Hear Them Roar
Black women leaders lead the way for others at MU.
Akia Parks can’t count the number of times she’s been one of a handful of black students sitting in a class. If the professor tells them to break into groups, she’s usually the only black person in her group.
“It’s kind of unnerving,” Parks says. “Sometimes I feel like, man, do I really belong here? Is this something I can do?”
Periods of doubt are typical, especially among the small but growing group of black women at MU. In fall 2012, the black community was 7.1 percent of MU’s total enrollment. Women make up more than 60 percent of the total black population on campus, or roughly 1,480 students. Ten years ago, that number was 836.
“We have our work cut out for us,” Parks says, “finding people who are good examples, finding ourselves and making our own definition of who a black woman should be and how we should behave and how we should carry ourselves.”
LySaundra Campbell, a senior at MU and a leader in the black community, says she often feels pressure to set an example, especially for her younger sister, Malaysia. “She’s watching my every move,” Campbell says. “It’s good motivation to stay humble and keep myself in check because I know it’s not just my little sister who looks up to me.”
Parks says TV shows such as VH1’s Love and Hip Hop work against them, making it twice as hard to distance themselves from the negative stereotypes of black women the programs perpetuate. “Young black women need to see what positive, successful black women look like,” Parks says. “You see these black women acting a fool on TV. It bothers me so much. I know better, but people watch it and think it’s OK.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum is first lady Michelle Obama, who consistently tops the list of role models among black women at MU. When Obama addressed the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, she said: “When you’ve worked hard and done well and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you. You reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed.”
Parks, Campbell and fellow leaders Brittany Bennett and Greer Relphorde apply Obama’s words to daily life.
What motivates every choice they make is their desire to give back. Their contributions have been shaped by where they come from, whom they met on campus, the organizations they chose to lead and the young women they are reaching back to help succeed.
As a high school student, Parks was interested in math and science but had no concept of research. Navigating a lab and reading scholarly articles were new to her when she started working in a lab through the EXPRESS program. “There are so many things I got saved from because of [the advice from] people I met, but [there are] so many other things I could have been saved from, too,” Parks says.
Now, she is a peer mentor in the program, leading students who are still learning how to use a pipette and write a literature review. Kayla Henderson, a sophomore biological engineering major from Kansas City, Mo., is one of Parks’ advisees. Henderson has called Parks on more than one occasion, most recently over the requirements for a scholarship that helps her attend Mizzou. “I was afraid I was going to lose it because I wasn’t taking enough credits,” Henderson says, “but she took the time to call [the scholarship coordinator] to find out.”
Henderson, who describes herself as shy and easily intimidated, says Parks encourages her to take steps to get to grad school one day. She is working with Parks to figure out how to ask for more responsibility in the lab. “She’s who I look up to as who I want to be in two years,” Henderson says.
LySaundra Campbell didn’t need to take Sociology 1000 to learn the statistics about children who witness domestic violence. From age 4 to 11, she watched her father physically abuse her mother. She knows the risk for substance abuse and poor academic performance those memories carry. She has the numbers memorized.
“I would see those [statistics], and I would say, ‘That’s not going to be me,’ ” Campbell says. “I’m going to beat the statistic, get involved and change the culture.”
She started working at True North — more than 30 hours a week this past year. During a shift at the domestic and sexual violence shelter, Campbell had a heart-to-heart with a 9-year-old girl who came in with her mom. The girl asked Campbell why sometimes her dad was mean to her mom. “I just gave her the most honest answer: ‘I don’t know,’ ” Campbell recalls. Even after three years of working at the RSVP Center, it’s the one answer for which she still searches. “But I reiterated that she deserves to be treated with utmost respect, like a queen. Her eyes lit up when I said queen. ‘Really?!’ I just laughed and said, ‘Yes, and if a guy doesn’t do that, then he doesn’t deserve to be with you.’ ”
As a child, Brittany Bennett pretended she was a teacher, using her grandpa’s old grammar books to quiz her imaginary students. They were simple sentences, one subject and one verb. She thought the books were just toys passed down from generation to generation.
She was a teenager when her mom explained the significance of those books: Bennett’s grandpa used them as a 16-year-old with a fifth grade education to better his reading and writing skills. Bennett understands the legacy of those books.
“It didn’t click until I was older that I had this opportunity he didn’t get,” says Bennett, a first-generation college student.
Now, instead of teaching make-believe pupils, Bennett mentors Kyleigh Johnson, a junior business major and vice president of DSA. Each semester, Bennett sits down with Johnson and goes over her class selection for the following year. At the fall 2012 DSA Women in Business panel, Bennett prompted Johnson to think about how she’ll make the panel even better when she’s president. “I never would have even run for VP without [Bennett’s] guidance,” Johnson says. “And now I’m looking to be president next year? I’m meeting the people I need to meet to become a better leader.”
When Greer Relphorde discovered “The Black Unicorn” by Audre Lorde, she was moved by the last lines of the poem: “The black unicorn is restless. The black unicorn is unrelenting. The black unicorn is not free.”
Relphorde thinks the sentiment still rings true. To initiate conversations about the issues minorities face, Relphorde organized the inaugural Diversity Dinner, co-hosted with Four Front, campus leaders from MU’s social justice groups. Students such as Kevin Guevara connected with Dr. Ellis Ingram, associate professor of pathology and senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion in the medical school.
“The dinner was a way to talk about the elephants in the room, to network and to be inspired,” Guevara says. Now Guevara, a junior chemistry major and president of the Asian American Association, volunteers with CALEB, a science club Ingram leads for students of diverse backgrounds.
Relphorde deals with those “elephants” as LBC president. Among her goals are petitioning for a more diverse faculty (in 2012, out of 1,985 ranked faculty, 57 were black), increasing graduation rates of black students (in 2012, the six-year graduation rate was 56.8 percent compared to 70.8 percent overall) and getting black studies recognized as a department.
“To make changes, to get things done, you have to be restless,” Relphorde says.