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Rhonda Sewell: Bringing Light Into the Room Through Her Public Service

By Linda Nelson
Sojourner’s Truth Reporter

The first time I met Rhonda Sewell was at a business leadership meeting hosted by my church. Sewell was one of the guest speakers that day, and when she got up to address the crowd of 100 plus developing entrepreneurs, she was energetic, warm and inviting as she shared some of her business insights, and answered many of our questions.  

At the end of the meeting, and with the same open energy, Sewell gave me her business card and extended an invitation to “call me.” A couple of days later I did call. And although she was on her way to work, she took the time to listen to my business concerns and offer some advice. She told me that she was planning a trip in a few days but still invited me to “do lunch” when her schedule thinned out.

Rhonda Sewell

What I didn’t know at the time was that during our conversation Sewell was most likely also preparing for a meeting with a district legislator, juggling the schedules of her teenaged twin daughters, brainstorming ideas for a board meeting at one of the many local organizations where she volunteers, thinking about edits for her book, preparing for a daily Facebook connection with her group of girlfriends and taking on the task of helping me.

This is Rhonda Sewell: manager of External and Governmental Affairs at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, journalist, author, marketing strategist, community advocate, mother, friend and gracious giver.

In recognition for her years of gracious giving, Sewell is this year’s recipient of the YWCA of Northwest Ohio’s Milestones Award for Volunteerism. She will receive her award on Thursday, March 30 during the association’s annual luncheon at the SeaGate Center in a ceremony that will be filled, for Sewell, with more than a touch of nostalgia and irony.

Sewell, in one of her many stints as a volunteer with numerous organizations, served on the board of the YWCA more than 20 years ago when the Milestones Awards were conceived by her and the other board members. The annual awards honor outstanding local women in a range of seven categories.

Thus, Sewell’s passion for volunteering has come full circle.

“My mom always tells me, ‘you must give back to the community that helped to raise you.’ I took that to heart,” said Sewell, about the proclivity she has for getting things done with openness and generosity, which forms the foundation of everything that she does.

“I looked around at what my parents were doing,” Sewell said. They were active, and they were involved in the church, with service organizations in the community and in things that fought injustice.”

And in a short time, Sewell has managed to accomplish much. Born in Bowling Green, Ohio, she spent the first two years of her life living in the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity house on the BGSU campus where both her parents went to school and where her father served as chapter president and her mom was den mother.

“I was sort of a baby/toddler and don’t remember much of it,” Sewell said.  “But the pictures are hilarious. I was sort of their mascot with these ‘uncles’ who had these Greek letters and they’re holding me.”

After college, the family moved to Toledo when Sewell’s father, who earned his master’s degree in public health, landed a job at the Toledo Lucas County Health Department. Sewell attended St. Angela Hall and St. Ursula Academy before her parents split and her mother remarried.

Sewell and her mother relocated to Michigan where she finished high school – but not before she received recognition for being one of the 10 most outstanding students. “I wasn’t one of the most popular students, I was just a doer,” she insisted.

Sewell would continue on a trajectory of doing as she enrolled at Michigan State University in Lansing. There Sewell worked on the school’s independent college newspaper – The Michigan State News – and reported for the Lansing State Journal. She says that her early exposure with the written word helped shape her career choice.

“I chose journalism because I have always been a writer and a reader,” Sewell said. “On the BG campus my parents would take me to see James Baldwin, and read Nikki Giovanni to me. Books were always around and doing the right thing was always the order of the day.”

Sewell earned her undergraduate degree in journalism then seized on an opportunity to participate in a study abroad program that took her to London. She eventually enrolled at the University of London, and was in the process of taking graduate courses in international journalism, when her life was altered by an unforeseen encounter.

 “My professor at the time looked at me one day and said ‘what are you doing here? You need to go write,’” said Sewell. “That professor changed my life.”

That professor connected her to the publisher of The Blade and at 21 years old, Sewell was soon on a telephone interview that would lead to an invitation for employment and an opportunity to tour overseas for the newspaper. 

“They sent me to the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Brussels, and Belgium,” she said. “I was developing stories daily because I was getting paid. Everything was paid. And I would call The Blade’s city desk every day and say ‘I’m in Geneva and the Cyprus talks are going on. I can get a press pass and cover the story.’ or ‘I’m in Milan do you want something on fashion? I’m in Paris do you want something about the expatriates that have moved here?’”

Sewell says she was always met with the same response. “He just said ‘You can go if you want to for the experience but I just want you to take a tour.’”

Sewell said she found out later that the publisher just wanted her to grow, and to learn and become immersed in those experiences so that when she came back to Toledo she would be a more developed reporter.

Once she returned to the states, Sewell finally got her chance to report. She would work for The Blade for 18 years and, in between, she taught. An invitation came from a BGSU professor who asked if she would teach a journalism course at the university.

“They asked me to be an adjunct professor and teach real world curriculum.” Sewell said. And true to form, the “doer” asked if she could develop her own class curriculum. “I know mass media and I love black culture,” she remembered. “So I developed and taught a course on the historical perspective of African Americans and Mass Media.” Sewell would teach that course for two years.

In 2006, Sewell says The Blade union employees, which included her, had become embroiled in heated contract negotiations. She says the talks involved significant pay cuts and, once again, she was urged to rethink her future.

“I thought I would only work at The Blade for two years and then move on to USA Today or The New York Times and that would be it,” said Sewell.

But even with the uncertainty of her job status, Sewell’s propensity for philanthropy would lead her into the next assignment.

“I continued to be active in the community,” said Sewell. “I came through the doors of the library for a board meeting with the American Heart Association when the library deputy director at the time and the current marketing manager stopped me and said that their media relations coordinator had just taken another job. I looked at the salary, which was a little higher and I looked at all of the headaches from the negotiations.” Sewell applied for the position.

