HBCU Student Leaders—The New Campus Queens

Dec 9, 2020
Dec 9, 2020
Five Black Women in Leadership Share Their Experience

Student leaders at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have proven to be the backbone of the student body. Whether they function as Student Government Association (SGA) executives, serve as campus queens, or lead smaller clubs and organizations across campus, their leadership and influence is a cornerstone of the HBCU experience.

This election season though, most campuses were closed, while their responsibility remained. At the helm of movements were Black, female student leaders, who even from a distance motivated their peers and put forth initiatives to move their communities forward. According to Rutgers’ History of Women of Color in U.S. Politics webpage, “The first Black woman elected to the House was Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), who served from 1969–1983.” Today, there have only been 20 Black women elected to the House, and two Black women elected to the U.S. Senate. Though the U.S. government doesn’t fully reflect our communities, the women holding down our HBCUs are a promising glimpse of hope.

MBIB called on a NYC-based writer and Howard alumna, Blake Newby, to address five Black women’s experience as leaders on their HBCU campus. Blake served in various student roles while on campus, and understands the impact leadership can have on generations to come. In our minds, she’s 100% HBCU-certified! Ahead, check out five campus queens and SGA leaders who are sharing their journey with Blake—discussing leadership, how Black female politicians continue to inspire them, and how they plan to further push civic engagement on their campuses for years to come.

Brenda Caldwell - NCAT Brenda Caldwell, SGA President at North Carolina A&T

Share your experience as a woman in leadership:

In my time at NCAT, we've only had women as SGA presidents, so it wasn't a far-fetched idea for me to want to be in leadership. To reach that goal, freshman year I watched from afar, learning the many positions across campus. Sophomore year, I started on the Student Judicial Council, and then at the end of sophomore year, I ran for Attorney General. For the most part, my experiences have been great, but I have faced sexism at times. One time in particular, a male visitor wanted to speak with someone from A&T’s SGA about voting. I of course told him that I was the person he needed to speak to and he responded by asking if a man was available. It was a wakeup call that while there are many women in leadership in the real world, it's still a very male-dominated society.

In what way are you hoping to inspire other women to lead?

I've been very intentional about bringing others behind me through mentorship. Every year, I have three to four mentees that I share the ropes of student leadership with—I bring them to meetings with me, and share scholarship, fellowship, and internship opportunities. I want to make sure they become better than me. I want to share the knowledge I have with them, so when they're in my position, they are well-equipped and know that they can succeed in those leadership positions.

How have Black women running for and holding nationally elected positions inspired you as a leader?

I actually got the chance to meet Ayanna Pressley when she was on campus last year and I shared that her being such a prominent face in the United States Congress has inspired me to run for office one day. Not only on the national level, but here in North Carolina where we have a Black woman who serves as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Black women running for Commissioner of Labor and Court of Appeals. Being able to see these women shows me it's attainable.

How did you prepare your students to vote in the past election?

We focused a lot on voter education because we knew that most students were registered, as that has never been a problem at A&T. So while we did provide some opportunities for voter registration, we were heavily focused on what and who’s going to be on the ballot. We hosted virtual events that covered: absentee ballots, voter registration, and what's on the ballot. We reviewed each person who was running for office and discussed why the policies mattered to us as students. We also partnered with other organizations to reach more students.

What are your plans to encourage long-term civic engagement?

I want to impress upon our students the importance of what happens after the election. After you vote, there's still so much work to do. That includes holding elected officials accountable, writing letters to our legislators, and attending city council and board of education meetings to make our presence known so that when elections come back around, politicians know that A&T students are serious about their community.

Talyor Davis - Howard Taylor Davis, Miss Howard University

Share your experience as a woman in leadership:

My experiences have contributed greatly to my growth as a woman, especially as a Black woman. I'm not just dealing with the everyday challenges that come with being a leader, I simultaneously combat sexism as it makes itself known in many different forms. It’s taught me to hold myself to a higher standard, how to navigate situations gracefully, to take the high road and to let my work speak for itself. I don’t feel the need to prove myself to others; I allow myself to be the leader that I know I am, regardless of others’ expectations.

In what way are you hoping to inspire other women to lead?

I think more than anything, especially in my role as Miss Howard, it's been really important for me to impact young girls of color and show them what's possible when you fully apply the talents and skills you possess. I want them to see what's possible when you don't allow yourself to be defined by the standards of others. I like to lead by example. The visibility can mean so much to young girls, seeing someone who is accomplishing great things—something I wish I saw more of growing up. So it's important for me to leverage my platform to encourage different groups by showing an example of a confident woman who applies herself and doesn't allow herself to be boxed in.

How have Black women running for and holding nationally elected positions inspired you as a leader?

I interned on Capitol Hill my sophomore year, specifically with the Congressional Black Caucus. I observed women like Kamala Harris, Ayanna Pressley, and Maxine Waters. What inspired me most is that they stood firm in their beliefs and accomplished what they came to do. It's so impactful when you see women who walk in their indelible purpose, who know what they bring to the table and know the impact they want to make on society. Their unwavering commitment to serve their constituents was so admirable. It was inspiring to see that in the face of so many adversities—whether it was committee meetings, or people trying to challenge or provoke them—they remained gracious.

How did you prepare your students to vote in the past election?

My biggest focus this past election was to target and encourage voters who had genuinely lost hope in our government. With the various systemic issues that continue to be a huge obstacle for the Black community specifically, a lot of people lost hope and felt like this system was never intended to work for them. I worked to shift my mindset to help others stay encouraged.

