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April 2, 2004

Welcoming Omolade

For two decades Barbara Omolade helped develop a degree program for working adults at the City College of New York and its Center for Worker Education. During that time she also planned and led seminars on race, ethnicity, gender and class for faculty in the university.

That tenure drew on her many life experiences, a journey that has seen her involved in the Civil Rights movement, African American cultural awakenings and the dawning era of women's studies.

Now Omolade hopes to make a similar impact at Calvin College where, in January 2004, she became the school's first dean of multicultural affairs.

Calvin officials are enthusiastic about her transition to Calvin.

"She is perfect for the job," says Calvin provost Joel Carpenter.

As dean of multicultural affairs, Omolade will oversee a variety of existing Calvin programs - initiatives like Pathways to Possibilities, Entrada and Tapestry - directed at making Calvin a true multicultural institution.

"My task," she says, "is to coordinate, assess and guide these programs."

Omolade's colleagues say the new dean is up for the challenge.

"I think she will re-fuel our commitment for the goals that we have set as a college," says Rhae Ann Booker, Calvin's director of pre-college programs.

Omolade's academic credentials are as a sociologist. Her areas of expertise and research are race and gender. And her work includes studies of African American teen motherhood; women and work; race in the history of the United States; and African American women, especially the history of the thought and experiences of African American Christian women.

Her 1994 book "The Rising Song of African American Women" was critically acclaimed for its contributions to the fields of feminist and African American studies. In the book Omolade took both a historical look and a current snapshot of the roles African American women have played in North American culture, drawing on such incidents as the Central Park jogger case and the use of African American female troops in the Gulf War to create a compelling analysis of the lives of African American women.

Omolade has written a number of book chapters, essays and more dealing with the intersections of gender and race. For the Harvard Women's Law Journal she wrote Black Women, Black Men and Tawana Brawley: The Shared Condition. In 1998 she contributed an essay to "The Feminist Memoir Project" on the many challenges facing an African American feminist. It was called simply "Sisterhood in Black and White." That essay traced the arc of a life that began in 1942 in Brooklyn, New York, where Omolade lived in the "very culturally rich African American community" of Bedford Stuyvesant, while attending a predominately white high school, before moving on to Queens College, an experience she recalls even today as "silencing."

But Omolade found her voice in the emerging civil rights movement as a member of the NAACP and a staff member on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, organizing students for the Mississippi Summer Project (one of the students she recruited was civil rights martyr Andrew Goodman).

And after marrying and becoming a mother, Omolade discovered her scholarly passion.

"I was nursing my daughter," she says, "and I wondered, 'How did slave women mother?'"

In that nascent era of both African American historical studies and women's studies her question turned into research for a master's thesis. In 1999, Omolade, a recent convert to Christianity, came to Calvin for a Summer Seminar in Christian Scholarship, knowing nothing about the school, but having seen an ad for the seminar in Christianity Today. That summer she met Calvin professor of English Susan Felch and the two connected. The, in 2001, Omolade and Felch established a consultation of Afro-Christian scholars at Calvin, inviting a wish list of participants from across the country, something Omolade says made a lasting impact on her.

"It was awesome," she remembers. "It was so powerful. A real sisterhood and brotherhood. We were re-claiming a legacy. I've worked with other black organizations and associations, but this was one where I felt genuine affection."

The consultation (which Omolade now co-facilitates with Willie Jennings, a 1984 Calvin graduate and associate dean of academic programs at Duke University Divinity School) still makes its home at Calvin four years later.

And now Omolade also calls Calvin home.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)