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Donna Odom

Executive Director, Society for History and Racial Equity

“Be very clear about what you want to accomplish: Identify the problems you see and what you want to accomplish, then hone in on that. Focus is so important.”

I began this work in 2003 when I was 58. Working in a museum and  belonging to a historical society that never recognized a person of color led me to found the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society, with the purpose of researching and documenting the history and contributions of African Americans in our area. In 2015, we expanded our vision and changed the organization’s name to the Society for History and Racial Equity (SHARE), which is more reflective of our other purpose — promoting racial healing and equity.

The problem I’m trying to solve

We have a history of racism that’s deeply ingrained in our society, and until we deal with that, we will never come together across the barriers that divide us. What we’re trying to do with SHARE is raise awareness of racism, the benefits to society of its elimination, and how individuals and organizations can contribute to community transformation. Racism is based on fear, ignorance and the belief in the inferiority of one group and superiority of another. In order for us to heal as a society, participation and healing are required at some point for all groups.

The moment that sparked my passion

It was the stories I heard from my grandmother of the lives of her parents. I’ve always felt like my ancestors were calling me to do this kind of work. After teaching French and English at an alternative high school in Chicago, I helped to establish one of the first high school African American studies programs in the country. That heightened my interest in the history and literature of African Americans that had originally been sparked in grade school. Later, while working at a museum on a project about the Underground Railroad in the region, I was inspired to share those stories with the community. 

What I wish other people knew

So many people are just becoming aware of these things that have been happening for centuries — there were many George Floyds before this. What I wish people knew is what the real history is and how racism has been so systemic that it’s practically built into our DNA. Racial disparities in education, employment, housing, health, wealth and incarceration rates prove that structural racism continues to exist in America. If people truly understood that, it would be a major step. In our organization, we try to meet people where they are and lead them towards an awakening. We see this as people being on a spectrum, with some people just beginning to awaken to the realities of racism to others being truly woke. 

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Be very clear about what you want to accomplish: Identify the problems you see and what you want to accomplish, then hone in on that. Focus is so important. If you try to do everything, nothing is going to be very effective. 

Why my approach is unique

At SHARE, we take an open, nonthreatening approach to eliminating racism. One of the things that’s unique about what we do is we deal with people on an individual level. We encourage participants to engage in self-examination, to evaluate their own experiences with race and racism and to see within themselves their capacity to see humanity in others, rather than seeing people as a racial bloc. Everybody wants systemic change, as do I, but unless people experience a personal transformation, they’re going to slip right back into the old ways where they feel safe and comfortable.

As we began researching local history, we realized early on that we weren’t going to get the history we were looking for in textbooks. That’s when we began getting oral histories from the descendants of those who lived the history, to uncover and enliven the past in ways that create greater public awareness and understanding of what we are experiencing today. In our Racial Healing Initiative, we provide opportunities for people and groups to connect through workshops, community discussions, book discussions and healing retreats. We serve a six-county region. The essence of what we do is help people evaluate their own experiences and awareness of racism, help them make connections that will hopefully take them beyond fear and ignorance of others, and aid in creating personalized action steps that lead to community transformation.

What’s next for SHARE

Now our major goal is to work with local organizations with our racial healing program, encouraging them to examine their own role in perpetuating structural racism and to look at their work through an equity lens. Right now more minds and hearts are open, and we want to meet the moment.