In Memoriam: Retired Ombudsperson Yeworkwha Belachew
YB, as she was known to almost everyone, pioneered the role of ombudsperson and conflict mediator at Oberlin.
Yeworkwha Belachew, retired ombudsperson and founder of the Oberlin College Dialogue Center, passed away Wednesday evening following a lengthy illness. She was 65.
A service will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 24, in First Church of Oberlin, 106 N. Main St. Following the service, she will be buried near her brother and sister at Ridge Hill Memorial Park, 44805 N. Ridge Road, Amherst. A small reception will follow at First Church.
YB, as she was known to almost everyone, pioneered the role of ombudsperson and conflict mediator at Oberlin. She was beloved for her warmth and openness. She described her approach to mediation as one of inclusiveness, of viewing people on their own terms and not according to societal labels. “People are more important than where they’ve come from,” she told the Oberlin Alumni Magazine for a story on the renaming of the dialogue center in her honor. “You count on every word, so that every person has an opportunity to be themselves.”
"Throughout her career at Oberlin, YB was a cherished and dedicated counselor, friend, and mentor to all who knew her—from students to presidents," says Professor David Kamitsuka, a longtime friend. "She deeply loved Oberlin students. Her personal and professional credo was to do all she could to affirm the dignity of each person in the Oberlin community. We honor her legacy by endeavoring to do the same."
One of YB’s greatest achievements was establishing, nurturing, and guiding the Oberlin College Dialogue Center, which is celebrated nationally as a best-practices model. "Her impact on the Oberlin community has been enormous," says President Marvin Krislov. "Oberlin will always benefit from her legacy of commitment to dialogue and understanding. She helped Oberlin become a stronger, more inclusive institution.”
Not one to share much about her personal life, YB came to Ohio from Ethiopia in the 1970s. She and her then-husband studied at Bowling Green State University and moved to Oberlin in 1978. He taught in the African American studies department, while she became a residence hall director for Noah Hall. After the couple separated, YB lived in an apartment in Noah while raising her young son, Meiraff.
During her years as the residence hall director, YB created an indelible bond with students. It’s also when she developed a knack for negotiating conflicts and disputes. Although she had no formal training in mediation or conflict resolution, she had a natural gift for helping students better understand each other.
The college administration took notice of YB’s skills. She became an assistant dean of residential life in 1989, then interim director of residential life in 1998. In 2000, then-president Nancy Dye appointed her to the newly created position of ombudsperson.
A year after becoming ombudsperson, YB set out to start a formal mediation program at Oberlin. Working with Leah Wing ’84 and Diane Kenty ’77, she facilitated a design team to explore a variety of mediation program models. From the start, a guiding principle of the dialogue center was multipartiality—the ability to meet the needs of each party in a dispute.
“Sometimes an ombudsperson seems [like] a very powerful person, but really the power belongs to the people,” YB told The Oberlin Review in 2005. “About 80 percent of my time is spent mediating between individuals: student to student, student to faculty, employee to supervisor, sometimes even parent to institution. I’m very blessed to work at an institution where my input is really valued but I still have to work extremely hard. This is a twenty-four/seven job.”
In 2006, YB worked with students to create the Social Justice Institute, which invites first-year students to participate in a two-day event during orientation week, with the goal of making them more aware of the ways oppression and privilege influence people’s lives.
YB retired in fall 2015 after 35 years of service to the college. Upon her retirement, she was honored with the renaming of the dialogue center as the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue at Oberlin College. A staff award bearing her name also was created, and it is given annually to an employee who has gone above and beyond in service to Oberlin College.
In lieu of flowers, YB's family has requested that memorial contributions be sent to the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue at Oberlin College or the Oasis Animal Shelter in Oberlin.