An overheard conversation in a Hilltop restaurant. A woman who wasn’t afraid to dream big.
The year was 1972, and educator Maxine Mimms remembers hearing two women discuss the barriers they faced in pursuit of a college degree. They seemed stuck in a rut in community college classes, wondering whether they’d ever be able to move on to classes that would lead them to a four-year degree.
At the time, the only institutions offering bachelor’s degrees were pricey private colleges, which were out of reach for many Tacomans.
Mimms, a Virginia native already on the faculty of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, had an epiphany: What if instead of asking students to travel to college, the college could come to them?
She began inviting students to her Tacoma home for study and asked her fellow educator and neighbor, Betsy Diffendal, to do the same.
“They would come at 5 a.m. and we would work with them until 8 a.m.,” Mimms recalled. Then, she’d head to Olympia and Evergreen to teach.
She has an inner grace that just resonates from her and opens doors for her
Darington Forbes, on the strength of Maxine Mimms
By 1982, the kitchen-table tutorials had grown into a full-fledged formal program that became the Tacoma branch campus of The Evergreen State College. Over the years, the branch campus led a nomadic existence, shifting to several locations around the city before moving in 2001 to its current home at 1210 Sixth Ave.
For her role in creating the branch campus, serving as its first director and for her many other contributions to education, Mimms will be honored Monday at the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. She’ll receive the 2017 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award.
Darington Forbes, who has known the 88-year-old Mimms for three decades as a colleague in community work, nominated her for the award.
“Her life’s work is to educate and enlighten,” Forbes said. “She continues to do that. I think she has an inner grace that just resonates from her and opens doors for her. It allows her to make change on a grand scale.”
Mimms, who retired from Evergreen in 1990, was named an emeritus faculty member of the college. After retirement, she formed the Maxine Mimms Academy in Tacoma. Its mission: to educate students who had been suspended or expelled from public schools.
Today, as a retiree living in Shelton, Mimms is still working with students in her home and participating in seminars in Seattle.
My life is education
Maxine Mimms, Ph. D
She’s grateful for continued good health that allows her to keep working with students.
“Education is a field that’s just exciting,” Mimms said. “You start in September and end up in June. To know your presence in that space has influenced that many students, year in and year out, is just exhilarating.”
“My life is education,” she adds.
It’s a life inspired by her parents — her mother was a teacher and her father a follower of Marcus Garvey, who in the early 20th century promoted the concepts of social and economic freedom for people of African descent and urged black people to connect with their African heritage.
“I saw them involved in building communities,” she said.
Mimms attended segregated schools — an experience she describes as “humiliating.”
But she also recalls the black principal of her school meeting with the white superintendent.
“We saw our principals and teachers being strong,” she said. “The lesson they gave us: don’t fear.”
It’s a lesson Mimms took with her into her education career. She first moved with her husband to Seattle in 1953, where she taught in elementary school and was later an administrator in the school district. She also spent some time in the 1960s working for the federal government in Washington, D.C., as assistant director of the women’s bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor before returning to education.
At Evergreen, she focused on serving the needs of urban learners, adult students and in particular black students.
“Education back then was a gated community,” says Forbes. He said Mimms was able to unlock the gate, and with it, the potential of so many people who have gone on to become leaders in Tacoma’s educational, medical, legal, business and government institutions.
“The grandchildren of some of her original students are now entering college,” he adds.
Mimms is a firm believer in the idea that liberation comes through education.
“These are trying times,” she said. “We have just really got to be committed to each other. We’ve got to be looking at what we are doing as individuals, and what your contribution is to your neighborhood, your family.”
Through education, she said, people will be able to shed the cynicism that weighs us down.
“What education has to do is work very hard to keep laying out the facts,” Mimms said.
City celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.
Tacoma’s 29th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Celebration takes place Monday.
Doors open at 10 a.m. and the event will begin at 11 a.m. in the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, 1500 Broadway.
Educator Maxine Mimms will receive the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Service Award, presented each year during the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day event, before an average crowd of approximately 2,000 attendees.
The event will feature keynote speaker Harold Moss, Tacoma's first African American City Council member and mayor. The celebration will include music, dance and poetry that highlight the strength, resiliency and creativity of young men of color.
For more information about the celebration, visit cityoftacoma.org/mlk.