Her education and experience have steered her into some
prominent places in her career, gotten her accolades and
earned her a place of trust among her peers, but her focus
remains on the differences she makes in the lives of the
people behind the paperwork.
“My entire professional
career has been working in nonprofit,” said Brownlee. “For
me each project is more than the budget. It’s about making
connections with people and how I can actually connect those
numbers to faces where we had an impact on individuals and
families and their quality of life.”
The YWCA Milestones Awards
nomination, which is designed to highlight women who are
exceptional leaders and mentors in the community, came as a
pleasant surprise to Brownlee.
“When I found out that I
was nominated I was honored,” she said. “There are many
women that I admire who have received the award and this
recognition gives energy to the promotion of professional
While Brownlee is grateful
and honored to receive praise for her achievements, her
course in nonprofit work manifested her own needs.
“I wanted to be a nurse,”
said Brownlee who originally plotted a course in the medical
field before life rerouted her.
The Cleveland, Ohio native
who calls Akron her home, says that she kind of wandered
into nonprofit work when she came to Toledo after a divorce
and no clear work prospects.
“I was a single mom with
three kids and I just needed to work,” she said.
Brownlee showed up at
Toledo’s Wayman D. Palmer YMCA and took the first job that
That job was a customer
service representative and it allowed Brownlee to form her
first liaisons in nonprofit and to make personal connections
with the clients she served.
“I learned about budgets
and program integrity,” said Brownlee. “But I also fell in
love with the families and the workers. They were mothers
and blended families just like me.”
Soon Brownlee would find
herself emersed in nonprofit work. She was promoted to
administrative assistant then to branch director working
long days and odd hours so that she could juggle her
schedule between her four kids, which included a child with
a learning disability, and the management of the Y’s $1.7
In the midst of it all,
Brownlee found time to go back to school, earn dual bachelor
degrees, and graduate with honors from Franklin University
in Columbus, Ohio.
“Because of my
professional experience, school was easy for me,” said
With an education added to
her resume Brownlee was primed for her next opportunity.
“Some of the board members
at the Frederick Douglass Center approached me,” Brownlee
recalled. “They needed my help and wanted me to fill an open
position for executive director to help with restructure
after a shakeup.”
But the move didn’t come
easily for her.
“I was afraid,” Brownlee
said about making the transition from the YWCA.
“Everybody thought that I
was crazy. The Y had people and a lot of supportive
structures. The Doug was in crisis and it wasn’t a
standalone organization like the Y. These were a lot of
things for me to consider.”
The turning point for her
came after a respected colleague tried to dissuade her from
making the move.
“I just remember him
saying ‘If you go over there with those people...’ and I
thought to myself, I am those people. I lived in that
neighborhood. I prayed in that neighborhood. I raised my
children in that neighborhood.”
“That’s when my faith
kicked in, and I heard God speak to my heart- ‘Why are you
fearful? If you want to serve, now is the opportunity.’”
With the support of her
husband and her friends Brownlee worked through her fears,
joined the Frederick Douglass Center team, and set about
slowly rebuilding the trust that had been shaken.
“It was so hard,” she
said. “But it was rewarding. The community was disappointed
and felt let down. It took some time to rebuild trust with
the community and with partners but we were able to make a
lot of changes internally so that outside funders felt
confident in us again. By the time I left we had
accomplished a lot. We had earned back partnerships with
Children’s Services, the YWCA, and we had Head Start in
But just when things were
looking up for the Frederick Douglass Center, tragedy struck
close to home for Brownlee.
“My brother was murdered,”
said Brownlee. “I hadn’t been able to process my grief and I
just needed to reassess my life. I resigned with no other
job for the purpose of healing. I needed to really figure
out what life was really about.”
During that time Brownlee
says she continued to help with various nonprofits when they
asked but she wasn’t ready to commit to a job, until she
received a call from the Lucas County Land Bank.
Today Brownlee is back
doing what she has loved to do- helping people, helping
families, and making communities better.
The Lucas County Land
Bank’s vision encompasses the entire Lucas County area with
a focus on restructuring vacant, abandoned, and blighted
properties that affect neighborhoods and decrease values.
She says recent
conversations with Land Bank CEO David Mann has led to the
creation of the Neighborhood Justice Fund. A $1.5 million
investment allocated to help grow wealth and foster health
in black and brown communities.
“We have a commitment to
the community,” said Brownlee. Community and people come
first. The building is secondary.”
Somewhere in Brownlee’s
five-year plan is earning her MBA and spending more time
being a mentor to others.
“I want people to know
that you can be who you are unapologetically,” said
Brownlee. “Work hard even if you have to start from the
bottom and let your will determine your success. Being a
single mother at the age of 25 with three children I had to
not buy into society’s stereotype of being a single mother.
I had a responsibility to my children to change some of the
generational cycles that I saw my parents try to change.
They embedded in me to do better.”
The 2021 YWCA Milestones
Awards will be held virtually on March 26.
For more information about
the Lucas County Land Bank visit their website: