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Fighting for Equity

Above, from left, Demarra West, Evelyn Winfield-Thomas and Donna Odom are actively working to combat racism and inequity in the community. © 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Kalamazoo women are on the front lines

Lifelong challenges brought on by racial inequities have shaped four Kalamazoo women into the people they are today and influenced the work they do.

For Candy McCorkle, Evelyn Winfield-Thomas, DeMarra West and Donna Odom, their daily work is focused on the elimination of policies, practices, attitudes and cultural assumptions that reinforce different outcomes based on people’s race or ethnicity, although that is not the limit of their equity work.

McCorkle, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Western Michigan University, says her work seeking equity began early, since she is Black. The Dayton, Ohio, native says that after kindergarten she was tested and deemed gifted and sent across town to a predominantly white school with students from higher economic backgrounds. In this new setting, outside of her neighborhood, there were only a few Black students, and she had to quickly learn how to live bi-culturally, she says.

When she attended college at Wright State University, in Dayton, McCorkle was one of a small percentage of Black students at the predominantly white research institution. The education she received in discrimination was swift, she recalls. In her sophomore year, in front of an entire psychology class, a white professor told McCorkle, “You don’t have the right to be here — you are the wrong color, you are the wrong gender and you are the wrong socio-economic background.”

With a flip of a switch, it was then that she became committed to working for equity, she says.

Equity is a huge part of McCorkle’s role at WMU. As the executive spearheading WMU’s diversity and inclusion efforts, McCorkle works to lead the university in its efforts to achieve diversity via inclusion, acceptance, respect and empowerment. This means understanding that each individual is unique and that people’s differences can make the contributions they have to offer valuable.

At the same time, McCorkle notes that is her responsibility to represent the interests of a wide spectrum of people.

“I am one of the only vice presidents of color (at WMU),” she says. “There are two other persons of color on the (university) cabinet — our president and the director of strategic communications. When I come into cabinet, I don’t get the luxury of just coming to cabinet as Candy the Black woman. I have to come in there as Candy the Hispanic male, Candy the blind person, Candy the LGBT person. I have to try to put the identities that are not in that room in that space so that when we are thinking about things, I am challenging people to think about how it looks for everyone.”

Equity recognizes individual needs

Promoting a campus environment that offers equal opportunity and equity in an atmosphere free of discrimination, harassment or retaliation is the daily job of another WMU leader: Evelyn Winfield-Thomas, the university’s executive director of institutional equity and special assistant to the president.

Winfield-Thomas says that giving everyone the same thing does not always mean achieving equality or equity. Every person starts off with different characteristics, abilities and resources and therefore has different needs, she says.

“You have to give people what they need to level the playing field,” she says. “We can work toward equity, but everyone and institutions have to be motivated to achieve this outcome. The goal is to create systems and structures that afford equitable access and opportunities for everyone. This is a stronger pathway toward equity and equal opportunity.”

Winfield-Thomas’ office focuses on programs and policies to ensure that equity, diversity and inclusion are part of WMU’s campus culture. For example, before COVID-19 restrictions, the office was scheduled to launch a 30-hour training for employees about ways they can work to cultivate an inclusive, diverse workplace. Additionally, the office offers anti-bias training to members of search committees for faculty, staff, administrator and student leadership positions, to “increase awareness of various forms of individual, group and institutional implicit or unconscious biases that are barriers to diversity, equity and inclusiveness in hiring decisions and outcomes, according to the office’s website.

Views and evidence on inequity

According to a 2016 Pew Research Center report, nearly six in 10 Americans said the U.S. needs to continue making changes in order for Black people to have equal rights with white people. Thirty percent said the country has already made enough changes.

A 2019 report from Pew indicated a bleaker view among Black Americans: More than eight in 10 Black adults said the legacy of slavery affected the position of Black people in America, and about eight in 10 Blacks also said the U.S. hasn’t gone far enough when it comes to giving Black people equal rights with whites. Half of those surveyed said it was unlikely that the country would eventually achieve racial equality.

Economic inequity is evident on the local level. In the Kalamazoo-Portage metropolitan area, the median wage for workers of color was $4 less than the median wage for white workers in 2015, according to the National Equity Atlas produced by both PolicyLink, a national research institute focusing on racial and economic equity, and the University of Southern California Program for Environmental and Regional Equity.

The atlas calculated that in 2015 the region’s economy would have been $1.07 billion larger if there had been no racial gaps in income — meaning that people of color earned the same as their white counterparts. “Racial economic inclusion is good for families, good for communities, and good for the economy” because fewer families will be living in poverty, will contribute more to tax revenues and pay into Social Security, according to the organization’s website.

Consulting for change

Working to bring equity in the community is at the heart of one Kalamazoo small business. Through her company, Change Agent Consulting, principal and lead consultant Demarra West works with organizations and individuals on a range of subject areas, from strategic planning to career development to personal relationships. “Change Agent Consulting understands how diversity and inclusion can be utilized as a tool to maximize performance, build stronger teams, and produce better internal and external work outputs/outcomes,” says her organization’s website.

West, who is multiracial but identifies as African-American, says she serves as a resource for people from all different walks of life in her work with the consulting firm.

She also hosts yoga, retreats and other events through a program she created called Be Well Beautiful Woman. The program is designed to help women prioritize wellness so they can lead joyous, abundant lives.

West says she grew up in a home where her identity was not discussed, but she knew at a young age what was right and wrong. At 6 years old, she was called the n-word. “I knew it was a malicious stab at me,” she says.

As a student at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, West faced another moment of inequitable treatment. She and her classmates were in class preparing to take a test. All the students were moving around and handling last-minute tasks, but in a room with a majority of white people, West’s professor walked up to only her and grabbed her arm and made her sit down at a desk.

“Those moments were very pivotal for me,” West says. She hopes to share her stories so that her past will not be repeated in the lives of future generations.

Seeking racial healing

Another professional woman in Kalamazoo whose work focuses on culture and equity is Donna Odom, executive director of the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE). The organization, which Odom founded in 2013 as the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society (it changed its name in 2015), is committed to education about the importance of Southwest Michigan’s African-American heritage. It seeks to develop connections and conversations on race, racial healing and the “broad societal benefits” of eliminating racism, according to the group’s mission statement.

Odom, who was one of three Black students in Kalamazoo College’s graduating class of 1967, believes full equity can be reached only when society has done away with the hierarchical structuring and valuing of one group of people over another that racism involves.

Through racial healing workshops, trainings about historical and institutional racism, race-related book group discussions and cultural events such as the Taste of Jazz and its annual Summit on Racism in November, SHARE promotes the concept that each person’s success and achievement are benefits to the community as a whole, that equity helps everyone and is not a threat.

“What we try to do is shine a light on the history as well as the inequities, to highlight for younger African-Americans how the strength and resilience of their ancestors led them to achieve greatness in many areas against all odds,” says Odom.

Odom is seeing younger generations getting involved in equity work. “While I am heartened by the level of involvement in a community like Kalamazoo in anti-racist activities, I see much more that needs to be done,” she says.

Making equity a priority

One organization attempting to do some of that work is the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, which adopted equity as one of its funding priorities in 2018. The foundation, which is one of the area’s largest philanthropic organizations, works with community leaders, other community members and local nonprofits to eliminate the barriers preventing adults and children from reaching their full potential.

“Creating an equitable community means every individual in Kalamazoo has the opportunity to provide a livelihood for their family, which includes high-quality education and care for their children, a safe and affordable home, and the ability to earn a living — no matter the zip code, race or gender,” Carrie Pickett-Erway, the foundation’s president and CEO, says in a YouTube video.

Like Odom, West, Winfield-Thomas and McCorkle, Pickett-Erway hopes to communicate loudly and clearly that equity benefits everyone and that it is everyone’s job to work toward it.

For her part, McCorkle puts it this way: “Inclusion and equity are not the work of one office.”

This story was written for the WMU journalism program’s Reporting A Word project which was featured in August’s issue of Encore. Information about it and other stories from the project are available here.

Jada Cheeks

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