Black ladies in Toledo are spine of neighborhood

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Feb. 21—If you ask people to name influential Black women in Toledo, you’ll get a long list.

There’s Doni Miller, chief executive of Neighborhood Health Association and host of “Bridges” on WTVG-TV, Channel 13. And Rhonda Sewell, a former Blade journalist who now works as manager of external and governmental affairs for Toledo Lucas County Public Library.

Alicia Smith champions neighborhood development and water affordability in her roles with the Junction Coalition and Freshwater Future. Candice Harrison is external communications manager for Toledo Public Schools and the Press Club of Toledo’s vice president. Sonia Flunder-McNair runs a community garden at Tatum Park.

In city government, the mayor’s chief of staff, Katy Crosby, is spearheading a gun-violence reduction initiative, while Housing Commissioner Tiffanie McNair and Neighborhoods Director Rosalyn Clemens are working to combat the long-lasting effects of redlining in Toledo.

The list goes on.

“These are gems within our community that put in some serious work to make sure our community works well,” said Vanice Williams, one of four Black female Toledo City Council members.

The Blade interviewed five Toledo natives during Black History Month about their community leadership roles, their successes, and their challenges.

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Zahra Aprili Collins, 37, coaches volleyball and cheerleading at Scott High School, volunteers on the Human Relations Commission’s the Stop the Violence committee, and co-founded the Toledo Metropolitan Tavern and Pub Association. She also works at the same financial institution that gave her her first loan.

If you’re a small business owner in the central city, chances are you spoke to Ms. Collins at Toledo Urban Federal Credit Union about the Paycheck Protection Program during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The credit union didn’t close when the pandemic hit. We kept our doors open,” said Ms. Collins, who was hired last year on contract as a special-projects coordinator and now works for the credit union full-time. “It was an opportunity for people be able to come in and have a conversation with somebody to help navigate the resources available for small businesses.”

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She has a photo of herself from her junior year of college outside the credit union on Dorr Street with her Toyota Echo. The community financial institution gave her a loan for her first car after she had been rejected by another bank. Now that she works at the credit union, she sees first hand just how important access to financial resources is to marginalized communities, particularly during times of crisis.

“It really makes you realize how much of an impact the credit union has within the community,” she said. “The first people you make a phone call to when you need help is the credit union. You call the church, you call the credit union, and you call the funeral home.”

Ms. Collins said there are so many strong Black women in Toledo who are moving the city forward, even if mainstream leaders and politicians don’t always recognize them.

“The leaders who are doing work, they don’t care about the shine,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what recognition you get as long as you know that your circle has your back and other leaders have your back and there are people supporting your work.”

Representation is important, though, which is why she said the women who make it into the mainstream political and business circles so often decline opportunities for themselves so they can elevate another woman of color by recommending her for the role instead.

“The Black woman is that backbone of our community,” she said.

Image DescriptionErika White sits in her home office on Thursday, February, 18, 2021. (Amy E. Voigt/The Blade)

Erika White is often the only Black woman at the table in her line of work. She’s president of Local 4319 of the Communications Workers of America and vice president of the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO.

“I never feel intimidated. I never feel like I don’t belong there,” said Ms. White, 48.

Ms. White grew up poor. She and her sister Tasha Lothery were raised by a single mother, Bernice Christopher, a social worker and a fierce advocate for women and children. Often Ms. White and her sister slept on the living-room floor so a mother and her children awaiting shelter placement could borrow their room for a night or two.

She graduated from Rogers High School and started taking classes at University of Toledo before she took a job at age 19 with what was then Ohio Bell Telephone Co. as an information operator. She joined the union but didn’t become invested in the labor movement until she was about 30.

She became the local benefit representative for employees at AT&T, and then served as the local’s vice president for 13 years before becoming president two years ago. Ms. White has been recognized by the Coalition of Black Trade Unions as unionist of the year and was selected by her female CWA peers for a Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award.

