Sebrena Chambers was born a twin, identical to her sister in every way but height. Being nine inches shorter never intimidated her.
“I’ve always liked being in charge — even as a child, if you ask my mother,” Chambers says today.
Chambers put that aptitude to good use professionally, rising through the ranks of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department for 17 years. In the beginning, she was a temporary outreach worker.
Last week, the 54-year-old Chambers was named head of the Strengthening Families Division of the health department, the only African-American woman on the department’s 11-member management team.
“I was proud to be hired,” Chambers said. “It’s important; the community needs to see more of itself represented. As a woman, as an African-American woman, it shows we’re talking the talk and walking the walk of diversity.”
Chambers has lived a life filled with diversity.
A one-time Daffodil Festival princess, she was a single mom 24 years later when her daughter, Tiye, became the festival queen in 2000. A University of Washington grad, she worked as a pharmaceutical rep and a flight attendant before stumbling upon the health department.
“A friend of mine was going to a health fair and I went along,” she said. “I’d always wanted to be involved in health care at some level. The department had a temporary position available as an outreach worker.
“I applied and got that job, and when it ended got another as an administrative assistant.”
Those were the glory days for government agencies, when every budget seemed flush and health department workers could often devote one-on-one time to those they served. That ended in 2000, when severe budget cuts triggered layoffs.
“I knew I could do something else, so I did,” Chambers said. “I took a job with Qwest as a manager and trainer, and one of the reasons was so someone else at the health department could have a job.”
Chambers did just fine, though the commute to Seattle bothered her. After four years, she missed friends and the work at the health department and returned, taking a job a step below her old position.
She leaned on faith planted by her father, the Rev. Oscar F. Chambers Sr.
“I’ve always believed that whatever happened to me, even when it wasn’t what I wanted, was for my good,” she said.
Growing up the daughter of a preacher?
“Our folks trusted us, they were generous and let us go to parties,” she said, rolling her eyes slightly. “Of course, when mom dropped us off at a party, she camped outside in the car and waited for us.”
Laughter comes easily to Chambers, who remains close to her parents and still attends her father’s services each Sunday at the Central Church of Christ.
What she and the rest of the department need now is more than faith. Chambers said she’s ready, and will run her 74-member division with a mixture of ambition and street smarts. Her work with the department — before and after her time with Qwest — often had her in the community with those who needed services.
“We’ve got to have collaborative efforts, because budgets are shrinking everywhere,” she said. “We have to work together with community partners. The days of being able to work with the community one-on-one are gone. We have to benefit more people, touch more people.”
What, exactly, is her division responsible for?
A wide swath of challenges, from partnering with schools to get first through third graders an oral health exam to helping opiate addicts to stay clean by using methadone to helping those who qualify find a way to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
Chambers will be in charge, she said, but she encourages everyone on her team to come up with ideas to make the division more efficient. She has learned that being in charge does not mean having absolute control.
“I was the one who made things happen in our family,” Chambers said. “One day, when we were about 30, my sister turned to me and said, ‘I don’t have to do what you say!’
“We both laughed at that. It was true.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638