June 22, 2006
Antioch’s Jewel to be honored at Antioch College reunion
The power of Jewel Graham lies not in her petite frame or her kind, gentle voice but in the steady, deliberate commitment to the human values she grew up with and that she still embodies at her spry, cheerful age of 81. Treasured by Antioch College not just for her given name, Precious Jewel Freeman, but for her 30-year contribution as a professor and founder of Antioch’s social work program, she will be honored this Saturday during Antioch’s reunion weekend where she will receive the J.D. Dawson Award for service to the institution.
Antioch will present the award on Saturday at 10 a.m. in the Herndon Gallery. At 3 p.m. that afternoon a panel of her former students and advisees will speak about her contributions to the college, followed by a reception at the Herndon.
In the autobiography she finished last year, Graham begins by saying, “My life has been the life of my times.” It is a humble statement for a professor emerita who raised a family, earned a law degree from the University of Dayton when she was 50 and later became president of the world Young Women’s Christian Association from 1987-1991.
Graham has always been clear as an African-American woman growing up in segregated Springfield about her role as an advocate for racial and gender equality, she said in a recent interview. She has pursued this goal in her quiet, meticulous way since she was a teenager when she first joined the colored branch of the Springfield YWCA.
Using her childhood values to guide her in all of her pursuits, as a student at the lauded Fisk College for African Americans and then at Western Reserve University School of Social Science, in her first job as youth program coordinator at the YWCA in Grand Rapids, and later as a social work faculty member at Antioch College, she made good choices rather than try to impose her will.
“One of my failings is I always had a hard time saying no. People would ask me and I would think, ‘I can’t do that,’ but when I was put in the position, I did it,” she explained. “I said yes, out of a set of values that came from my family.”
The Antioch years
Graham came to Yellow Springs in 1956 with her husband Paul Graham, who had gotten a job with Vernay Laboratories. She was raising two boys and completing the honorable duties of homemaker when she was, in her words, called “back to the salt mines” as an administrative faculty member in the Antioch Program for Interracial Education (APIE) under then dean of students, J. Dudley Dawson.
Graham advocated for experiential learning that was then criticized by those on campus who felt that higher education should be reserved for those with proven academic abilities, she said in her book. When Antioch launched its experimental First Year Program, bringing nontraditional multi-ethnic students to campus, she was, she said, “possessed of a burning desire for the students to succeed.”
According to former student Maceo Cofield, who will join Saturday’s panel, Antioch was caught up in the volatile passion of the Civil Rights era, and Graham was one of very few African-American faculty members he had as a role model. As a social work advisor Graham listened to the students, he said, and she supported them, but she never presumed to direct them or try to squelch the anger or frustration many students of color felt at the time, he said.
“She was our mother confessor, she was a tempering influence, the voice of reason,” Cofield said. “She was a beacon.”
Cofield was awed by Graham’s ability to go from her role as homemaker and jump straight into a leadership role for Antioch students who needed her, he said.
“She had the presence to be able to speak quietly in a storm and have people listen,” he said. “You’d be ready to argue with someone else, but she’d ask you something calmly and you’d have to turn around and answer her in kind, to tone yourself down. It meant you had to think, and I may have learned something from my own response.”
Within five years, Graham became a full faculty member and in 1969 she secured a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to fund the college’s first social work undergraduate major. She stayed at the college through periods of financial insecurity, including one period when professors went without pay and had to collect unemployment.
Still a full-time faculty member, Graham decided she needed to go to law school in order to give her students the basic understanding of the legal system they needed to integrate into their social work program. After passing the Ohio bar, she and legal studies professor Al Denman established a curriculum that combined social work and the law.
Elaine Comegys recalled teaming with Graham and Native American Studies professor Fred Hoxie in the early 80s to develop an Introduction to Cross Cultural Studies. The sandwich course began with one term of academic exploration of the major ethnic groups, followed by a co-op term relating to one of those groups and then another term on campus when the group invited the larger community to a bimonthly brown bag lunch to discuss the issues that came up during the course.
“Jewel was a solution person. She was realistic when she talked about ‘these are the issues, how can we solve them?’ ” Comegys said. “She was a natural at training students to think critically.”
Influence in the YWCA
All the while, Graham was serving as a YWCA member, elected to the national board in 1970 before being elected to the world executive committee in 1975 and serving as international president for four years. Graham brought her experience of the YWCA into the classroom, Comegys recalled, using it to expand students’ worldview and use current international issues to illustrate the theoretical points she was making in class.
While traveling to the far corners of the world speaking and workshopping nationally and internationally at places such as the Washington Cathedral and Westminster Abbey for the YWCA, Graham advocated for social justice and equity for women. She was most excited about the organization’s internal “action audit for change” in the 1970s when the YWCA evaluated its own membership and activities based on the gender and racial diversity it was advocating at the time, she said.
“All of these women I’ve met over the years in different countries around the world who share the same values and the same aspirations, it makes you know that we really are one human family, that we’re all tied together,” she said.
During her time as president, she felt distanced from the people she was working with, and learned she preferred to participate in a more grass roots fashion, she said. But always in trying to accomplish goals with groups, locally or with the international community, she advocated most effectively by trying to reach consensus with others.
“If you put people on the defensive, all you have is two people entrenched in their positions and you don’t get anywhere,” she said. “One of the things I’ve learned is that people have to put ideas and action into the context of their own lives. They can’t do it in terms of my life and how I see it.”
Graham said she is proud of the APIE and the social work programs at Antioch, proud of attaining a law degree at the age of 50, proud of her 1988 induction into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame (among a bevy of other awards and distinctions over the years). She is proud of becoming the second African-American world YWCA president, representing women of color, who comprise the majority of women in the world.
She is proud of surviving a heart attack nearly four years ago and perhaps most of all, she said, she is proud of her two sons and their families. The Grahams’ elder son Robert Grahamjones, a film editor with Pixar, and his wife, Frances Jones, and younger son, Nathan Graham, a computer scientist with Adobe, and his wife, Edwina Garner, all live with their children in California.
In many of her endeavors, Graham found herself in the minority as an African-American woman. She said she noticed from an early time that when sensible ideas came from women they weren’t always supported, but when they came from a man they often won support.
“Eventually, I learned that you didn’t have to own everything, that if you don’t personalize it, the idea can belong to everyone,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about this bigger whatever you think you’re working towards.
“I’m not modest. I’m proud of my accomplishments,” she said. “Still, it’s not about me, because I can’t run the world.”