“As I progressed along, I saw that the union had a greater role in social justice and activism, going in and taking what we do within the union halls and making sure we also represent that in our community,” she said.

When she isn’t fighting for workers’ rights, Ms. White advocates for minority health and wellness. She is chairman of the Toledo NAACP’s health committee, has a health feature on WTVG-TV, Channel 13, and works with Healthy Lucas County to ensure minority health issues are addressed in the county’s community health improvement plans.

She said whenever she is invited to serve on a board or work with an organization, she asks for a commitment of support.

“How often have women and minorities been invited and not been respected at the table?” she said. “Males need to be putting women in positions of voice, not just positions of power, but positions of voice and supporting them.”

Ms. White said she makes it a point to mentor other underrepresented women. She tells them not to walk in her footsteps, but to bring their own pair of shoes.

“There’s so many Black women out here that are doing phenomenal work. We have to recognize it,” she said. “If there isn’t a Black women there, then find another sister. It doesn’t mean we push out everyone else, it means we include.”

Image DescriptionAmbrea Mikolajczyk, of ARK Restoration, stands in the former Wonder Bread factory, which her company is restoring and renovating into loft apartments in the Vistula Neighborhood, on Saturday, February, 20, 2021.(Amy E. Voigt/The Blade)

Ambrea Mikolajczyk, 41, also knows well what it’s like to be the only Black woman at the table.

She owns ARK Restoration and Construction with her husband Kevin Mikolajczyk, and together they redevelop and manage Toledo properties. Over 15 years, the couple has diligently set their company up for success while also raising four children. In 2019, the business truly took off.

Mrs. Mikolajczyk graduated from Start High School and received a full academic scholarship at University of Toledo through the Excel program, which helps students from underserved communities succeed in college. She played volleyball for a year and graduated with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences.

She worked in pharmaceutical sales until 2017, when she took a leap of faith and quit to work in construction and restoration full time.

Mrs. Mikolajczyk serves on the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce Board and is its only Black woman. She is leading its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force and is working to address systematic bias and discrimination in the business world, something she has numerous first-hand experiences with.

She recently told the board about a time when she was applying for a loan to support two projects at once. Her friend worked in commercial lending and processed her applications. The friend later told her that she didn’t present Mrs. Mikolajczyk’s driver’s license at the bank until the loans had already been approved, for fear she would have been denied because of the color for her skin.

Mrs. Mikolajczyk said she has heard people say that when Black people start a company, then end up going into the lowest revenue-generating businesses.

“And that’s no coincidence. The system is set up like that,” she said. “There are gatekeepers. That’s why my friend had to withhold my license.”

What motivates her to keep going are her children, and other Black kids dreaming of what they can become.

“It’s so much bigger than I am. As a Black woman in construction, I’m a unicorn. I have to keep going so it’s not taboo,” she said.

She said you don’t see big companies and corporations laying roots in African American communities, so it’s up to minority business owners to ensure their neighborhoods get the investment they deserve. Mrs. Mikolajczyk holds a minority business certification in Ohio and lives in the same ZIP Code as her latest project, the former Wonder Bread bakery on Summit Street.

ARK Restoration and Construction is redeveloping the old industrial building into loft apartments. It’s only the 10th building in Toledo to receive state historic tax credits.

Mrs. Mikolajczyk said Black women are smart and savvy, and in Toledo they’re capitalizing on opportunity.

“We can transform our communities,” she said. “We can make the difference here. And we are.”

Image DescriptionPrecious Tate, founder of Youth For Change and an investigator for Toledo’s Fair Housing Center, in her Toledo apartment on Feb. 19, 2021.(Lori King/The Blade)

Precious Tate, 24, wants to empower young people to lead Toledo’s transformation.

A graduate of Central Catholic High School, she returned to Toledo after getting her degree in public policy and political science at Ohio State University.

“I felt the need to come back and pour back into my community after what they gave me,” she said.

