A voice for the silenced

A lifetime of commitment to inclusive excellence has prepared Chinyere Oparah to lead the renewal and development of the Mills faculty

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By Dawn Cunningham ’85

The renewal of a college faculty tends to happen gradually: beloved, experienced professors retire and new professors inject fresh scholarship and teaching approaches. At Mills, that process has recently accelerated, as six long-time faculty departed in May and 10 retired the previous year. Other faculty departures in 2017 took place as part of the College’s Financial Stabilization Plan, which restructured several academic programs.

In addition to bittersweet farewells, these departures bring a need to strategically shape the Mills faculty. This responsibility belongs to the College’s provost and dean of faculty, Chinyere Oparah.

“Since I became provost in January 2017, we’ve hired 24 new full-time faculty, and I’ve interviewed every one of them,” Oparah says. “Today we have a vibrant, diverse, accomplished faculty with lots of new perspectives.” Oparah herself brings unique strengths to the challenge of renewing the faculty, including more than two decades of teaching ethnic studies at Mills, a profound sense of connection with Mills students, and a commitment to continuing to build an institution that practices “inclusive excellence.”

Accessing excellence

As Oparah sees it, faculty members play a key role in creating inclusive excellence through their pedagogical styles and the environment they create in the classroom. “Do students feel a sense of belonging? Do they see themselves reflected in the faculty and the curriculum? How do we make them feel excited about applying their education to what they want to do in the world? Our faculty are constantly asking these questions,” she says.

Oparah supports faculty in developing “a range of pedagogies so that students with different learning styles can find success.” For example, a task force led by Ajuan Mance, dean of digital learning, worked on developing courses that use hybrid learning—a mix of virtual and classroom learning. In the School of Education, faculty partnered with instructional designers to create an online MA in educational leadership, which launched last year. In STEM programs, professors have been exploring how to help students with varying levels of preparation succeed in “gateway” classes.

Another way Mills achieves inclusive excellence is by hiring faculty who can engage students of all backgrounds. Those different learning styles come with a broader range of student backgrounds, and Mills complements all of them by hiring diverse instructors. As the diversity of the student body has increased—60 percent of undergraduates today are people of color—so has that of the faculty. Professors of color make up 39 percent of full-time faculty at Mills, an increase of six percentage points in the last three years and double the percentage of faculty of color across the nation. Three-quarters of faculty identify as women, the highest ratio on record for the College.

The mix of tenured/tenure-track and adjunct professors also contributes to faculty diversity. “Adjunct positions are important to liberal arts colleges. They allow us to bring in artists, active professionals, and emerging scholars as teachers,” Oparah says. “We’ve hired outstanding people in these positions in the last three years, including 15 full-time adjunct faculty.” (Read more about members of the adjunct faculty on page 12.)

Oparah’s effectiveness as provost and dean of the faculty reflects the broad scope of her own teaching experience. She has taught at all levels of the academic ladder, from adjunct to full professor. She has employed a range of pedagogical techniques in her classes, including assigning students to create electronic portfolios of their academic work. She has participated in curriculum design, from a revision of the undergraduate core curriculum to development of the new public health and health equity major. And she has produced an influential body of scholarship on black women’s organizations, black maternal health, and the prison–industrial complex.

But just as important is her connection with students. “My childhood gives me a deep sense of empathy for Mills students,” she says. “Our lives often bear the scars of racism and inequality, but we’ve also gained an enormous amount of resiliency and strength. You use it to make something better than what you experienced growing up.”

From Edinburgh to the East Bay

Oparah was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a single white mother who did not have the social or financial means to raise a biracial child. Her father, she later learned, was Nigerian. She took the name Chinyere Oparah almost a decade ago to honor her Igbo roots.

After a spell in foster homes as an infant, Oparah—then known as Julia—was adopted by Mary and George Sudbury, a white couple. Mary, a math teacher and engineer, offered Julia a strong female role model; George was a civil servant. Their home, however, could not shield their daughter from the experience of English racism. The town where they lived became a flashpoint in the 1970s for demonstrations by the country’s far-right National Front, which advocated for repatriating black people to their supposed countries of origin.

Despite this hostile atmosphere, Oparah succeeded academically at her state-funded, comprehensive school. She took a path usually closed to students at schools like hers: she passed the exams to enter Cambridge University. There, she studied Spanish and German literature and philosophy because, as she says, “I wanted to travel, to experience something beyond the environment I was raised in. Language seemed like the best way to get there.”

She also got involved in political activism, first with the South African anti-apartheid movement and later with the Cambridge Black Women’s Support Group. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she became coordinator of a small nonprofit, the Osaba Women’s Centre, which worked with African Caribbean women escaping poverty and gender violence. Soon, she recalls, “I realized the daily work I was doing to help people in crisis did not address the root causes of injustice.” To understand these causes, she returned to school for a master’s degree in race and ethnic studies while working full time.

In her classes, she discovered that many scholars believed black women didn’t get involved in political advocacy. “But I knew all kinds of black women who were incredibly active advocates,” Oparah says. “I wanted to debunk the assumption that black women in Britain were too downtrodden or busy to be politically involved.” She earned a PhD in sociology from Warwick University with a dissertation on the topic. In 1998, it was published as a book, Other Kinds of Dreams: Black Women’s Organizations and the Politics of Transformation—and featured a forward by the renowned activist and academic Angela Y. Davis.

Before the book was published, Oparah moved to the United States, where she hoped to work in nonprofit administration. But she found better opportunities as an adjunct professor, beginning at UC Berkeley (where she met Davis) and later at UC Santa Cruz. “Once I got bit by the teaching bug, I realized there was no looking back,” she says.

