The national AARP has picked Kalamazoo's Donna Odom as one of its 2021 Purpose Prize Fellows. The honor is awarded to those over 50 who are tackling tough problems.
Odom founded the Southwest Michigan Black Heritage Society in 2003. In 2015, it changed its name to SHARE, the Society for History and Racial Equity, to reflect an increasing emphasis on racial healing. Now, Odom is retiring as executive director.
"For me it was real important to bring new ideas and new perspectives into the organization,” says Odom in an interview that aired today on WMUK 102.1 FM. “I know that it is important for those of us who have experiences and lived through a lot of things to kind of step aside and let some of the younger people to take it to a higher level.”
Odom was named a Kalamazoo YWCA Woman of Achievement recipient in 2018. She is a scholar on the Underground Railroad’s presence in Southwest Michigan. Odom used to coordinate history programs and special projects at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum for 16 years, including holding a summer youth camp on the Underground Railroad. A major traveling exhibit about race had come to the museum during the same year that she retired from there in 2010.
Odom kept the conversation about race going by launching a multi-racial, community-wide book group that met in public spaces to encourage racial healing; it was founded within months of the exhibit’s conclusion. That discussion and reading effort is now a joint project of SHARE and the Kalamazoo Public Library.
In today’s interview, Odom explains that it takes the races jointly working together for progress to be made on racial issues. That is why her organization's board membership is diverse; it's currently made up of whites and African-Americans. She says “making connections” is one of the four principles upon which the Society for History and Racial Equity is based.
Adds Odom: “And those connections across racial barriers will help us heal—at least we think anyway—and you can’t do it without each other.”
A search is underway for her replacement as the paid executive director of the Society for History and Racial Equity. The group sponsors the Kalamazoo Summit on Racism, which last year turned 16 years old.
Hear a live interview with Donna Odom and presentation on the Underground Railroad at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19 on the city of Portage's website and its Facebook page. A replay will be available.