The women in Sydnor’s family taught her everything she knows about advocacy. While growing up in Sacramento, California, Sydnor was surrounded by family members who were politically astute. Her grandmother, Ida Sydnor, was a fearless community organizer who worked to quell gang violence in Oak Park, Sacramento’s first suburb. Sydnor’s great aunt Alice Huffman took Sydnor to several conferences focused on political and social justice issues impacting Northern California before becoming president of the California Hawaii NAACP chapter in 1999.
But it was a lesson she learned from her mother, Marsha Sydnor, that sticks with her the most. When Sydnor was in third grade, her mother advocated to her local school district to allow her to participate in gifted programs, and later that year, to attend a public school outside of their low-income neighborhood. Sydnor would have to take the bus to and from their neighborhood to participate in school, and although she didn’t understand what her mother was doing at the time, she later realized the value of remaining visible, and talking with decision-makers and leaders to provide these resources to students who don’t have direct access to these classes.
“She showed me that simply writing a letter to the teacher, talking with the principal or superintendent is how you get action,” says Sydnor. “It made an impression on me then and even now into adulthood with my own children.”
That inspiration stuck with Sydnor, who at 13, moved with her family to Cleveland. She eventually graduated from Cleveland Heights High School and enrolled in Malone University in Canton with the intention of becoming a math teacher. When she realized an academic career path was not for her, she pursued a degree in finance from the University of Phoenix. She then worked at National City, MBNA, Bank of America and Merrill Lynch. In 2012, while working as a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, she was recruited into the local NAACP chapter by a business leader she met at a networking event.
At the time, George Forbes had stepped down as president for the NAACP Cleveland chapter and the local organization was under a transition of new leadership. Historically, members joined through their connection to local Black church congregations. As Sydnor attended meetings, she began searching for new ways to increase engagement and connect younger leaders in the community.
“At the time, there was no one in the organization under the age of 50 years old in a leadership position,” says Sydnor.
So she set up networking parties for people of different ages to strengthen intergenerational unity within the civil rights group. Inspired by her passion to strengthen these relationships, Vanessa Whiting and Wendell Turner, co-chairs of NAACP’s economic development committee, asked Sydnor to chair in their stead.
“She wanted us to all collectively discuss issues no matter our age or background and challenged us seasoned leaders, and it’s what we needed,” says Whiting. “She always had a banking desire to give back and advance the causes, and part of that has led to her rise in this next generation of leadership.”
From 2016-2018, Sydnor advocated for small businesses within her own personal network, such as PearlFlower Catering, to get involved with close, established partners of the NAACP. Those efforts led to Sydnor’s election as NAACP Cleveland’s president, a volunteer position, in April 2019. In her new role, Sydnor has been poised to take the NAACP Cleveland chapter into a vibrant, new direction at a time in which young Black activists are sparking movements across the country.
“I had an obligation to get it back to a place where people could respect it and where people could feel connected to it,” says Sydnor.
Over the last two years, Sydnor also worked with small businesses to provide loans, training and support for low-income entrepreneurs as the executive director for the Economic Community Development Institute. That experience, coupled with her leadership role within the NAACP, inspired her to start her own consulting firm in May. We Win Strategies brings together diverse stakeholders interested in assisting with recovery relief efforts during the pandemic.
“I’m calling on corporations, government officials and entities to say you must work with us to achieve economic parity,” says Sydnor. “That will help evolve many of the things we’re trying to solve for and accomplish.”
It’s why Sydnor stood on the steps of Cleveland City Hall, just six days after the May 30 protest, alongside councilman Blaine Griffin and the leaders of five other local nonprofits, to announce the passing of a citywide resolution declaring racism as a public health crisis. On June 9, Sydnor was one of 200 who provided written testimony to the Ohio Senate on the importance of this resolution and the necessity for it to be passed at the state level.
“We are taught to just let it go, move on, pick your battles, but when you hit a war like what we’ve seen play out, the collective Black community cannot breathe — and not because we have a literal knee on our neck,” she wrote. “It’s the systemic knee.”
The resolution will allow Cleveland to establish various groups to review and create county programs, policies and strategies to address systemic racism and its effects on the Black community. Although specifics have yet to be decided, some such changes may result in requiring major corporations and nonprofits to include minority members on their boards and executive teams, while boosting minority representation within city government. The resolution also allows groups such as NAACP Cleveland, medical institutions and local nonprofits to pool together resources and funding to help discriminated communities build wealth and economic independence.
According to the Center for Community Solutions, in Cuyahoga County alone, African American residents make up 30% of the population compared to 63.8% of white residents. Of those numbers, 43.3% of Black people live in poverty compared to 26.2% of white people. On average, Black households earn $32,000 less than white households and the life expectancy of Black residents in Cuyahoga County is six years less than that of their white neighbors. Black communities have been redlined out of good housing and education, have less access to quality health care and insurance, and have fewer healthy food choices.
“To be poor in America is an indictment in this country,” says Sydnor. “To be poor and Black is a double whammy.”
These social inequities are only made worse as a result of COVID-19. During a press conference in April, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health released a breakdown of 746 COVID-19 cases in the county. According to the data, 39% of the 746 individuals who tested positive were Black.
Medical director Heidi Gullett said the number of positive COVID-19 cases at the time were most likely underreported by the Black community due to a lack of transportation to testing sites. Furthermore, available tests had been limited to only those who were hospitalized for their illnesses — and the already existent lack of health care and insurance puts additional strain on the Black community.
Furthermore, ethnic minority groups are disproportionately exposed to the virus through essential work settings such as factories and public transportation. The data suggests Black communities are at higher risk for contracting the virus but underrepresented by the system at large.
“We know that communities of color in our community and others across the nation have different opportunities, and those opportunities relate back to systems and structures and bias that have existed in our country for many, many, many years,” said Gullett.
These events inspired Sydnor to push for the passing of the public health crisis resolution in June — but rather than wait for outside solutions, she took it upon herself to act. To address the immediate crisis, Sydnor advocated for NAACP Cleveland to participate in Mask 4 Community, a volunteer event designed to mobilize citizens to take better care of their community by packaging reusable face masks and health information kits for low-income neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic. For new NAACP members such as Russell West, it was an opportunity to make a direct impact.
“It becomes more apparent that she is working for a cause, not for a name,” says West. “These issues are bigger than all of us. You want someone who cares about their people, their decisions, their everything. Someone who says, ‘I’m not going to give you lip service, I’m going to get my hands dirty with the rest of you.’ ”