Toilynn O’Neal: The Magic of Art, Science, Education, and Community
Toilynn O’Neal is fully invested in the city of Cincinnati. She’s worked at St. Ursula Academy in Walnut Hills for the past 20 years and currently serves as their director of diversity. She works for the Cincinnati Visitors Bureau, helping to develop multicultural entertainment for Fountain Square in the summer. She’s the interim executive director of the Queen City Foundation, an organization devoted to helping young people succeed. Toilynn herself benefited from QCF, and she says it’s one of the reasons she is who she is today, doing what she’s doing to elevate young women in Cincinnati and inspire them to become leaders and community change agents.
Tell us about your background and how you came to work at St. Ursula Academy.
I’ve been at Ursula full time for 20 years. I went to school here. I went to Ohio State and majored in zoology. I wanted to be a wildlife preservationist. My goal was to live in Africa, travel with Jack Hanna around the world, study wildlife, and do one of those TV shows. When I grew up, there was this guy on “The Wild Kingdom” that talked about wildlife… I wanted to be him. I wanted to be the first woman to do that. There weren’t any women doing that. But technically, I couldn’t do well in chemistry. I couldn’t get a C+ in this class! So that started steering me away from it.
And I have this other side, which is the arts. My dad is an artist full time, and an activist. My mother is a science person and worked at a hospital. So I started off with her path, and ended up with his path. They were opposites. Same side of the brain, but definitely two sides of life. He was an activist.
What did that mean at the time?
He was a child of the ’60s. So he was part of SNCC [The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee]. He had the first art gallery in Over-the-Rhine, called New American Art Gallery. Civil rights leaders would meet there and discuss movements and protests at City Hall, and he became the photographer for what was called Model Cities. That enabled him to be a part of the movement in a very productive way, in a documenting way. Growing up, I had that piece of him being a visual artist, a photographer, and my mom being more studious, more technical.
Where were you living in Cincinnati?
We started in the West End. I grew up down there, and then we moved to Evanston, where my parents still live in the same house. I, of course, went here [St. Ursula].
What was the diversity like when you went to school here?
Looking at students of color and minorities, we were probably about 5 percent then. We’re probably somewhere about 11 to 12 percent now. We’ve definitely grown, and the school has grown in its outreach. Ursula has always been community-based. When the sisters ran the school, they were engaged in everything in the neighborhood. There was not a person in the community who didn’t love and respect the sisters. The Ursulines believed in women’s education and leadership, and they would push us to be engaged in the community. Living in the community and also serving the community is a unique experience. For those of us who also lived in the neighborhood, it gave us a sense of, “Wow, we’re helping our people,” but it also gave a sense of humility that allowed us to really understand what we were called to do. Most of us went into careers that really served people.
How did Queen City Foundation (QCF) come into your life?
We met Ron Felder [past president of QCF for 26 years] at a school fair. He was with an organization focused on independent, private, Catholic schools, and he introduced my mom to Ursula. That organization is called Queen City Foundation and now I am the director. So I was one of their students. He encouraged a lot of us to look at these schools, and he worked with the schools on helping us get the resources to go there. He was like, “School should be based on the kid, not where you live, where you come from, or what you can afford.” He worked hard to provide scholarships and mentoring, and QCF allowed us to meet national and local community leaders. That program still exists and we still try to do the same thing, as far as legacies go.
Most of our women are assertive and confident and there aren’t a lot of inhibitions about being a leader, because they’re taught that every day.
A lot of my careers are legacy-based. My dad founded the Art Consortium with some other artists in the ’70s. When I came home from Ohio State, I worked at the Art Consortium. St. Ursula Academy is my alma mater; I came back here to volunteer for a few years and helped to develop the diversity program. A lot of my jobs were, “Let me just come help and give back,” and then you’re here for 20 years. [Laughs.] I just gave back and then stayed. I also have worked at the Art Museum for five years, and when I was in high school, I used to volunteer at the Art Museum. Queen City Foundation helped me go to Ursula and empowered me to be a leader, and now I’m helping to keep that alive. Everything is a nice little circle of connectivity. A lot to be proud of.
It really sounds like you’re living your purpose.
All these jobs are a calling. I didn’t think I would come back to Ursula. I said I would never do art, because my dad was one of “those” artists. I told him my memoir was going to be Fig Newtons and Bologna. My mom would go out of town and it would be his job to spend money on food. He would just buy a big thing of bologna and Fig Newtons, because he wanted to buy film, canvases, paint… I always said I was going to write a book about him. On that level, he probably wasn’t “dad 100 percent,” but [he gave me] the exposure to the community. There wasn’t a meeting I didn’t go to at City Hall. I was part of protests at age 5 and 6. I got to see the change of OTR the first time because he was super engaged in OTR; he had a studio there. He’d teach art to homeless people, anyone who came in; it was an open door community art center. I’d always tell [my friends] I wanted to do this or that, but you absorb what you’re exposed to and you typically grow up to be what you’re supposed to be. Sometimes it takes the journey to get there.
What does diversity mean to you?
My definition of diversity focuses on equality and equity – this balance of trying to make those work together. You can be equal – you can come to St. Ursula Academy – but are you equitably getting what you need? Are the value systems and value propositions for who you are as a person being expressed? What I try to do with my students is show them different cultures and different people. That helps our environment, because we’re not very diverse, ethnically. I’ve done a strong input on, “Here’s the world. Here’s the globalism of our city, outside of our block in Walnut Hills.” Walnut Hills is an awesome, diverse community. The girls here really get to be in tune with living in a city culture, and they still have this nice, protected, and encouraging environment for women. I really try to push this whole thing about equity – that we’re exposing the girls and the staff to people they wouldn’t normally meet. That’s probably why I’m so heavy in the community and the school, because that’s the way you do it.
