#StandWithBennett: A Student Led Movement That Achieved The Improbable

0
157

December 11, 2018 was a normal day for me on Instagram. I was handing HBCU Pulse duties, trying to expand our reach to other HBCUs. I was scrolling through my timeline and saw that Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University had their Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) accreditation extended for another 10 years. I was enthused seeing the news. FAMU has always been a school that has shifted the culture and set the standard academically so I wasn’t surprised at the news. I always find out about the latest and greatest news about the highest of the seven hills from Imani Cooper, Miss FAMU and my 4th cohort HBCU All-Star Ambassador peer turned best friend.

 I expected this night to be no different from other nights on Instagram. Things changed, however, as I continued to click through Imani’s Instagram Story. That’s when I first encountered the #standwithbennett movement.

Even though the #standwithbennet movement was new to me, I was already familiar with Miss Bennett College Brooke Kane. Brooke was an avid supporter of HBCU Pulse and interacted with our Instagram story all of the time. So, to see that Bennett was on the verge of closing its doors was concerning to me. The concern caused me to think about my own HBCU Fort Valley State University, as we’d just had an accreditation warning lifted. I thought about about how fearful my peers felt after learning the news.

I remember how the jokes from rival institutions stung and struck a nerve. Through all that we felt, we were on a warning. Bennett, however, was facing the threat of SACS revoking their accreditation. The byproducts of this decision would be generation altering. Not only would we be losing another one of our HBCUs, but a historic safe space for black women. We were in jeopardy of losing the first all-women’s college founded in 1873, eight years before the more prominently known Spelman College.

Seeing that Bennett College was going through ate at me. I couldn’t sleep. I found myself clicking through Brooke’s Instagram Story trying to become more well-versed about the issue of Bennett maintaining its accreditation.  I brainstormed on ways that I could help through HBCU Pulse, not nearly the purveyor of HBCU student centered content that we’d eventually become in such a short time. I immediately reached out to Brooke to offer my assistance in any way I could. At that point, I didn’t know what I’d do to help. I also didn’t know that the next month and a half would be a roller coaster ride of historic media activism and national prominence from the #standwithbennett movement that sparked from various aspects of coverage on the various Bennett Belle’s IGs, other HBCU Student Leaders and HBCU Pulse’s social outlets.

To properly tell this story, we must go in chronological order and cite the prominent student events that aided in Bennett College raising $8.2 million dollars. Don’t ever get it twisted, this was unequivocally a series of events powered by the students. If you listen to mainstream media outlets, that came late in the game to cover the astonishing success of the movement, they attribute the factors of success to everything but the Bennett Belles and the various HBCU students that stood for this historic institution. Those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it but those that don’t write their history are bound to be erased from it. Allow me to explain how #standwithbennett was, and will always be, a student led movement.

 

The Ebony Campus Queen Competition Part I

We can’t talk about the student’s contribution to the #standwithbennett movement without talking about the Ebony Magazine Campus Queen competition. The competition, which has been in inception since 2012, allows for campus queens from HBCUs around the nation to compete in a competition to be featured on their top 10 list and tentatively in one of their print issues. The queens are required for a period of four months to push students, alumni and unique visitors to their social media profiles alike to vote for them as many times as they possibly can on a custom link created for them on Ebony’s website.

You literally couldn’t go onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram as an HBCU Student without being smacked in the face with promotion of the Ebony Campus Queen competition from the various queens you’d follow, their courts and notable student leaders at their institutions. The Ebony Campus Queen competition always occurs without interruption or controversy every year. It’s been that way for the past seven years. However, Bennett’s accreditation crisis occurred during what was initially the final days of the competition. Brooke, who was campaigning to be one of the top ten queens featured on the list, was tasked with promoting her campaign and making sure her institution stayed open.

I stayed out of the Ebony Campus Queen fray at first. That was, until I observed how hard the queens were campaigning to be featured on the list. They were investing nearly the same amount of money into the Campus Queen competition that they did to campaign to become a campus queen at their HBCU. What really pushed me to action was seeing the reaction of Miss Albany State University Janese Bibbs to dropping out of the top 15 in the leaderboard update.

I’d just connected with her leading into the Fountain City Classic, the big rivalry football matchup between Fort Valley State University and Albany State University. I’d conducted an exclusive interview about her rise to being Queen at Albany and befriended her, offering her the opportunity to be the first official Queen Ambassador for HBCU Pulse. She then went on to cover the Sigma probate of Joshua Era, Mr. Albany State University, that was seen by over 20,000 people on the HBCU Pulse Twitter and Instagram pages. That was a huge win for HBCU Pulse, something that put us on the track to be noticed by several HBCU students that are now avid supporters of our platform. So, because of her tremendous work, I wanted to pay it forward. I had to find some way to help her get back into the top 10 of the Ebony Competition.

 

That’s when we talked about doing another takeover in promotion of her Ebony Campaign. That’s when I put out the call to all the queens that I’d help them with their Ebony Campus Queen campaign by offering them the opportunity to take over the HBCU Pulse page. Immediately the first person to contact me was Courtney Landrum, the reigning Miss Tuskegee. Then Kendall Chalk, Mr. Prairie View A&M University, contacted me about doing a takeover for his Ebony Campus King competition. After that, things started to roll quickly.

