Willa Cofield


In the summer of 1989, the staff of the Office of Equal Educational Opportunity in the New Jersey Department of Education was wrestling with the development of guidelines for multicultural education.  One of my colleagues, after hearing Emily Style speak, invited her to meet with us in our Trenton office.   Emily assured us that our work would benefit if someone from our office participated in SEED’s leaders’ training.  That is when I first heard of SEED. 

Following Emily’s suggestion, Ivy Rios and I attended the new leaders’ training at St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota.  We came back eager to share our new learning.  The inflow of SEED ideas gave our design for multicultural education needed clarity and focus.   In a few months, our office published “Guidelines for Multicultural Education,” designed for the school districts of New Jersey and presented at a statewide conference.  We also incorporated many of the new SEED strategies and ideas into the teacher training we offered school districts. 

During the next three years, I found many opportunities to continue my work with SEED.  I led a SEED seminar at Seton Hall University, with teachers from Essex County schools. Once a month during 1989-1990, I participated in a New Jersey-New York network of SEED leaders of color.  To my great delight, the directors invited me to join the SEED staff for the summer training at Seton Hall University.  Later, Charley Flint of William Paterson College and I co-led a seminar for high school and college teachers that was supported by the Wellesley Center for Research on Women. This group, made up of teachers of color, met monthly for about three years at Rutgers University and Middlesex County College.

The SEED New Leaders’ Week became the highlight of my professional work. I could endure office politics and political setbacks from September to May so long as I was able to join SEED colleagues for the summer training.  In 1992, Cathy Nelson asked me to join the staff of the newly founded Minnesota SEED. When Emily initiated New Jersey SEED, she invited me to participate.

At the Seton Hall training session, I saw the documentary, Women of Summer, a video about white working class women who attended summer school at Byrn Mawr College in the 1930s.  With Peggy’s encouragement, I decided to produce a documentary about the historic African American Brick School, located three miles from the town in which I was born.  Working with an enthusiastic community group and with SEED’s support, we staged a photographic exhibit in 1994.  After my retirement from the Department of Education and with the help of Scribe Video Center, I produced a documentary video, The Brick School Legacy.

In 1997, two other SEED leaders and I organized Women in Conversation, a community SEED of mostly African American women.  Later, we included Girls, Boys, and Men in Conversation.  Volunteers from our group also held hour-long monthly meetings in three residential communities, that we called Seniors in Conversation.  Twenty-four years later, a Book Club that grew from this effort continues to meet.

After many wonderful years as a Small Group Leader, I retired from the summer training.  The new SEED leadership honored my work with a grant to produce another documentary.  From this initial gift and with the help of Scribe Video Center and many other people, I co-produced “The Nine O’clock Whistle,” a documentary about the 1960s struggle for freedom.  A book with the same title, written in collaboration with two of my former students, is also forthcoming. 

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