Francine Oputa, community leader dead at 70, saw others for who they were
FRESNO, Calif. — “How are you doing?”
It’s a simple question asked when greeting someone, but when Francine Oputa asked it, people who knew her say it held power and grace.
“The way she would ask the question: her tone, her smile, her posture,” mostly had to do with it, said Estevan Parra, a former colleague of Oputa at Fresno State.
Oputa, a beloved figure on the university’s campus as well as in the Fresno community died Sept. 14. She was 70. Oputa is survived by her husband Rev. Henry Ifeanyi-Chukwu Oputa, and her three children.
CeCe Olisa, Oputa’s eldest daughter, said from the time she was little, her mother worked tirelessly to advocate for marginalized communities.
“If you could bring all the communities together that my mom touched, you would find a very diverse group of people,” Olisa said. “She was a champion for inclusivity and diversity before it was a buzzword.”
Born in San Fernando, Oputa was the daughter of a pastor and community leader from Arkansas who moved to California to escape racial discrimination.
As she entered her adult life, she became an impactful community leader herself, her daughter said.
In 1989, Oputa and her husband opened The Way Ministries which provides services to families no matter their spiritual or religious beliefs. Two years later, she started Saturday Cultural School which worked with local schools to advocate for African and Black cultures.
Olisa said she remembers her mother receiving a Social Action award from the Temple Beth Israel when she was a little girl and taking part in “March for our Lives” events at Fresno State which aim to combat gun violence.
Oputa was named the founding director of the Women’s Resource Center on campus and over the years, she became known in the community as a champion for women’s and LGBT rights. She was the recently retired director of the Cross Cultural and Gender Center at Fresno State, where she worked for over 30 years.
Remembering the ‘inclusivity of her love’
A devout Christian, Oputa tried to see others as they were, and that attitude spread to those around her. Oputa’s daughter remembers when her mother was up for the role at the Women’s Center for Fresno State, feminists began to protest because of her religious identity.
“They were organizing to protest her,” Olisa said. “Like, ‘how are we going to have a pastor's wife coming in here?’... Now she's close family.”
Oputa’s daughters used to joke that when Oputa passed, she would have an array of “adopted daughters” for whom she had been a motherly figure.
After her death, that has become a reality.
“If you pulled all those women together, it would be the most diverse group of women,” Olisa said. “You would see women who were non-binary, you would see women that were Black, you would see some that were gay and lesbian and queer and just the diversity of those women who she called her daughters – to me is reflective of the inclusivity of her love.”
Olisa said her mother’s work at Fresno State allowed her to see how the “leaders of tomorrow” thought – and she listened.
An effort to move with the times
Dympna Ugwu-Oju was a friend of Oputa and of her husband. She said Oputa always made an effort to learn the Nigerian culture, of which Ugwu-Oju and Oputa’s husband were a part.
Ugwu-Oju remembers a road trip to Sacramento with the Oputas. Although not Nigerian, Ugwu-Oju remembers Oputa learning the traditional dances, and performing them better than expected.
“It was talent but also effort, and wanting to do it well,” Ugwu-Oju said. “Not just for herself there, but to show others that culturalism isn't just about what we say, it's about what we do.”
And others confided in Oputa because of her actions.
Parra, who worked with Oputa at Fresno State, said Oputa helped him be comfortable with saying he was gay.
Parra slowly informed his family. He told his father last, on New Year’s Day this year. Parra quickly phoned Oputa to share the news.
Oputa was the person who got him to be comfortable “showing my true colors,” Parra said.
“She taught me how to lead unapologetically and authentically no matter who's in the room,” he added.
Parra is now the director for the Upward Bound programs at Fresno State. The program assists low-income, first-generation high school students who have the potential to attend college, but who struggle with their grades.
Redistributing a ‘magical’ presence
Ugwu-Oju said Oputa’s work does not stop with her death.
“Guiding children, feeding them, giving them a sense of purpose – if we can channel our energies towards that, it would really be keeping her legacy alive,” she said.
Oputa’s daughter, Olisa, said the outpouring of support for her mothergot shows Oputa really made a difference.
“I visualize my mother's impact like a ripple in a pond,” said Olisa. “If every single one of us who are impacted by my mother, just vibrate that love forward, think before we're judgmental, expand our definition of who our community could be, then that to me is how change takes place.”
Oputa’s inclusivity also transcends beyond Fresno, her daughter said. The task ahead will become how to keep it alive.
“This is Fresno. This is California. This is America,” Olisa said. “So how do we make sure that all of these people are served?”