DAYTON — Melody Pannell tries to leave a lasting, meaningful impact on everything she does.
“Whatever I do, my whole goal is to make a positive difference in someone’s life,” said Pannell, 52, and the director of diversity and community engagement at U.Va. Health.
For more than 25 years, Pannell has been serving her community as a community organizer, social justice advocate and church leader. Born and raised in Harlem, New York City, she said she quickly found her passion in community outreach.
Elected Nov. 8, Pannell is believed to be the first woman of color elected to the Dayton Town Council.
“I think it is important that my position on the Town Council is met with the understanding that I’m bringing a different perspective,” she said.
Growing up in Harlem and seeing health inequities left a “profound impact” on Pannell, she said. That’s where, she said, she developed her interests in addressing health and social disparities.
“I felt at a young age, just this sense of political awareness and activism,” she said. “I was very politically involved and aware at a young age.”
In Harlem, she founded Destiny’s Daughters, a holistic and therapeutic Christian outreach ministry dedicated to empowering young women and girls.
She went to Eastern Mennonite University for her undergraduate degree from 1993-1997 and went back to New York to earn her master’s degree. Pannell came back to the Valley in 2003, to work as the director of multicultural services at Eastern Mennonite University.
“I really got involved in the heart of the community,” she said.
After working in counseling services at Virginia Union University in Richmond, where she also earned her Master’s of Divinity and Master’s in Christian Education, she came back to live in Dayton in 2015. Dayton is a place where she always felt at home, she said.
“I loved the community,” she said. “It reminded me of Lancaster County [Pa.],” a place where she would visit family.
Her High Street home serves as the headquarters for Destiny’s Daughters, a place where she can bring women and girls to Dayton to bask in the serenity and community of the small town, and “enjoy the rich culture that is there,” she said.
One of Destiny’s Daughters missions is to teach women how to recognize their strengths and overcome life’s challenges through spiritual formation, therapeutic counseling, community advocacy and positive mentorship, she said.
In Dayton, she always felt welcomed and a part of the community, and was struck by the high level of activity and engagement Dayton had, like the Dayton Days autumn festival and the Dayton Muddler. She said it represented the culture of her childhood, with her own Mennonite background.
“I was really impressed with the way the community came together,” she said.
Pannell’s time on the Town Council will be her first foray into politics, she said. She noted that her paternal grandfather, Paul L. Zeager, served on the town council in Elizabethtown, Pa., for many years.
“I’m a lifelong learner,” she said.
‘Peaceful In A Non-Peaceful World’
Pannell hopes to use her scholarship and life experiences in her new role as a council member. She hopes to be a listening ear and a voice on the dais for town residents and business owners.
“I look at the opportunity for people’s voices to be heard,” she said.
Dayton is unique in that there are many existing diverse communities that come together as one. Meeting each of their needs is a challenge Pannell said she welcomes.
Communication with stakeholders, like business owners, farmers and residents, is key, Pannell said. She wants to keep the town economically sound and vibrant, by supporting existing small businesses and non-profits, and draw in new ones.
“It’s vital to tourism; it’s vital to the community, the money that brings in,” she said.
Pannell said she was also interested in police relations in the town, and if she could utilize any of her skill sets regarding restorative justice or mental health.
“We all love our community, and we all bring something different to the community,” she said.
Some of her role models and mentors include her late mother — who crossed racial barriers when she married Melody's Black father — the Rev. Anastacio Basil Marin, lead pastor New Song Anabaptist Fellowship Church, and Deanna Reed, the mayor of Harrisonburg.
Pannell noted she feels a responsibility to represent well for people of color, and create paths to leadership for people of color in the future.
“I’m humbled and honored to do that,” she said.
Dayton is “peaceful in a non-peaceful world,” she said, and it gives community members the opportunity to embrace virtue and peace every day.
“I may look different, but people embrace me,” she said. “They see me, and they know who I am.”