In 1997, she joined the Ethnic Studies Program at Mills as an assistant professor. “The close student-faculty interaction I saw in the classrooms at Mills was like the education I had experienced at Cambridge,” she says. “I wanted to be involved in that kind of transformative education.”

She was also won over by the support provided by the Alumnae of Color Committee of the Alumnae Association of Mills College (AAMC): “Being an immigrant far from home, I appreciated the way people like Estrellita [Hudson Redus ’65] and Peggy [Woodruff ’58] were so lovely and welcoming. They made Mills feel like a family.”

In addition, she says, “I was impressed by the journeys of Mills students and their eagerness to learn more and make an impact on the world.” Her students, meanwhile, appreciated her compassion and willingness to mentor them. “Professor Oparah understood how my experience as an undocumented immigrant and as a first-generation college student influenced my participation in class,” says Isabel Cortes ’12, MPP ’13. “She gave me a sense of belonging.” Cortes, who worked for the California State Senate after graduation and just started law school at UC Berkeley, has continued to turn to Oparah for support and letters of recommendation. “Chinyere Oparah wasn’t just a professor to me. She was a mentor and an ally. She still is. Because of professors like her, Mills was absolutely the best investment I’ve made in myself.”

Community-driven research

At Mills, Oparah opened several new areas of research. Davis invited her to participate in Critical Resistance, a 1998 conference that examined what it coined the “prison–industrial complex.” Critical Resistance grew into an international prison abolition movement, which Oparah helped to build by conducting research with incarcerated women of color in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. She published dozens of works on the subject, including a seminal 2005 volume, Global Lockdown: Race, Gender, and the Prison–Industrial Complex. “Winchester, where I grew up, was a prison town—it had a women’s prison on the site of the old gallows—so this work was particularly meaningful to me,” Oparah says.

Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks at the April launch of the Black Maternal Health
Caucus in Washington, D.C., flanked by Rep. Barbara Lee ’73 (in peach) and Rep. Alma Adams (in blue). Oparah’s research on black maternal mortality provided support to Congressional actions on the cause.

Her most recent scholarship focuses on birth justice and black maternal health. In 2010, while pregnant with her daughter, Oparah had a frightening, near-death experience. “A reaction to a fertility drug I had taken led to a buildup of fluid in my abdomen…. When the pressure on my lungs began to make me gasp for breath, I was rushed to the hospital. I began a 10-day fight for my daughter’s life and for my own,” she wrote in Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth, a book published in 2015. Oparah recovered, and her daughter’s birth was attended by a midwife and a doula and witnessed by close friends. “With their support, pushing out my baby girl was a powerful, sacred, and healing experience,” she wrote.

Oparah had known that the risk of maternal mortality for black women was three to four times higher than for white women, but she sought to understand the issues through the stories of mothers themselves. She cofounded the collective Black Women Birthing Justice (BWBJ) and led its community-driven project to document black women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth. In 2018, BWBJ produced a research report with policy recommendations, titled Battling Over Birth: Black Women and the Maternal Health Crisis.

Through BWBJ and its national partner, Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Oparah’s work has helped inform a national conversation on black maternal health. The offices of Senator Kamala Harris of California and Representative Alma Adams of North Carolina reached out to Oparah for support of their legislation designating a Black Maternal Health Week. Earlier this year, Adams and Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois launched the Black Maternal Health Caucus in the House of Representatives. “Our work has helped provide the rationale for these political actions,” Oparah says.

An agent of institutional change

Despite her intense engagement in scholarship and activism, Oparah contributed to the College’s administration, serving frequently as the Ethnic Studies Program head and participating in campus-wide committees. She played a key role in developing the College’s groundbreaking transgender admission policy in 2014. Her interest in transgender inclusion evolved from her scholarship on the prison–industrial complex, which led her to challenge assumptions about the gender identity of occupants of women’s prisons. She began to apply questions about gender fluidity in prisons to classrooms at Mills.

“It was clear that Mills could be the trailblazer in creating the model for inclusion of transgender students in women’s colleges,” she says. “We needed to be on the right side of history.” Oparah worked with a committee to research and write the report that became the basis not only for the admission policy, but also for others that ensure an inclusive and affirming environment for gender nonbinary and transgender students. These policies, in turn, set a precedent that other leading women’s colleges soon followed.

In 2015, the College’s academic leadership went through a period of significant disruption, with a succession of short-term provosts and the announcement of President Alecia DeCoudreaux’s resignation. “Mills needed an associate provost who had longevity here and an understanding of our core values and culture,” she says. “I answered the call out of my sense of love for Mills, the understanding that we were facing tough challenges, and the desire to build a sustainable future for the College.”

In January 2017, six months after the arrival of President Elizabeth L. Hillman, Oparah became provost and dean of the faculty of Mills College. Since then, the provost’s team has not only led the process of faculty renewal and development, but has helped usher in new external partnerships. These include one with the Peralta Community College District that creates pipelines for students to transfer to Mills and a strengthened agreement with UC Berkeley that gives Mills students access to global internships, summer study-abroad programs, and a dual engineering degree. They have also overseen the launch of innovative programs like MPOWER, the new signature undergraduate experience, and partnered with the Division of Student Life to offer short-term study-away programs that enable students to affordably learn in distant environments, such as the US–Mexico border or tropical coral reefs.

With each new step, Oparah keeps her focus on the goal of inclusive excellence. “The idea of creating a voice for those who have been silenced has continued to be one of the driving forces for my career,” she says. “I’m proud that at Mills, faculty work alongside students to dismantle the barriers that prevent them from achieving their dreams.” ◆