And she admits that even though she had become comfortable in her position at The Blade, it was time to move on.

But now it was no longer reporting and journalism, but marketing and PR. “It’s what I did naturally,” said Sewell. “This is what drives me.  I’m a people person.”

And 11 years later Sewell has found herself in the place that she describes as her dream position, as she works everyday doing exactly what she loves.

 “This position didn’t exist before,” she said. “My director created this role for me because he knew that I would stand on top of this desk and wax poetic about the library.”

She says that her current goal is to promote the library’s mission through a variety of methods.

“This is an advocacy role,” Sewell said. “Advocacy is mainly convincing legislators, not only of what our offerings are, but reminding them of what our core values are and what our mission is because we place a lot of value in the community. We have never had an advocacy role here. I’m pushing the agenda for the library and part of advocacy is establishing a relationship with people and telling them about our good works.”

For Sewell this means meeting regularly with political leaders who have the power to fund library programs like its literacy initiative.

“We have to constantly convince legislatures of our value,” Sewell said.

She says convincing involves making monthly trips to Columbus in order to establish and maintain relationships with elected officials and keep the library’s agenda relevant. And she says she makes it her business to know the agendas of those she needs to influence.

“For Senator [Sherrod] Brown, education is his interest. For [State Rep] Teresa Fedor, it is human trafficking,” Sewell said. “[U.S. Congresswoman] Marcy Kaptur’s new focus is early literacy, so when she kicked off her early literacy reading tour – about the importance of words in familie – I offered our library as the place for her news conference.”

And in her spare time Sewell is brainstorming ideas and creating programs through her community endeavors. One of the programs that she is proud of is the Real Men READ-y initiative – a public school reading program that was established in 2012 through her association with the United Way of Greater Toledo’s African American Leadership Council’s Strategic Partnership Committee.

“We had a specific focus that year on black males,” Sewell said. “They weren’t graduating like black females. And then there were the obvious issues like police brutality, incarceration and drugs. As I was thinking about how we could affect change I thought, I work at a library, I’m into literacy, and my dad had been a part of this reading program called ‘Real Men Read’ in Chicago.”

Sewell said that the Chicago reading program involved men from the community going into schools and reading to kids. But she wanted to modify the program to be more focused on black boys, and she wanted the program to be regulated so that they could track and measure its effectiveness.

“Black men aren’t missing from the hood, but there are a lot of black male role models who are missing,” Sewell explained. “So I wanted it to be successful, but what we didn’t know was that there was going to be a behavior change. These men are imparting wisdom and it’s all from a book.”

 Sewell says there are currently 90 black men in the Toledo community who consistently volunteer their time and attention three times a week to participate in the program.

“We teach them the Dialogic method of reading which is a participatory type of reading,” Sewell said. “They read books that are relatable, culturally relevant and sensitive to boys. The teachers choose the most troubled kids and those who have the most difficulty reading, and they say that this is often the most consistent parts of these boy’s lives. These men are there. One teacher describes it as ‘when they see those black men coming to read to those babies it’s like a king walking through the doors.’ Because real men our ready to take their rightful place in our community. It’s a great program.”

Sewell says that the program’s measurement analysis shows improvements in the boys’ reading scores and an increase in their love of reading. 

“These boys may be authors, senators, or TARTA bus drivers but this program will make them better men,” she said. “And the men say that these boys have changed their lives also.”

Sewell is happy about the success of the reading program, but she’s not surprised by it.

“I think that people know what they’re going to get when I get on board,” she said. “If I’m involved we’re going to create something. Something is going to happen. If we aren’t making change happen, I’m out. Otherwise why am I wearing the pin? What are we doing here? We’re not just pin wearers, we’re doers. We should be doing something to make the community a little better. I’m a mission driven person, so I always go back to whatever the mission is. This is how I roll. This is how I get down.”

Sewell says that the substance of her fierce determination and commitment is founded, in part, on an ancestral platform that existed before her, but also on her strong faith.

Sewell has two cousins who have made great strides in society. Ethel Lois Payne, a civil rights activist and journalist, who worked for the Chicago Defender in the 1950s, and Willa B. Brown, the first woman and African American to get a commercial pilot’s license in the U.S., and the subject of Sewell’s book.

“Every time I read stories about the both of them, they were both fighting some kind of injustice,” Sewell said. “They both had a justice bent and I think that was passed along to me. And I learned a lot from my mommy. She is my rock. We’re just a very strong matriarchal family where women are at the pinnacle and the rocks of the family. But although you achieve a lot because of your talents, some of it you just can’t explain. Our trajectory is paved by a lot of prayer. God orders those steps. I often tell God I am so not worthy, but thank you. I have to say that I live a blessed life, and I’ve led and done some great things to effect change, but I was a servant too.”

Sewell’s life will transition again as her girls go off to college next year, but she doesn’t plan on slowing down.

“My next project will definitely be working with our girls and their self-esteem,” she said. “I love this life thing, and I’m going to walk this path and effect change. I don’t have to be rich, and I don’t have to shine all the time. I like driving and orchestrating from behind the scenes.”

Sewell wants to be remembered as a servant, and a good friend, and as someone who brings light into the room. And she hopes that those attributes are passed along into the lives of her own daughters. “I see the justice spirit in my girls but I also see a kind spirit,” she said. “I tell them please be kind, not to be walked over, but it’s what’s going to do so much for you when you give of your heart. I hope that I’ve instilled that in my daughters.”

For more information about the Real Men READ-y program visit the website at http://www.unitedwaytoledo.org/real-men-read-y


Copyright © 2017 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/16/18 14:12:36 -0700.

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