What are your plans to encourage long-term civic engagement?

Voting candidates into office is one thing, but the work doesn't stop there. It's important to make sure that we continue to make our wishes and demands known. That means writing to our representatives, organizing, and protesting. All of that together is what will help us reform the system. We have to hold elected officials accountable.

Fana HaileSelassie - Spelman Fana R. HaileSelassie, SGA President at Spelman College

Share your experience as a woman in leadership:

As Spelman is a historically Black women's institution, my path to this particular leadership position as Student Government President was shaped by an environment that trains women of color to unapologetically voice our opinions and concerns, and also centralize the mobilization of other women in each of our initiatives. Spelman is a safe space, something you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

In what way are you hoping to inspire other women to lead?

One of the things I've prioritized in my leadership role is connection with both my peers and the community. Oftentimes leadership positions don’t seem tangible and that can be because leaders can seem disconnected. So the easiest way to encourage individuals to follow in your footsteps is to have conversations with them. That sounds very simple, but it's something that's often overlooked.

How have Black women running for and holding nationally elected positions inspired you as a leader?

I am an aspiring United States Foreign Service Officer, the official term for U.S. Diplomat. Seeing Black women prevail has been a constant example that shows me how the bureaucracy can be infiltrated and that we deserve a place in that bureaucracy. I admire how women like Maxine Waters and other leaders like Symone Sanders unapologetically present their culture and their identities without code switching or trying to appease others. I think that it’s very important to present yourself in a way that is authentic to both you and your community.

How did you prepare your students to vote in the past election?

It was a collective effort on behalf of my leadership board. We had a personalized video from Stacey Abrams and the Reverend Dr. Bernice King that spoke to the importance of voting, the history in our community, and the legacy that comes along with that for Black people. Pulling in influential leaders like these added to our impact.

Jada Johnson - PrarieView Jada Johnson, Miss Prairie View A&M

Share your experience as a woman in leadership:

I’ve found myself in numerous leadership roles starting off in high school and throughout college. I take pride in helping others and motivating people to do their best, no matter the circumstances. However, I don't think I truly understood what it meant to be a Black woman in leadership before coming to Prairie View A&M. I put emphasis on Black women because I'm more knowledgeable of the obstacles laid out before us. I make sure to stay true to myself and my beliefs.

In what way are you hoping to inspire other women to lead?

My platform is: From the Ashes, We Will Rise in Beauty and Strength. That fits perfectly in today’s society. As students, we encounter everyday challenges while having to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, politics, and virtual learning. I seek to encourage and inspire students to be confident, remain determined to succeed, and see the beauty in overcoming obstacles. I am hoping to inspire other women to lead by example, showing women a strong, educated, and talented woman they can look up to. I have always been, and will always continue to be, the type of leader that works alongside my community, not the type of leader that works from a distance.

How have Black women running for and holding nationally elected positions inspired you as a leader?

Seeing Black women running for and holding national positions is extremely inspiring. We are underrepresented but we continue to see those numbers grow and see our voices being heard. It shows strength and courage that not many have. It's empowering to see and encourages me to strive for the same. We're constantly creating history and fighting to normalize Black women in leadership.

How did you prepare your students to vote in the past election?

This year I brought back a program called PV Girls Vote. It was created by a previous Miss Prairie View as an initiative to get our majority female student body to the polls. I plan to continue educating young adults on the importance of voting and perhaps find ways to educate our Black and Brown youth at an earlier age prior to college.

Carrington Wignham - Florida AM Carrington Whigham, Florida A&M SGA Vice President

Share your experience as a woman in leadership:

I first began in pageants. I ran for the Miss Black Texas title when I was only 14 years old and from there it elevated me into leadership. After, I transitioned into school leadership. I ran for a freshman Senate position and from there, for Vice President of my Student Government Association.

In what way are you hoping to inspire other women to lead?

I plan to do so by being fearless and never conforming to any stereotypes or a restricted box. My goal is to help people understand that it shouldn't be a surprise that Black women are dynamic. This is the standard.

How have Black women running for and holding nationally elected positions inspired you as a leader?

For VP-elect Harris to accomplish something this huge is so inspiring for me. It reinforces the fact that there's nothing a Black woman can't do. It motivates me to know that I can achieve any goal.

How did you prepare your students to vote in the past election?

We started with voter registration events, making sure that all campus facilities had SGA members and volunteers ensuring our students were registered to vote and helping them request absentee ballots. Our student government team also coordinated transportation to the polls—we wanted to help make sure anyone who wanted to vote, did.

What are your plans to encourage long-term civic engagement?

My hope is that this past election has set a tone for our future civic engagement. We've seen the importance of our vote. We will continue to encourage our students to stay locally engaged, advocate on behalf of our university, and remain invested in our state and local elections.

The statements above further affirm that Black women are about their craft. MBIB is incredibly proud of this community, as it continues to extend far beyond traditional educational systems—breaking down barriers, checking off boxes, and leaning into an ever-growing list of accomplishments. Whether the backbone of our campuses, or the energy field surrounding our communities, Black women know that showing up is the first step to getting it done. Because of this, we’re securing space for future leaders to come.

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Blake Newby is a freelance beauty editor and writer with bylines in publications such as Allure, Cosmo, The Zoe Report, Essence, NYLON, and BET.

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