About 100 people from the University and surrounding communities gathered at Lynchburg on Saturday for a conference dedicated to women’s leadership — and the late Rosel Schewel ’71 MEd, ’83 EdS, a civic activist and champion of women’s rights and racial justice. Three panels preceded the highlight of the day: the keynote address by world-renowned poet Nikki Giovanni.
The daylong conference, which was co-hosted by Virginia Humanities, kicked off in Schewel Hall’s Sydnor Performance Hall and culminated with a reception in Hall Campus Center’s Memorial Ballroom, where attendees — most of them women — also gathered for lunch.
The midday break was accompanied by a video presentation on Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer’s legacy by granddaughter Shaun Hester-Spencer, director of the Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum.
In her welcome, President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar said Rosel epitomized the University’s three pillars — leadership development, innovation and collaboration, and diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.
“We are change agents, and as women we change lives every day,” Morrison-Shetlar said.
Rosel’s daughter, Susan Schewel, a nurse and women’s health activist, agreed. “This conference brings together so many of the things my mother was passionate about,” she said.
References to Rosel as someone who spoke up and gave others a seat at the table came up throughout the day. Several of the speakers mentioned her as a vital mentor and cheerleader for their own careers.
“I could never say ‘no’ to Rosel, so that’s why I’m here,” said Lynchburg City Mayor MaryJane Dolan.
The panels included “Considering Women’s Leadership,” “The Long and Winding Road: Women Leading in Democracies,” and “Women and Political Leadership.” Among the panelists were a number of business leaders, government officials, University of Lynchburg faculty, and one student.
Student Government Association President Claire King ’23 joined the first panel, along with Christine Kennedy, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance.
Dr. Paula Youra, professor of communication studies and director of the University’s Center for Professional Communication, and Laura Hamilton, executive director of the Lynchburg Beacon of Hope, also participated.
All four agreed that providing others with a seat at the table, as Rosel did, is a central element of leadership. But, Youra added, “Don’t wait your turn … speak up if you have something to say.”
The second panel featured Dr. Sabita Manian, associate dean of the school of social sciences, and Dr. Ghislaine Lewis, co-chair of Africana studies and director of the city’s Pierce Street Gateway, along with Dr. Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp, a retired professor of communication studies, and Dr. Nichole Sanders, professor of history and former John Franklin East Professor of Humanities.
All four presented on famous women leaders in democracies, from the Caribbean to Latin America, from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the British suffragettes — and Queen Elizabeth II.
The final panel brought women’s leadership back to a local level.
“You don’t have to wait for the right time in your life to get involved,” said Jennifer Woofter, co-president of Lynchburg’s League of Women Voters.
A former staffer on Capitol Hill, she cited 20-somethings drafting legislation behind the scenes on the state and federal levels.
The panel also included Dolan and Kelly Johnson, legislative aide for the Virginia House of Delegates, and University trustee Julie P. Doyle, a former member of the Lynchburg City School Board.
Jane VanBoskirk ’70 performed the one-woman play “Everything I Ever Did Was Accomplished Across a Barrier of Fear: Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Overcoming fear played a central role in Giovanni’s speech, too. She referenced a number of current and historic events and people, including Rosa Parks and Queen Elizabeth II, Giovanni said “we ought to quit being afraid,” and realize that “not everyone is against us.
“We need to define ourselves in a way that is inclusive.”
Not being afraid also includes taking risks, the recently retired Virginia Tech professor said. “What’s life if you don’t make mistakes? It means you have done nothing.”
As for herself, she added, “All I have are my words, but whatever it is, [I hope] I have done my best with my words.”
Giovanni fittingly ended her talk with two of her poems, “Ego Tripping” and “Quilts.”
Joan Foster ’69, ’70 MAT, ’85 MEd, a University board of trustees member and the former mayor of Lynchburg, joined Schewel, Morrison-Shetlar, and Gibson for closing comments.
Rosel, she said, taught her that “one educator can truly make a difference in a person’s life,” recounting her professor’s impact on her during her MEd studies at Lynchburg and beyond. As with Dolan, it was Rosel who encouraged her to get into politics, Foster said.
“How blessed my life has been to have a teacher, a mentor, and most importantly, a friend named Rosel Schewel,” she said.