These girls are going to school in the inner city. Is it ever challenging?
Every neighborhood can be challenging. Cincinnati is a unique city because you have many neighborhoods like Walnut Hills. What’s awesome about our girls and what I respect about them – particularly seeing the evolution of students to adults in this environment – is their comprehension, adaptability, and respect. The girls look at this neighborhood as their second home. The type of student that comes here really values this urban/hip/trendy movement in our city, like with the transition of OTR. Walnut Hills is a part of that, and a lot of the girls love to be hands-on. We can walk to St. Francis De Sales and to Douglas and to Eden Park. You don’t necessarily have that in another school environment.
You need to be in different environments; you need to be diverse; you need to see different cultures. You need to dance, sing, and try everything.
And with our four-bell day, we have 80 to 90-minute classes. Teachers can develop their curriculum with classroom time, field trip time, and interactive time. A lot of our teachers have that creative ability to step out of the classroom. If we’re doing something with science, let’s go to the park and look at the flowers. Let’s go to the Museum Center. Or if we’re doing art, let’s go to the art museum. It’s free, and it’s right up the street. It leads us to have this external campus, and the community campus. And we’re so centrally located to downtown. When you’re 5 minutes away, you can go to the Freedom Center and the Museum Center. The girls catch the bus to St. Margaret Hall nursing home up the street. We do a lot.
What was your experience at St. Ursula like, as a minority?
Well, [there were] only four of us. So we felt like we had to be in survival mode. And it wasn’t just here; it was survival mode in our communities, too, because we were the four or five kids who went to a predominantly white school or a private school. We talked different; we dressed different. We battled both worlds. But I do think that brought the realization of knowing how to work in your environment. It’s a skill that lot of my friends that went to public schools or went somewhere diverse didn’t have at a young age. I didn’t have any discomfort walking into a room full of men. Because all day here, unconsciously, I was being empowered to be in the front of the classroom at college. I never had a problem walking into a room full of white people or people that were different from me, because I was very accustomed to being able to speak, and being connected, and heard. All the things that looked bad as an experience as a child were actually things that elevated me to be a leader. It helped me be aggressive and focused about the things I wanted to accomplish versus sitting back and waiting for someone to offer me those opportunities. Not that we raise all “aggressive” women here, but most of our women are assertive and confident and there aren’t a lot of inhibitions about being a leader, because they’re taught that every day. That tradition has continued and become stronger over the years.
What advice would you give to an adult woman reading this article?
One, as a woman, you don’t have to define yourself based on what society assumes you to be. That’s very broad, but what I have experienced personally… I may have been assumed to be a zoologist or an artist… I’m a multifaceted person, doing the things I’m passionate about. I think women should do that. If you want to be a mom, be passionate about that; if you want to be a career person, be passionate about that. Have a passion. Don’t just live for the moment or the day. Don’t look at life as a paycheck compared to a job. Look at life as an experience. We only get one chance to do it, that we know of. So focusing on your passion, not being stereotyped into a box, and definitely not taking for granted the power we have to make change… Every girl that’s graduated during my tenure at Ursula, or girls in the community I work with, I see them contributing to major things and making major choices and decisions that have impacted the greater world. Who would have known at 14, or at 6, that little girl would grow up to be a leader.
Who is an influential women in your life?
I’m going to cling to the main one, which is my mother. And she’s right there! [Laughs and points to her mom across the room.] She’s the main woman, for sure. Her sacrifices to provide for me, to allow my dad to be an artist and an activist… That’s a big sacrifice. She was the bacon, sometimes, and she had to fry it, too. He was out there being a leader, and leaders don’t cook. [Laughs.] She’s it. A little person – she’s about 4’11’’ – but mighty. Her faith is strong; her convictions are strong. And the things she placed me in, I needed all those things. Growing up in the inner-city community where many of my friends went on different paths – not by their choice but by circumstance – and her ability to say, “This is where you’re from, and you should respect it and love it, but you need to also see this world and be a part of these things…” You need to be in different environments; you need to be diverse; you need to see different cultures. You need to dance, sing, and try everything. Let me try all that stuff, and that’s the most powerful piece. My dad was more the stay-at-home parent, and she was the working parent. She was the spark behind both of us. Without her, who knows where both of us would be.
What do you hope for the St. Ursula class of 2022?
I’m excited about them. I’ve always loved freshmen, because they’re so excited about everything, and they do everything you want them to do, and they listen… My biggest want for them is to see the world change. We’re in a very static era. I look at my own history and I don’t remember being this politically engaged, as a young person has to be [today]. It’s awesome, but it also means they’ve experienced fear in ways that 20 years ago we didn’t experience. I have a lot of empathy for what they’re exposed to, with social media, and sometimes their lack of interpersonal skills because of technology. I just hope that particular class will get to be the apex of change. It’s possible that a lot of things will change on a bigger level for our whole society. They’re the tech kids. They’ve been doing phones since age 3. My little 3-year-old great niece can find videos on YouTube, but she can’t read yet. I hope this class will be able to impact change, and be able to experience things that are uplifting and positive, so that their change is something that sticks. So that they can be people that can take care of people like me. [Laughs.] By the time they get to be my age, I’ll need them.