When Odom graduated from Kalamazoo College a few decades ago, she thought her life would involve doing something with her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in French. Instead, she initially found herself with a career as an instructor and administrator in higher education in Chicago.
Then in 1993, seeking a simpler life, she and her husband, Al, moved back to Kalamazoo. Odom began looking for a job, and in the effort to fill out an application to work as a substitute teacher, she went in search of a typewriter and found an entirely new career.
How did you end up at SHARE?
Moving here in 1993, I thought I wouldn’t have to work a real job again but quickly learned differently. One day I went to the Kalamazoo Public Library — this will show you how long ago it was — because I needed a typewriter to fill out an application for substitute teaching. I ran into Elspeth Inglis, assistant director at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, which was on the third floor of the library at the time, and asked if they had a typewriter and told her why I needed one. She told me about a part-time job that was open at the museum.
I got that job and then took a full-time position there working in education and doing history projects. I was doing a project on the Underground Railroad, which got me really interested in the history of African-Americans in Southwest Michigan. I thought, “We should have an African-American Historical Society” and corralled some friends into working with me to start the organization. We became the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society in 2003.
But in 2015, we realized we had been doing a lot in the area of racial equity. We were very involved in bringing the exhibit RACE: Are We So Different? to the museum and had done a lot to promote the exhibit and bring people together across racial lines. We decided to make racial equity part of our mission. Since then, we’ve had the dual mission of researching and celebrating the history of African-Americans and promoting racial equity.
We decided we needed to change our name to reflect the change in our mission, and also because it was impossible to have an acronym with the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (she laughs). So we adopted the name of Society for History and Racial Equity, which gave us SHARE.
What is SHARE’s mission?
Our mission is based on the idea that in order to heal racially, all groups have to be part of that effort. We all have wounds from racism and coming from slavery, and all of us have to work together to do any kind of healing. We have four areas we focus on: facing history, which is to help people see how we got to where we are; making connections across racial and ethnic barriers; racial healing; and taking action.
What do you do in these four focus areas?
We have full-day racial healing retreats where our facilitators get people to work towards not just community transformation but personal transformation as well. We also do workshops on facing history. We make connections through all of our efforts because our audience is usually made up of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and we try to bring everyone in. We have our annual Summit on Racism in November, and then we’ve added a Youth Summit on Racism that happens in the spring.
What happens at the Summit on Racism?
We’re calling this year’s summit “#StayWokeKzoo,” and the theme is The Rise of Hate in America. This year we have our first keynote speaker, Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who will talk about the work of SPLC and about hate groups in Michigan. We’ll also have several breakout sessions, including sessions on Islamophobia, DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy that was rescinded in September by President Trump), racial healing and transformation, and intersectionality, which will concentrate on LBGTQ issues.
Those topics are incredibly timely.
We try to be as timely as we can. One of our board members once said, “People don’t want to talk about this stuff,” but we have found that, yes, they do, and they really welcome the opportunity to do so. People are very interested in finding out what they can do and wanting to know more.
How would you describe the current racial environment in Kalamazoo?
I think most people don’t realize that African-Americans think about race all the time. When I was a student at Kalamazoo College, there were three African-Americans in my class. At K, I saw for the first time that there were people who could live their lives and never think about race. That really stood out to me.
When I came back in 1993, it didn’t seem to have changed a whole lot, even though a lot of time had passed. That’s why I knew an organization like ours was needed and necessary.
I do see some change now. I see people who are really trying to “get woke” and want to do something to make a difference.
What is your proudest accomplishment?
The fact that the organization has sustained itself, and that it is at its strongest right now. I’ve seen other things come and go, but we have a good, working board and partner a lot with other local organizations that have been very loyal and supportive.
What keeps you up at night?
Wanting to feel like we are making a difference and thinking about what it’s going to take from one day to the next to continue making a difference.