Syracuse University Magazine


Syeisha Byrd

Community Energizer

Growing up on the lower west side of Syracuse, Syeisha Byrd G’12 was so distressed watching many of her friends drop out of school or lose their lives to gang violence that she vowed to commit her life to confronting these issues by working with local youth. Her journey began at the Boys & Girls Club at age 14 and continues today through her work with SU students as director of community engagement at Hendricks Chapel. “The Office of Engagement focuses on social justice issues in the community,” says Byrd, who earned a master of social work degree from the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics. “I create and develop programming for student volunteers to help combat whatever problems need to be addressed in the community—everything from reducing gang violence to mentoring refugees.”

When the position at Hendricks opened up in 2010, Pamela Heintz ’91, G’08, associate vice president and director of the Shaw Center for Public and Community Service, encouraged Byrd to apply. “Syeisha came immediately to mind because her passion for her work with youth, her commitment to everyone she works with, her unbridled energy, and her pure love of life make her a natural for the position,” says Heintz, who worked with Byrd on community issues during her time at the Boys & Girls Club. “Syeisha believes she can change the world and bring everyone along with her. Working with Syeisha is like letting sunshine into the dark places.”

Byrd and Heintz enjoy a good working relationship and are currently developing a joint training program for student leaders. “My goal is to build partnerships with all groups on campus,” Byrd says. “I spend a lot of my time referring and connecting folks.” And after working with Byrd for the past three years, Heintz has come to appreciate her community perspective. “It’s one thing to learn about and listen to those in the community with whom we work, but it’s quite another to partner with someone on campus who is an integral part of the community,” she says.

One of Byrd’s goals is to build sustainable programs that not only give students the opportunity to be good citizens by giving back to the community, but also will teach them how to create their own programs and lobby for social change. Her biggest challenge is getting students to walk through the chapel doors to volunteer because they assume her office is religious. “A lot of students are spiritual, but don’t consider themselves religious, and they don’t want to be preached at,” she says. “So I have to get out there and actively recruit students by inviting myself to speak to classes and in residence halls and attending any event that will help publicize what we do.”

Byrd’s commitment to her community extends well beyond campus. This fall, she will teach crocheting—interwoven with lively conversation—to individuals recovering from addictions at Syracuse Behavioral Health Care, and she serves on the advisory board of the Center for New Americans to help refugees from Somalia and Bhutan settle into their new lives in Syracuse. She also chairs the committee planning SU’s 29th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner, all while raising three children ranging in age from 11 years to 7 months. When she does find time to relax, Byrd heads to a Zumba class for an energizing workout or the shores of Oneida Lake to go fishing. “I’m a Zumba fanatic and try to take classes at least three times a week,” she says. “And I love to fish because it is so quiet and peaceful.” —Christine Yackel

Photo by Steve Sartori