 

Brooke Kane, The Centerpiece of the Movement

Of course, the first person that I reached out to about doing an Ebony campaign promotion takeover outside of Janese was Brooke. I also offered for her do an interview here on hbcupulse.com spotlighting her time at Bennett College and explaining what was going on and how we could help. That led into the well-anticipated Christmas Day takeover of the HBCU Pulse page by Brooke and her fellow Belle sisters. The official Bennett College social media account even got involved!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Merry Christmas!!!!🎄Please make a donation to Bennett College as your Christmas gift!!!!💙🔔 #StandwithBennett #bennettcollege

A post shared by HBCU Pulse (@hbcupulse) on

In my estimation, the Takeover was key. We were able to showcase the brilliance of the oasis of black girl magic. We got the attention of students at HBCUs around the nation and informed them about what Bennett College was facing and ways that we, as students, could help. After that takeover, I saw more students outside of Bennett and North Carolina sharing the Cash App for the #standwithbennett movement. I also noticed that Bennett was being talked about more and Brooke’s daily messages and pictures in support of Bennett that she was posting were getting shared around by a lot of HBCU social media pages. After Christmas, I noticed a tide shift. Something was brewing and it was more grassroots than it was administrative or corporate. Basically, students were starting to understand their power and how we could use our collective social media clout to save Bennett College.

 

The Ebony Campus Queen Competition Part II: Jada Brown, Miss NCAT, Drops Out Of The Race

January 10, 2019 was an important. If anything, this day set more of a precedent than anything in the #standwithbennett student movement. The Ebony Campus Queen competition was all of a sudden extended from December 31st to January 31st. The Queens were still pushing to be featured by Ebony and Brooke was still pushing to keep Bennett College’s doors open and reach the $5 million dollar goal needed to show SACSCOC that they can raise the necessary funds to maintain accreditation. The conversation around Bennett was still going.

Pastor Jamal Bryant, a Morehouse College graduate, called on his congregation at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to donate money to Bennett. We spotlighted this video on J5 (Kappas Founders Day, Dr. Bryant is a Kappa) and he shared it on his Instagram Story. Brooke still was pushing, using her social media as a local news outlet to inform concerned HBCU Advocates about the continuous fight to maintain Bennett’s accreditation as the February 1st deadline approached.  Then, J10 rolled around. We’re gonna call it “J10” because this day is a notable point in history as well.

Jada Brown, Miss North Carolina Agricultural & Mechanical University, decided to take a break on her social media fast to come back to her Instagram and do an IG Live broadcast stating that she would no longer be participating in the Ebony Campus Queen competition and that she wanted her votes to be transferred to Brooke so she could have the opportunity to be featured in the magazine. Jada said in her video that she’d be writing a formal letter to charge them to utilize their platform to give Brooke a chance to be seen and heard, advocating for her HBCU. She even floated the idea to Ebony about making Brooke the 11th Queen featured on the winners list.

Jada then started making calls to her fellow sister queens at other HBCUs about joining her in the fight to support Brooke and stand with Bennett College. She even talked to the Kings about supporting the movement. The queens came up with the idea of writing a letter to Ebony showing solidarity with Brooke and charging them to act on behalf of Bennett. To that point, their calls were largely unheard.

Once again, I wanted to stay silent and continue to support Bennett by giving Brooke and the other Belles a platform to speak on the brilliance of their HBCU. However, Jada said something in one of her IG Lives on her page that struck a nerve with me.

She said that there were people that disagreed with her dropping out of the Ebony competition, saying that she was losing an opportunity and “she doesn’t know who she’d meet at Ebony that could help her get where she wants to go”. Jada handled it with grace, as a queen should. She responded to the comments saying that, “What God has for you is for you.” I was offended that anyone would even come to Jada, the literal mother of a whole sector of a social movement, and say something as ignorant as that. So, I took the gloves off and hopped in the fray.

HBCU Pulse vs. Ebony Magazine, Brooke Speaks & Getting Celebrity Support

January 11, 2019 was when I decided to do my first IG Story expose of Ebony Magazine and who owns the magazine. Through research, we learned that Ebony is currently black owned and that a Texas Southern graduate was on the administrative team for the company that owns it called Clearview. My goal wasn’t to tear down Ebony or the competition, but to tear down the notion that the Queens being featured by Ebony was a requirement for their success. In the article “The Charge: Ebony Magazine MUST Support Bennett College (Why I Don’t Support The Ebony Campus Queen Competition)”, I defended Jada and her intentions to spark this movement against Ebony amongst the Queens, saying:

