Tiombe Chantal Sewell ’95: Building Bridges
Tiombe Chantal Sewell grew up in Long Beach, California, where her parents, both teachers, taught her the value of helping others. “My mom encouraged me to volunteer, starting in elementary school,” she recalls. “I assisted in classes for younger kids with disabilities.” After school, she took part in Campfire Girls; during the summer, she tutored third graders in her mother’s summer-school classes.
High school, however, was a challenge. “Polytechnic had more than 4,000 students,” she says. “It was a top school academically, but athletics—and male athletes—were worshipped. It was hard to find examples of women’s brilliance and women’s leadership.” Sewell craved smaller classes where women’s voices could be heard, and sought to escape the constant sexual harassment she was experiencing.
An hour away, Scripps College appealed to her from the start. “My mom attended a historically black college and had a wonderful experience, and I had a strong desire for small classes and to be in the company of women,” Sewell says. “I believed my mom’s positive experience at an HBCU was an indication of how safe spaces for targeted groups could be.”
Still, arriving at Scripps was a bit of a culture shock. “I didn’t anticipate how different it would be, especially in terms of the African American community,” she remembers. “It took me a while to feel at home.” Becoming involved with the Office of Black Student Affairs, Wanawake Weusi, and her own peers in the science, psychology, and women’s studies departments strengthened her sense of community. It also afforded the future therapist many chances for powerful interaction: “My first passion is sitting and holding an intense personal conversation with another person,” she says. “Some of my first glimpses of the type of work I could do professionally came from sitting with my sisters in a dorm room or in the Grace-Toll dining hall.” Elected to the student council, Sewell took on an early leadership role, collaborating on The Claremont Colleges’ first Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.
A dual major in women’s studies and psychology gave her a degree but not the skills she needed. “I had the theory but not the practical experience,” she says. She started her own private practice in Long Beach while also working at the Sexual Assault Crisis Agency (SACA), where clients received therapy and group counseling and staff and volunteers developed prevention and training programs. For Sewell, it was a dream job.
But SACA’s closing in 2009 forced her to make a new plan. Expanding her private practice, she joined forces with former SACA colleagues to envision and realize a space that not only served people in need but also gave its employees the power to determine the organization’s direction. It called for a new kind of leadership.
“I wanted to create a place where survivors of sexual and domestic violence could come and know they would be considered the expert on their experience,” Sewell says. “A place where their strength would not only be understood, but respected and honored.”
In January of 2014, she and her peers opened Bridges to Healing, a wellness and healing center that provides therapy, training, and advocacy for victims of trauma, oppression, and marginalization. “Our first year tested our ability to grow a successful practice, but we stayed true to our collaborative feminist philosophy,” she says. Bridges is now beginning to span the two formative experiences of Sewell’s girlhood.
“To me, it’s all about how structure and planning of Bridges will impact that one person who walks in the door and is suffering,” she says. “I use the resilience and strength I gain from these stories to inform those things I choose to advocate for in the world.”
Sewell’s relationship with Scripps came full circle last year when she returned to Claremont as a trainer and adviser for the Scripps and Pomona College Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Assault. For her, the return has proven a powerful point of comparison. “It was a chance to say, ‘Who was I then? What are the things I still need to work on?’” she says. “It’s inspired me to continue my own process of becoming more of what I’d like to see happen in the world.”
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