Dorri McWhorter, we talk about definitions of innovative business models and ways to co-create value in the marketplace; why animals deserve our utmost respect; and explore the similarities between new trends in animal welfare and the YWCA, and how we can learn from one another.– Courtney Wennerstrom