About 100 people from the university and surrounding communities gathered in Lynchburg on Saturday for a conference dedicated to women in leadership — and the late Rosel Schewel ’71 MEd, ’83 EdS, a civic activist and campaigner for women’s rights and racial justice. The highlight of the day was preceded by three panels: a keynote speech by the world-famous poet Nikki Giovanni.
The day-long conference, co-hosted by Virginia Humanities, began in Schewel Hall’s Sydnor Performance Hall and culminated with a reception in the Hall Campus Center’s Memorial Hall, where participants—most of them women—also gathered for lunch.
The midday break was accompanied by a video presentation by Shaun Hester-Spencer, grandson of Anne Spencer House director, about the legacy of Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer. Garden Museum.
In her welcome, President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar said Rosel embodies the University’s three pillars of leadership development, innovation and collaboration, and diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.
“We are agents of change and as women we change lives every day,” Morrisson-Shetlar said.
Rosel’s daughter, Susan Schewel, a nurse and women’s health activist, agreed. “This conference brings together so many things that my mother was passionate about,” she said.
Throughout the day, there were references to Rosel as someone who spoke up and gave others a seat at the table. Several speakers cited her as an important mentor and cheerleader for their careers.
“I could never say no to Rosel, that’s why I’m here,” said Lynchburg Mayor MaryJane Dolan.
Panels included ‘Making Women’s Leadership In’, ‘The Long and Winding Road: Women Leading in Democracy’ and ‘Women and Political Leadership’. Several business leaders, government officials, Lynchburg University faculty and one student participated in the discussions.
Student Government Association President Claire King ’23 joined the first panel along with Lynchburg Regional Business Association CEO and CEO Christine Kennedy.
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 attended.
All four agreed that giving others 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.”
Another panel featured Dr. Sabita Manian, associate dean of the School of Social Sciences, and Dr. Ghislaine Lewis, co-chair of African Studies and director of the city’s Pierce Street Gateway, along with retired Dr. Cheryl Jorgensen-Earp. professor of communication studies and Dr. Nichole Sanders, professor of history and former John Franklin East professor of humanities.
All four showcased famous female leaders of democracies from the Caribbean to Latin America, from former German Chancellor Angela Merkel to British suffragettes and Queen Elizabeth II.
The final panel brought women’s leadership back to the local level.
“You don’t have to wait for the right time in your life to get involved,” said Jennifer Woofter, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Lynchburg.
The former Capitol Hill staffer referred to the 20-year-old who developed legislation behind the scenes at the state and federal levels.
The panel also included Dolan and Kelly Johnson, legislative aides to the Virginia House of Delegates, and University Trustee Julie P. Doyle, a former Lynchburg City School Board member.
Jane VanBoskirk ’70 performed the one-woman play, Everything I Ever Did Was Accomplished Across a Barrier of Fear: Eleanor Roosevelt.
Overcoming fear also played a central role in Giovanni’s speech. He referenced a number of current and historical events and people, including Rosa Parks and Queen Elizabeth II. Giovanni said that “we should stop being afraid” and realize that “not everything is against us.
“We need to define ourselves in an inclusive way.”
Not being afraid also involves taking risks, said a recently retired Virginia Tech professor. “What’s life if you don’t make mistakes? It means you haven’t done anything.”
As for herself, she added, “All I have are my words, but whatever they are, [I hope] I’ve done my best with my words.”
Giovanni ended his talk fittingly with two poems, “Ego Tripping” and “Quilts.”
Joan Foster ’69, ’70 MAT, ’85 MEd, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and former mayor of Lynchburg, joined Schewel, Morrison-Shetlar and Gibson for commentary.
He said Rosel taught him that “one educator can really change a person’s life,” recounting his professor’s influence on him during his medical studies in Lynchburg and beyond. As with Dolan, Rosel encouraged him to enter politics, Foster said.
“How blessed my life has been to have had a teacher, a mentor and most importantly a friend named Rosel Schewel,” she said.