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Local Kiwanis has first minority leader

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff Writer

The Federal Way Noon Kiwanis, formed 48 years ago as a local branch of the international community service organization, has had a woman president before but never an ethnic minority as president.

So 2003 became the year for change when Federal Way resident and businessman Thomas Johnson, an African-American, was elected to the club’s top office in October.

“It’s an important milestone for the club,” Johnson said.

He said he hopes that “other minorities can see that this is a great service club to be part of.”

Club secretary Pete Stobart said that of the Noon Kiwanis’ 116 members, about “seven or eight” are minorities.

Trise Moore, chairwoman of Federal Way’s Diversity Commission, congratulated Johnson “for getting involved, and I commend the organization for making their leadership selection based on competence, not color.”

Based on the results of a Diversity Commission survey sent out in July to various city commissions and organizations, Moore said, “I think the cultural makeup is changing faster than the leadership reflects.” But she added that the leadership of various groups “seems to be the people’s choice.”

Johnson, who was an educator for 29 years before becoming a businessman and owner of Trans-Star International, said he attempts to lead by example.

One of his first actions as Noon Kiwanis president was to appoint a new youth chairman. Johnson chose Sara Liebel, whose job is to work with area high school Key Club leaders. Kiwanis’ Key Club aims to develop tomorrow’s leaders in today’s teens.

“My first priority was the Key Clubbers. That area was somewhat weak and I wanted to make it strong,” Johnson said. “I needed to have someone who really had great communication skills.

“I think there’s a grave need for youth in terms of having something for them to be involved in” to deter crime.

Johnson has made a few other changes, including formalizing the fund request process for Noon Kiwanis’ budget.

“He knows everything about the job. He knows what he has to do,” said former president Walt Schrader. “He’s good in effective leadership, leading meetings. He can relate to people very well.”

Club member Tami Leith, who became vice president last month, said Johnson is “very fun, very energetic. He does a lot more than just being presidential.”

The president and vice president serve one-year terms.

Johnson has been a member of the Noon Kiwanis since 1999. He and wife Karen joined because they wanted to give back to the community.

The club meets every Wednesday at the Old Country Buffet in Federal Way to celebrate members’ birthdays and anniversaries, listen to guest speakers and talk about the group’s progress in community service. The atmosphere is friendly and casual. As leader, Johnson said he eschews superficiality and values being real.

“Integrity for me is number one,” he said.

While Kiwanis has had minority members for several decades, the organization — created in 1915 — was all-male until 1987, when a two-thirds majority vote elected to accept women.

Kiwanis International spokesman David Williams, from Indianapolis, Ind., said, “In the teens, 1920s and 1930s, decent women didn’t go to meetings with men they weren’t married to. And there weren’t many professional women.”

He added that Kiwanis became more service-oriented in the 1970s. Before then, there was a stronger business emphasis.

Today, Kiwanis International estimates that 83 percent of members are male, and 17 percent are female.

Kiwanis has accepted minority males since at least the 1960s. Walter Sellers, the first African-American president of Kiwanis international, who served from 1997 to 1998, has been a Kiwanis member for about 35 years.

Current Pacific Northwest District governor Louise Regelin said the district established a Diversity Committee in 1995 after some members became concerned that their image was “old, white, male, business and Christian.”

She said the committee’s goal is to “educate and raise awareness.”

“The goal is to educate our own members (and the community) about what Kiwanis is and to promote diversity,” Regelin said.

The areas the committee looks at include age, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

“I have talked on everything from gender bias in the language to humor,” Regelin said. “It’s been an ongoing effort since ‘95. It is just an indication that we take this very seriously.”

Sylvester Neal became the first African-American district governor last year. Before that, he was the first minority president of the Anchorage (Alaska) Kiwanis, serving from 1987 to 1988.

“As an organization, when it comes to diversity, we’re a little behind the times,” Neal said.

“I would say it has become significantly better,” Regelin said. “Our clubs are more diverse. We have had numerous black and Hispanic lieutenant governors.”

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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