When Layla Sewell is out in the community and she hears someone say, “Look! It’s Ms. Sewell!” it warms her heart —as it should having worked to warm the hearts of entire families for over 20 years.
Sewell is executive director of the Awaken the Greatness Foundation (ATG), which she founded in late 2011. The Los Angeles-based non-profit facilitates, organizes and moderates workshops, classes and events that “enrich and improve the lives of African-American parents and youth.”
“Working with young people just seems to come naturally to me. It’s truly a joy,” said Sewell. “It’s been a major part of my life for so long.”
Along with her work for ATG, Sewell has been balancing her role as an active mother of two, as well as being a student in the Master of Social Work program at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). That dynamic will change on May 20 when she is conferred her master’s degree during the 2016 commencement ceremony in the StubHub Center Tennis Stadium.
Sewell first began helping others when she was a senior in high school as a youth mentor in a Sacramento community center founded by basketball star and former Phoenix Sun Kevin Johnson.
The young Sewell decided to go into filmmaking and was accepted into the film production program at CSU Northridge, where she graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1997.
In her mid-20s, she founded her first nonprofit, Cinematic Images Foundation (CIF), which provided resources for minority filmmakers and film screenings for them to showcase their work.
“CIF enabled me to give a voice to filmmakers of color who had limited opportunities to share their stories,” said Sewell , who left the film industry in 2010. “I worked in the industry for quite a few years, but I would still substitute teach or get involved in the community, which was more appealing to me than the film business.”
Over the years, Sewell continued to help others, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, and in Compton. Those “conversations and time spent with the young people” inspired her to explore parent-child relationships within families and the community, which became the inspiration for ATG.
The organization’s philosophy is, “to improve the life of the child, you must start with the parents.” One of her roles as the its executive director is to facilitate classes and workshops for parents in underserved communities. The workshops are designed to equip parents with knowledge and resources to help them improve their parenting skills and build strong relationships.
ATG also produces its “signature event,” the annual Black Family Conference, a platform for community service providers, organizations and families of color to “come together for knowledge and empowerment.”
The conferences have included such themes as financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and social justice. ATG’s third conference “Black Families Matter” took place on campus in September 2015 in partnership with the Mervyn M. Dymally Political and Economic Institute.
Sewell’s connection to CSUDH began in 2014 when she enrolled in the university’s Master of Social Work program.
“I felt the need to go back to college to match my education with my background of working with young people. I felt a master’s degree would give me a little bit more clout when applying for funding for ATG,” she said. “Then my friend told me about Cal State Dominguez Hills’s great social work program, which she had graduated from two years before.”
While interning for the Alliance of Children’s Rights organization during her first year of fieldwork in her master’s program, Sewell applied her leadership skills by developing a framework to help “reduce barriers for victims of child sex trafficking.
In 2015, Sewell was awarded the University Consortium for Children Families stipend through the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), where she has been hired to work after she receives her M.S. in social work.
“I hope to work there (DCFS) for a long time, and I look forward to having the opportunity to share my knowledge, and to systematically help in some way by working with families and administration,” she said. “I love being on the front lines and developing models that can improve service.”