Diann Takens ’89 is one of those people who knows exactly the moment that sparked her life’s work. It was at Calvin, when she first learned that there was a theology for the poor and broken. It was when she first learned there was a theology for her.
Today, Takens is the executive director of Peace Of The City in Buffalo, New York, a nonprofit organization committed to justice for the poor. She founded it back in 1992. It’s grown to include many innovative programs to break the cycle of poverty, like a Shakespeare theater company and small businesses run by teens.
Recently Takens was awarded the Centennial Champion Award by the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo. Her life and work are full of meaning and connection. She traces it back to a fall morning her junior year at Calvin.
An inside outsider
Takens’ story starts in a familiar place. Born and raised in the Christian Reformed Church, she graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School.
But underneath that, things for Takens were different. She describes herself as an “inside outsider.” Growing up, Diann experienced ongoing trauma and felt different from the families around her. Her parents didn’t go to college and, like a lot of first-generation students, navigating college was a challenge.
“It felt miraculous to even be there,” she said. She settled on a psychology major but didn’t have a vision for what her future could be. Takens was paying for college on her own and felt pressure to make the most of her experience. She decided to go to every chapel service, but one day, she almost skipped.
“I sensed God’s presence, telling me to go,” she said.
The speaker that day was pastor and activist Tony Campolo, who was speaking in the fieldhouse. Campolo preached about a theology she had not experienced growing up in the church—and he connected that to the pain she knew deep within her.
“I was blown away. By speaking about the world’s suffering, especially the poor, Tony spoke right to my own,” Takens said.
She stayed after to meet Campolo, writing down her name and address on a scrap of a popcorn box that she found in the bleachers.
“I said that I would follow this guy anywhere. And that’s what I did,” Takens said.
A life's work
Campolo must have kept that scrap. That exchange started a friendship that continues to this day.
That summer Takens interned at Campolo’s organization in Camden, New Jersey, America’s poorest city at that time.
“Diann was incredible,” said Campolo, remembering her internship. “Diann didn’t just do what she was asked to do, she always went above and beyond.”
She returned two more summers then moved there to work year round. Living and working in Camden were transformational for Takens.
“At that time, I sensed God saying, ‘If you really want to impact these kids and families, you need to commit your life,’ so I moved there.” Since then, she’s committed her life to serving the poor, eventually relocating to Buffalo and launching many initiatives at Peace Of The City in trauma-informed care, restorative justice, literacy intervention, and more.
“I observe her work in Buffalo, and I cannot help but want to support her in every way,” Campolo said. “I wish I had more money, because I would give it to her.”
Campolo said that he can see the impact of a Calvin education on her life and work. “Calvin gave her a taste for scholarship. She’s always learning and exploring new ways of doing things,” Campolo reflected.
To learn more about the Centennial Champion Award and see a video about Diann Takens, visit wned.org/community/centennials/diann-takens/.