“Find an issue bigger than yourself.”
Oletha Jones’ leadership is guided by her philosophy that you should “move beyond your world for fulfillment.” As Education Chair for the St. Joseph County NAACP and a founding member of Community Action for Education (CAFÉ), Oletha is a leader in raising awareness of and fighting against the disproportional discipline experienced by children of color and poor children in the South Bend Community School Corporation.
While she was an infant, Oletha’s family moved to the area and was one of the first African American families to live in Mishawaka. In her high school Latin classes, her teacher, Mrs. Hess, helped her to understand that “I can do things if I put my mind to it,” which continues to inspire her work today.
She stumbled into what would become her life’s work while her children were students in the South Bend schools. She described how her daughters did fine in school, but the experience was different for her son. By the time he was in first grade “they had their mind made up” that he was a problem child. These experiences motivated her to get involved in changing the system because the disproportionate treatment experienced by students like her son “was bigger than us.”
In 1999 she joined Citizens United and started attending South Bend Community School Corporation meetings and pushing the school board to become more open and transparent in its decision making. From this she saw a need to continue the conversation and widen her base of support, so she became involved with the St. Joseph County NAACP, beginning with the Statewide Listening Tour on disproportionality of youth of color being disciplined or assigned to Special Education classrooms. This tour spurred HEA 1419, which required the development of an evidence-based plan for improving school discipline and behavior.
Through her work with CAFÉ, Oletha has helped raise awareness of the School to Prison Pipeline, which she describes as the “pattern of things that can track a student to prison or poverty” and includes “policies, practices, and procedures.” CAFÉ has brought together parents, teachers, principals, and community activists to help fight together.
Oletha’s work with CAFÉ helps her enact her philosophy that “when you have a love for people you want them to thrive, to uplift them.”
Information compiled from oral history collected by the Michiana Women Leaders Project
Oletha was a 2017 CMWL honoree.