Oh, and everybody telling Jada and other Queens that they’re losing an opportunity and “you don’t know who you’ll meet at Ebony”, y’all are dead wrong! Jada and the other queens are not doing this for clout. What God has for them is for them. Plus, have you seen their social media followings? Jada has 6,000+ followers. She’s getting a psychology degree this semester from one of the top HBCUs in the nation. I don’t think she needs to kiss up to Ebony/Clearview executives for a shot. She’s gotten this far. The same goes for all the other HBCU Queens. Clearly, they’re doing something right. You can’t go on IG without seeing a promotion for an Ebony Campus Queen campaign.Even moreso, we’re here for them. I’m here. Pulse is here! Online black media outlets that unapologetically serve HBCUs are here. We don’t need them!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

I am so proud to be an official member of @forbestheculture

A post shared by JADA BROWN (@ms_jadababy) on

(Linked Above: Jada becomes a member of Forbes The Culture a couple of weeks after dropping out of the Ebony competition)

After that article, I then started to hear sources that said that Ebony mismanaged previous Campus Queen cohorts. That’s when I was tipped off to the information that the 2017-2018 Ebony Campus Queen Top 10 winners weren’t flown out to New York City to have a photoshoot. They submitted headshots, answered about 3-4 interview questions and that was their feature in Ebony. They weren’t featured on the cover and the other queens that campaigned were also featured in the magazine.

Through it all, I still saw that Ebony was the trending topic amongst the student group on social media instead of what Jada initially stood for on J10. Ebony wasn’t the focus of why she dropped out of the competition and wanted to transfer her votes. She did it to make a statement that everyone was so worried about the Ebony campaign that no one was pushing to assist Bennett in keeping its doors open. Her standing was a charge to everyone to keep that same energy for Bennett that they did for the Ebony Campus Queen competition. The support from her sister queens moved Brooke to writing her own letter to Ebony and exclusively publishing it on hbcupulse.com on January 13. In the letter, she said:

We ask that Ebony Magazine and the Ebony HBCU Campus Queens Competition supports Bennett College and myself, and allow us to claim a place in the magazine while standing with Bennett. This grand opportunity could possibly grant donations to Bennett, generate more publicity and most importantly, bring the chance to sprinkle a little more magic for current and future Belles to come.

Shortly after, Imani Cooper submitted the official letter that Jada and the other Queens sent to Ebony Magazine in support of Brooke and published it exclusive on hbcupulse.com. A list of queens that stood through this time and even dropped out of the competition goes as follows:

A new movement was then sparking. Celebrities such as Keke Palmer, Vanessa Bell Calloway and Loretta Divine were standing with Bennett College. However, people started to do rapid tags of celebrities to see if they could garner their support in donating to Bennett College or, at the very least, raise awareness. That’s when we published “An Open Letter To Beyonce, Charlamagne Tha God, Chance The Rapper & HBCU Alumni Celebrities (Support Bennett College)”. We wanted to focus our strategy, targeting celebrities that actually show support to HBCUs or even attended a black institution. I compiled a list on MLK Day that featured:

  • Beyonce & Jay Z (The Carters)
  • Chance The Rapper
  • Charlamagne Tha God
  • Charles Barkley
  • Diddy (Howard)
  • DJ Envy (Hampton)
  • Wanda Sykes (Hampton)
  • Taraji P. Henson (NCAT/Howard)
  • Common (FAMU)
  • Will Packer (FAMU)
  • Rob Hardy (FAMU)
  • Erykah Badu (Grambling)
  • Ruben Studdard (Alabama A&M)
  • David Banner (Southern University)
  • Terrence J (NCAT)
  • Yolanda Adams (Texas Southern)
  • Shannon Sharpe (Savannah State)
  • Marquette King (FVSU)

Students from all HBCUs started to tag the celebrities featured on this list and even added other celebrities like Oprah, Tiffany Haddish, LeBron James, Nick Cannon and Steph Curry. Other celebrities and dignitaries in the community started to step up. Two notable members of our list, Charlamagne and DJ Envy, started to discuss Bennett College on the nationally syndicated The Breakfast Club. Charlamagne even said that he donated some money to Bennett. The tide was changing even more and Bennett was started to receive an outpouring of well deserved support.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

@cthagod finally spoke about @bennett_college! I think our charge worked out! 🤗🤗🤗🤗🔥🔥🔥🔥

A post shared by HBCU Pulse (@hbcupulse) on

The Conclusion, Even Though The Fight Isn’t Over

The sheer power of the students was seen several ways. None more notable than Ebony Magazine finally deciding to honor Brooke by giving her an #11 spot on the winners list. Bennett went on to secure $8.2 million dollars, up from the $5 million dollars that was initially asked for. Brooke then went on to win the Miss UNCF pageant. Bennett started to get the recognition that it truly deserved. However, the story is still being written. The fight isn’t over.

Dr. Phyllis Dawkins, president of Bennett College, and her administration are set to meet with SACSCOC about maintaining their accreditation within the next few days. The meeting is important, as it will be forth-telling of what’s to come. However, we can proudly say that Bennett College now has more than it did on December 11, 2018. And, it’s all because of the students. The students pushed, the students prodded, the students paid then partied when we found out that Bennett exceeded her goal. Let that now and forever be the narrative. We have power in this generation. If we use it correctly and work as a collective, we can change the tide of history.  

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here