New policy director at United Way says certain life events lead her to her dream job

New policy director at United Way says certain life events lead her to her dream job

May 5, 2015

By Kathryn Duggan

On Tuesday, July 6, 2010, 91-year-old Francis Lesley Rawl was found dead in his home on Woodlawn Avenue in Columbia.

On that day four years ago, not only did a family lose their beloved grandfather, but a city lost a dedicated former legislator.

In the following weeks, two teenagers were charged with burglary and murder and a third was charged with being an accessory to burglary.

In her grieving, Rawl’s granddaughter, Callison Rawl Richardson felt the obligation to inspire change.

Richardson not only witnessed the tragedy inflicted on her family, but the reality of troubled kids mired in a juvenile justice system that appeared to her to be broken.

Richardson joined the South Carolina board of AMI Kids, a nationally recognized juvenile justice and alternative education program geared towards aiding troubled youth.

“My grandfather was killed by a group of kids and it was terrible,” said Richardson. “I wanted to find a way to stop that from happening and with AMI kids I am completely convinced it is the answer.”

Richardson’s involvement with AMI kids represents only one example of an event in her life that prompted her to question the status quo and led her to her position as director of education partnerships and policy at United Way of the Midlands in Columbia.

In 2007, during her senior year at Clemson University, Richardson was nearing completion of her undergraduate degree in biological sciences with plans to go on to veterinary school when her father started having symptoms that could not be explained.

Doctors eventually diagnosed him with lime disease from a tick bite, but at this point there was already substantial damage.

“Once we figured out what it was we were relieved like, ‘Oh, good we can fix this,’” said Richardson. “And then we realized there were significant barriers for him to even get treatment here because this is not something that a lot of doctors really knew about in South Carolina.”

While Richardson said she understood the science behind what was happening because of her biology degree, there was a part of her that was angered by the hassle with insurance and getting help with his treatment.

“I decided I’m going to do something about this. I decided it’s not going to be veterinarian school,” said Richardson. “It has got to be something to do with advocacy or fighting for other people.”

Richardson decided to work for a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Georgia, where a special topics in poverty class provided further influence on her career path.

“I spent the semester ingratiating myself in poverty and it just completely grabbed my heart and made me realize this is what I have to do,” said Richardson.

And that is what Richardson went on to do as she earned her masters and accepted a job at City Year, where she worked to put AmeriCorps members in schools in Columbia to mentor students.

Many of the schools that Richardson worked with were familiar to her from her days of high school cheerleading for A.C. Flora High School and traveling for games, but what was completely new to her was the effects that poverty had on some of the students at these schools.

“I believe we have two Columbia’s. I believe that there is one Columbia that can spend their entire lives, whether it’s true ignorance or they’re choosing to ignore it, without seeing the other part of the city which has no access to what the other half has,” said Richardson.

Once Richardson became aware of the poverty issue in her own hometown, she said she started making career and life decisions based on trying to learn as much as she could about poverty.

Richardson said she didn’t want to be the sort of person who automatically thought she knew best. “I knew from what I learned in grad school that poverty is so much more complicated than that,” she said.

Richardson bought a house in Hyatt Park, which is located on North Main Street and is in a high poverty area, and said she has spent a significant amount of time with her neighbors learning from them what it is like to be poor in the South.

“There were these experiences: My dad getting sick and feeling like I needed to be an advocate for something, and a class in poverty opening my eyes to something I was almost blind to,” said Richardson. “And then getting to work in schools and seeing the division there but also just the complete disparity between experiences that students in this city are having.”

Richardson began working for SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center in 2013 as a development and communications associate but a little shy of two years at the company Richardson received another job offer she couldn’t refuse.

United Way called Richardson in July 2014 about an opening for someone to do advocacy work.

“As I read the description I was like, this is a dream job,” said Richardson. “I was able to feel like this was the right next step for me.”

As the director of education partnership and policy, Richardson said she spends a large portion of her day tracking legislation, working with volunteer committees and raising public awareness of issues in her community.

“I think that it is really important for us to be seen paying attention and following the issues because I would love for United Way to be seen,” said Richardson. “My goal is to be visible all the time like, ‘We’re watching; we’re paying attention,’ so that the public can see us as a resource too.”

Richardson is happy to stick around and help United Way get to this point, no matter how long it takes.

“I could spend the rest of my life at the United Way in the Midlands,” said Richardson. “I feel like I have a heart for this city; my husband does too. I hope that we will stay here.”