While America has made great strides in the battle against racism and sexism, Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD, believes that colleges for black women still have relevance.
"Black women are still on the edge marginally," says Tatum. "Spelman creates an environment for black women so that they can be at the center of education instead of in the margins of it."
The roots of education run deep in Tatum's family. Her father, Robert Daniel, was the first African-American professor at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. When the Daniel family moved to Bridgewater in 1958 they were one of very few black families there. At this time, she says, she learned how to negotiate in an environment in which she was an outsider.
"My focus on creating inclusive learning environments for all students is rooted in my own experience of sometimes feeling left out during my early school experiences," she says.
Tatum became president of Spelman College in 2002, ending her 13-year tenure at Mount Holyoke where she ascended from psychology professor to department chair, dean and, finally, college president.
In Tatum's five years at Spelman she has striven to make students feel welcome, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds and economic need. For instance, she increased funding for the school's financial aid program, which serves 85 percent of Spelman's students. She also launched the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement and developed an annual conference where college students, CEOs, business association representatives and others brainstorm ways to foster leadership opportunities for women of color.
Not long before she came to Spelman, Tatum garnered national attention when she wrote, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" (Basic Books, 1997), a nationally acclaimed book that describes how racism affects everyone and details practical strategies for overcoming it.
The book's release established Tatum as a race-relations expert and she appeared on a barrage of news and talk shows. She says her most memorable appearance was on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" where she talked about self-segregation with Chicago-area high school students.
Tatum's newest book, "Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation," (Beacon Press, 2007), posits that public schools are more segregated today than 20 years ago. Stemming that trend is just one of the major challenges faced by society today, she says. But thanks to Spelman and other such schools, there is a bumper crop of future women leaders preparing to make positive change.
"I am happy to be alive in 2007 where you have women in leadership positions," she says. "This is a very exciting time to be where I am."