For Alicia Townsend, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a time to reflect on the experiences of older generations of her family and forge their connection to the youngest generation – her two six-year-old granddaughters.
She tells them about their great-uncle who was active in the civil rights movement. She tells them about their great-grandmother who served as an election worker to ensure voting rights in her community.
Townsend tells the stories to illustrate the lasting impact of doing the right thing at any given moment in time.
“Part of the legacy I want to pass on is the message that greatness is within them and that they have the ability to do great things,” she said.
And in the context of the events over the past two weeks, Townsend is keenly aware of delivering that message at this particular moment in time.
“This year, I plan to focus on the life and values of Dr. King, especially nonviolence and equal rights,” she said.
Townsend hopes to be the same type of role model in their lives that her uncle and grandmother were to her. Although her uncle moved away from Cincinnati in 1968 when she was a year old, she describes him as the most influential person in her life as it relates to community work, social justice and Black empowerment.
“From the time I was four years old, he sent me books – hefty ones, and usually about activism. I had nowhere to go with that information and no idea what to do with it. This was the early 1970s, when a kid who looked like me did not even realize there were authors, orchestra conductors, artists who looked like us. You knew about your block.”
Yet as Townsend grew up, that block expanded thanks to another powerful influence – her grandmother. In addition to working the polls, her grandmother organized block parties, served as a union representative and was a member of a club that launched Black Family Reunion, which has become a signature event in Cincinnati.
These family figures cultivated a set of values in Townsend, emphasizing connectivity to those around her and to Black culture. She said that it paved the way for her current role as vice president and community affairs manager at U.S. Bank, a role in which she coordinates relationships with nonprofits in the market.
“I often say I was born to do the job I have now,” Townsend said. After working in the public, corporate and nonprofit sectors, several former colleagues reached out and encouraged her to apply for the open role seven years ago at U.S. Bank. “It was just a great fit… I can feel it from my core.”
Townsend takes pride in having built a network that allows her to bypass some of the mistrust that financial institution representatives may be met with by the Black community. “I don’t think there’s a place or a community organization in Cincinnati that I can’t go into with open arms.”
The network enables Townsend to get projects done that go above and beyond her day job. For example, amid racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, a local branch manager wanted to commission a mural to show the community that the bank stood with them. Her first call was to Townsend. Within days, it was complete.
“The mural was something I just knew how to get done, through my relationships and connectivity,” she said, about contacting nonprofit ArtWorks to identify local visual artist Jonesy and apprentice Shalaisjah Cason. “It wasn’t necessarily work that was assigned to me as a community affairs manager, but it’s work I’m passionate about.”
Townsend is intentional about sharing that passion with her granddaughters, such as by bringing them to see the U.S. Bank mural or visiting them after leading U.S. Bank employees in Cincinnati’s annual MLK Day march.
What she tells them in these moments, fittingly, strikes a through line from the past, to the present and toward the future.
“Black history isn’t something that’s happened and now it’s done,” she said. “It’s ongoing – and I want them to understand that they’re a part of making that new history.”