Ms. Tate founded Youth For Change, a civic organization that works to empower teenagers and young adults to get involved in politics and government.

“A lot of people who look like me, especially young people, do not understand how government and policy affect our daily life,” she said. “So I wanted to teach them that, and teach them that they can make a difference.”

Her group has had success. In 2019, they caught the attention of Toledo City Councilman Nick Komives after hosting a discussion about the importance of schools and employers allowing students and workers of color to wear natural hairstyles or braids. Several instances of Black people being discriminated against or punished for wearing their hair a certain way were making headlines, and Ms. Tate wanted to educate people about the issue.

Soon, Mr. Komives was working with the group to draft a city ordinance to add natural hair and head wraps to the city’s anti-discrimination laws. It passed unanimously.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Youth For Change has hosted virtual information sessions about how the pandemic impacts young people and what to do in order to stay healthy. The group also hosted virtual events on the importance of voting.

Ms. Tate’s full-time job is with Toledo’s Fair Housing Center investigating possible violations of the federal Fair Housing Act. She said she has been encouraged by the rise of Black women in leadership positions over the last decade, with Kamala Harris’ election as Vice President the most prominent example of a woman breaking barriers.

“You cannot be what you can’t see. A lot of people grow up not thinking they can become doctors or lawyers or investigators or politicians,” Ms. Tate said. “Seeing Black women in leadership positions inspires another generation. Always lift after we climb. Give back.”

But she noted there’s still a lot of work to be done. In Toledo, she sees a lot of the same people being elevated to leadership positions and little appetite for giving new faces a shot at success.

“It’s a gated community here,” she said. “You have to really know people and be in their specific circles to get seen.”

Image DescriptionAngela Lucas, co-founder of the marketing firm Creadio, sits in her office in Toledo on Friday, February, 19, 2021.(Amy E. Voigt/The Blade)

Angela Lucas, 36, made her way into Toledo’s tight circles through hard work, perseverance, and faith.

The entrepreneur grew up in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood and graduated from Waite High School. She went to the Toledo School of Practical Nursing and became a licensed practical nurse, but she realized it wasn’t a match.

“What I really wanted to do was serve the community in some capacity, but I didn’t know how to do that,” Ms. Lucas said.

So she went to Dan Rogers, who was then president and CEO of Cherry Street Mission Ministries, and asked if she could get involved on the nonprofit’s board. She was passionate about the work, and she knew she’d be good at it.

“He really mentored me and I learned so much from him,” Ms. Lucas said. “And after that opportunities opened up for me.”

She helped manage a $5 million capital campaign at Cherry Street, and in the meantime, she and her husband Will Lucas continued to build their marketing firm Creadio.

She had volunteered on local Democratic Party campaigns, but she didn’t get heavily involved in politics until Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz asked her to work on his team in 2017. He won the election, and Ms. Lucas worked in the mayor’s office co-managing the Human Relations Commission until 2019.

Now she and Mr. Lucas are working on a new project for Creadio. They bought a vacant industrial building in the Vistula Neighborhood and plan to create a space where creative Toledoans can work and play. Ms. Lucas said the couple is putting their money where their mouths are and investing in the community.

“We are paying people’s salaries. We are supporting people’s families,” she said of Black business owners. “We matter. We’re doing things that matter.”

Ms. Lucas is encouraged by the recent recognition nationally of Black female politicians like Vice President Harris and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, but like Ms. Tate, she knows Toledo has work to do.

“We have not seen women in color in leadership positions in our local community, I think, in the magnitude that we should have been seeing them all along,” she said.

Ms. Lucas talks about the power of women in her podcast called Made with Purpose. She interviews women from Toledo and around the world, mostly women of color and women of faith, about how they found success.

“I just want to get that message out to women,” she said. “This is your time. You can do it. No more playing small. We’re not apologizing for our presence.”

First Published February 20, 2021, 5:24pm