February is Black History Month and Gwendolyn Calvert Baker has witnessed a veritable sea change in the ways that U.S. schools provide education to and about our multiethnic, multicultural society. But Baker hasn’t just lived through the progression of multicultural considerations—she has been singularly instrumental in the creation and acceptance of multicultural education. She has been called by some of her colleagues “the mother of multiculturalism.”
Plymouth Harbor residents, and any guests they may wish to invite, have the extraordinary opportunity to meet Gwendolyn Calvert Baker on Thursday, February 13 at 3 pm in Pilgrim Hall. Baker trained students at the University of Michigan in multicultural education; her affiliations with the Bank Street School of Education, the YWCA, and the New York City School Board give her a unique perspective on global education in a program she calls, “Hot Fudge Sundae in a White Paper Cup.”
Born in Ann Arbor in 1931, Baker recalled “I grew up at a time when it was not possible for young blacks to participate in activities that were available to other youth.” However, growing up in a small university town, the school’s influence surrounded and attracted her. Challenging societal expectations, she applied to and was accepted by the University of Michigan. This bold action exemplifies her belief in improvement and opportunity: “If you really believe that what you’re committed to can work, then you do it with every aspect of your mind and body. If you’re guided by a spirit of dedication and motivation, and have the opportunity to develop good skills, and take advantage of available opportunities, then it can happen.”
And it did happen for Baker. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she became a fourth-grade teacher at Wines Elementary School in Ann Arbor. By her third year, she had been nominated by one of her student-teachers for the university’s Teacher of the Year award, which she won. The award provided a salaried year at the School of Education training new teachers. At a time when she was one of very few teachers of color in the public school system, Baker was a force for cultural progress: “I thought I might help people understand racism and how ridiculous it was. I focused on developing curriculum in what is now called multicultural education and this became my lifelong passion.”
During that year of teacher training and creating multicultural curricula, she earned her master’s degree. Baker then went back to grade school and taught briefly before deciding to return to SOE and earn her PhD. Upon graduation, she joined the SOE faculty.
From the beginning of her involvement in the public schools, Baker yearned to become a school principal. Soon after receiving her doctorate, she was offered the position of principal at an Ann Arbor school. “The compensation would have been greater than what I was earning at the School of Education,” she said, “But I didn’t take the job because I felt I could affect the lives of more children by training teachers to respect diversity and by developing a multicultural approach to education, rather than by simply working in a single school district.”
While she was an assistant professor, the then-President of U-M, Robben Fleming, asked her to become the university’s affirmative action director. Baker recalled: “I was honored and I respected the offer, but I declined because I was focused on working towards tenure.” The next year, President Fleming called Baker and said that he had seen her name on a list of faculty promotions and would she now become the affirmative action director? The soon-to-be-minted Associate Professor (with tenure) Baker accepted.
After a couple years of serving both SOE as a faculty member and the university as the affirmative action director, Baker took a leave and became the chief of minorities and women’s programs at the National Institute of Education. “For three years,” she recalled, “I worked in Washington to fund projects throughout the country that furthered the kinds of programs that would help spread diversity throughout education.”
In 1981, Baker became vice president and dean of the Bank Street Graduate School of Education and School for Children in New York City. In 1984, she flexed her managerial muscles and became the national executive director for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of the USA, which she successfully restructured—cutting costs while increasing programs and membership and implementing the organization’s mission of eliminating racism.
While leading the YWCA, Baker was appointed to the New York City School Board, where she served for five years, including one year as president. At the time, the board was responsible for a student population exceeding one million and more than a thousand schools. The annual budget was $9 billion. “It was very political and I learned a great deal,” she remembered.
The “frosting on the cake,” as she put it, was her next position as president and CEO of the U.S. Committee for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Here, she said, she was able to take her work to the global stage. She served UNICEF from 1993 until her semi-retirement in 1995, at which time she was elected to sit on the U.S. Olympic Committee, on which she served until 2000.