At the time of the last U.S. Census, approximately 40% of all Akron residents were people of color. As this figure continues to grow, so do the needs of these diverse communities.
From a disproportionate rate of poverty to a lack of educational resources, people of color often have specific needs that cannot be met with generalized funding. In light of this reality, board members at Akron Community Foundation began meeting in the early 1990s to brainstorm ways the foundation could reach out to Summit County's communities of color.
"It was important that we had diversity in all aspects of the foundation," said Judge James Williams, a board member who spearheaded the project.
A string of discussions about Akron Community Foundation's role in recognizing challenges faced by communities of color led to talks about starting a new fund. The fund would support nonprofit organizations serving people of color in Summit County and promote diversity.
"We were seeing a lot of requests that were to be used for people of color, and (starting a fund) just seemed like a more straightforward way," explained then-board chairwoman Ann Amer Brennan.
Thus, in 1993, the foundation established an unnamed fund with an initial endowment contribution of $50,000. A committee was immediately established to research the needs of communities of color and raise money for the endowment.
Shortly after that time in 1996, one of Akron's most recognized civil rights leaders passed away. A classmate of Martin Luther King Jr., Vernon L. Odom spent most of his life serving the city's communities of color and encouraging racial harmony. As president of the Akron Urban League for nearly 30 years, Odom improved the lives of countless people through education, advocacy and mentoring.
This long history of service and inspiration made Odom an ideal namesake for the foundation's new fund, Williams said.
"He devoted his life to the betterment of his community," Williams said. "It was appropriate that the fund be named after him."
The fund officially became known as the Vernon L. Odom Fund in 1997 and soon after awarded its first grants. Since that time, the fund has continued to improve the quality of life of local communities of color through annual grants to organizations like the Akron Inner City Soccer Club, Proyecto Raices, and Global Ties Akron. It's a fitting way to ensure the legacy of Akron's own civil rights pioneer is celebrated for generations to come.