Oluyomi “Yomi” Ogunnaike

A Conversation, by Lyn Ciurro

I sat down with Yomi in her office on a Friday afternoon. Yomi is a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, the Gesell Institute director, as well as a myriad of other roles and responsibilities. I arrived early and waited outside her office, admiring the photos of her family hanging from her door. Yomi came hurrying up the stairs not long after, no doubt from a class of either college students or “little ones.” For Yomi the two may as well be the same, as she cares for both with the same degree of love and affection. In fact, Yomi probably feels this way about the human race in general. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Yomi for many months, but you only need to talk to her for five minutes to realize this about her. Chances are you already do: Yomi is a staple of the Co-op storefront.

Yomi has been a member at the Co-op since she moved from Boston to our community in the 1990’s. She was introduced to us by a close friend who knew she would enjoy what we offered and that was it for her: she found a home away from home. She loved coming for lunch and Earthcrust Bakery goodies, but she said more than anything what kept her coming back was the kindness of the people. For Yomi, the Co-op is a place where you can never outlive your presence. After her children were born, Yomi also knew the Co-op had what she needed to help care for her family: she shared that while she may not be a healthy eater, her children have to be and the Co-op truly helps sustain them. Above all else, though, the Co-op is a place where she can be among friends.

While Yomi has been visiting us for around 20 years, it was only recently that she began to take a more active role in our management structure. The Co-op is run cooperatively - go figure - and to help sustain this model the Board of Directors created standing committees that we call Management Circles: the Physical Circle; the We the People Circle; the Communications Circle; and the Numbers Circle. While the table we sit at is square, the idea behind our Management Circles is that everyone who attends a meeting has the same voice and value when it comes to making decisions for our Co-op. The Circles meet once or twice a month to share what they’ve been working on, present proposals, and make decisions. These circles are primarily composed of staff members and board members, but, perhaps most importantly, anyone who is a member of the Co-op can also join any of our Management Circles.

This is why I met with Yomi. I wanted to learn more about what she enjoys about the Co-op and how she feels about being a member of the Communications Circle. A year ago she stopped by the Co-op and we began to talk about what more the Co-op could be doing for children. Yomi’s love for children is endless: she wanted to know what we could do to get children and their parents to care about eating healthy and locally, and feel the same way she does about the Co-op. I mentioned she should consider joining the Communications Circle - which primarily deals with how we interact with our members - and share her heartfelt ideas with us. She came to our very next meeting, and has come to almost every meeting since. Yomi shared that she sometimes wonders if she really has something to contribute to the Communications Circle, but every time she attends a meeting she is heard, appreciated, and valued by the other members.

“Everyone is connected in someway.” Yomi recognized the heart of what makes our community so wonderful. We are blessed to have so many different people working in so many different community development organizations, but still be a smaller city where you’ll see your friends every time you go to the coffee shop, or the farmer’s market. Yomi is involved with a few organizations through her job at the University, but she knows people involved with others, who know people involved with even more, and so on. It’s through this diversity of experience and our connections that our city does great things. And it’s no different at the Co-op: it’s only through a diversity in experience in our management that we can best help all of our members. And the more of it we have, the more that we can accomplish.

Yomi told me that she’s grateful to be part of the Co-op, but the truth is we’re grateful for her. I stayed after the interview and continued to chat with her about her life and family. Her office is covered with photos of her family: she showed me all the photos of her father and daughters. She told me about them, and her siblings, and her poetry. She enjoys both reading and writing, and will sometimes leave her poems in places for her to happen upon and read. Yomi also told me about how she loves the rain, and the smell of the earth right after Summer showers. But mainly what we talked about was how much we love our community, our people, and our Co-op.