Beyond Vassar

Embracing Difference: Tanya Odom '92

By Samantha Soper '91

Tanya Odom ’92 has always been in the thick of things. Where others might hesitate to discuss controversial or sensitive topics, Odom dives right in. As a student, “Tanya came into my office first thing in the morning every day to let me know what was wrong in the world and what I should do to fix it,” said Associate Dean of the College Ray Parker.

At Vassar, Odom majored in anthropology and sociology with a minor in women’s studies. Beyond academics, she was involved in the Vassar Catholic community, Beyond the Gates Volunteer Program, Vassar Student Association (VSA), Office of Admission, and Student Fellow Program. In a 1992 interview for the Vassar Quarterly, Odom admitted to an unknown future, but stated clearly that whatever she did, she wanted to make a difference. Twelve years later, Odom is a busy, successful consultant, facilitating, training, and educating people and organizations on issues of diversity, human rights, and inclusion in the United States and other countries around the world. Many of these issues can be quite daunting. But whether it’s in a conference room, classroom, or on the street, Odom’s dedication to addressing these topics is clear.

Odom is biracial (the daughter of African-American and Irish-American parents) and is also fluent in Spanish; she has spent much of her life answering questions about heridentity and issues of difference. But it was at Vassar that Odom started to explore identity politics. “[Vassar] was a place that introduced me to many things,” said Odom. She expanded her ideas of diversity beyond her own personal experiences. “Issues of class, gender, and sexual orientation, and being an ally were common topics of informal and formal discussions both inside and outside the classroom. Race, a harder topic for many to talk about, was discussed—but often within ‘like-groups.’” These conversations were powerful tools and catalysts for critical thinking and questioning, some of which she remembers to this day.

It is not surprising that people often choose to discuss sensitive or emotional topics with others who have similar backgrounds. Odom’s task is to facilitate these discussions and help bridge the divide between different communities. When Odom goes into a session, she hears about everything from pay equity to childhood bullying; “but what it comes down to is respect,” she said. Odom refers to something her mother has told her since she was a child: “There are bad acts, not bad people.” And by building knowledge, challenging assumptions, and understanding how words and actions affect people, we can empathize with others.

“I know that my understanding of different diversity issues was unquestionably enhanced by Vassar, its philosophy, and the professors, students, and staff on campus,” Odom acknowledged. In particular, she praises Parker: “He was a great dean, motivator, and listener.” Parker, in return, recalls Odom as the most vocal of students. “She was the VSA secretary and didn’t hesitate to use her position to comment on every social issue of that time period.” He encouraged her to pursue a field in which she could combine her interests, talents, and goals—“or, as Ray told me, ‘get paid for that mouth,’” said Odom. On Parker’s recommendation, Odom enrolled in the Anti-Defamation League’s A World of Difference Institute Program. This program gave her the foundation to educate others on diversity; she learned skills such as recognizing unconscious stereotyping and its effects, thinking beyond group identity, developing empathy, and promoting self-esteem.

Odom’s work takes her around the world, as a trainer for the First Armored Division of the U.S. Army in Germany in 1999, a delegate at the World Conference Against Racism in South Africa in 2001, and a panelist at the first Amnesty International Human Rights Education Conference in New York City in 2004. Over the years, Odom has worked toward sustainable change in organizations such as Fordham University, Wesleyan University, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Drug Enforcement Agency, New York City Department of Education, the Maryland Police Corps, and numerous Fortune 100 companies to name a few.

Oftentimes, Parker and Odom travel together to train groups through the Anti-Defamation League. Of working with Odom, Parker said, “Tanya motivates me to continue to work for social change.” This increased awareness and motivation then finds its way into Parker’s own efforts on Vassar’s campus. “In general, part of the work I do with student organizations involves helping them be as current and forward-thinking as possible, and that means helping them understand the dynamic diversity that plays into achieving their organizational goals.” When speaking about Parker, Odom referenced Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which McIntosh argues that white people are taught to see racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but not to see that it also brings white privilege, which puts them at the advantage. “[Parker] brings this awareness and understanding of privilege and power to the table. He is a true ally,” said Odom.

On any given day, Odom is embroiled in emotional dialogues about racism, gender communication, disabilities, recruitment and retention, work/life balance, and global diversity. And a large part of her success involves sharing her experiences with others. By building a level of trust and comfort, participants more freely express their own feelings and can possibly work to “unlearn” some of their ideas and beliefs, and ideally work toward action, whether it be in a school classroom or corporation. Although rewarding, her work has its price. “I consistently come home emotionally drained,” she said. “It is a process that requires honest evaluation and commitment.”

As she was in 1992, Odom is still vague on what her future holds. But one thing is certain: she will continue to assume goodwill in others and work to make a difference in the world.