The Women of Wanawake Weusi

by Mary Shipp Barlett

The first homework assignment in college is always difficult, even for the most academically self-confident young person. New friends and an unfamiliar environment are nerve-wracking enough without the stress of handing in a paper for Core I.

Imagine that strain felt during those first weeks at Scripps. Now imagine the added anxiety of being a young black woman at a predominately white institution. Granted, you wouldn’t be at a selective liberal arts college if you didn’t have the smarts along with inner strength—but is that enough to succeed?

Kareesha de Visser ’09 felt that way two years ago until Kara Guillory ’07, then a junior, walked through the residence halls with a friend delivering candy, snacks, and water to each black member of the first-year class. Enter the feeling of relief.

“We wanted them to know we were rooting for them,” says Guillory. It was an important gesture, one of many undertaken by a handful of determined black women to change Wanawake Weusi, which means “black woman” in Swahili, into a respected organization on campus.

The women were Guillory, Ashley Peters ’08, Kimberlina McKinney ’07, Ashley Martin ’06, Naima Ford ’06, and Tenisha Harrell ’07.

“WW was a necessity to the black women on campus,” says Peters, “and it was time for us to create an organization all of Scripps and the larger 5-C community would recognize as important.”

Their outreach to other black women at Scripps became an intense, collaborative effort. “We knew this club would become the livelihood for some women and the only reason they’d stay on this campus,” says Peters. “Other clubs meet as an extracurricular activity, but we meet to inspire strength and a fierce determination to stay the course and graduate.”

Peters admits it was not easy, but necessary. “We needed a space where there would be no pretense or need to explain how we got into Scripps and why we belonged here.”

With Ford as president, Peters as vice president, and Martin as secretary, Guillory named herself coordinator of development with the goal of planning and executing events for WW members to uplift and promote cohesion. She brainstormed with the group and implemented changes in the struggling organization to ensure growth and keep members active. ”

My job,” she says, “was to take WW to the next level by recruiting new members as well as keeping old members and new members so happy they would commit their time and energy to WW while becoming part of its invaluable sisterhood.”

Their hard work paid off. At the end of the year, every black first-year student, including de Visser, became involved in Wanawake Weusi. And every black first year returned for her second year at the College.

Today, Wanawake Weusi is thriving, with 20 active Scripps women as members in ’06-’07. It plans to grow as it pushes the College to attract and enroll more black students.

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“I joined in the hopes of becoming an active member of the black community,” says de Visser, “and I have since been overwhelmed with the incredible support and encouragement I have received.” De Visser says that Wanawake Weusi has caused her to be more critical of her environment and more open to people from all backgrounds.

McKinney, who became a member as a first year, says, “I was expecting a typical black student union experience like I had had in high school, like a club that only existed during black history month. But I was surprised to find out that Wanawake did more community work on campus.”

Tenisha Harrell ’07 came to Scripps by way of Xavier University after Hurricane Katrina forced its closure. As she became acclimated to Scripps, it was essential for her to connect with women of color, especially since she had just come from a historically black university. “I wanted to be a blessing to the women of Wanawake Weusi by being an active member who cared and was dedicated to serving the ladies of WW and the Scripps community. I expected to give of myself wherever I was needed because I knew that if I needed something, my WW sisters would support me.”

Amber Ward ’10 concurs. “I love knowing that I have my ‘big sisters’ to look out for me and to be there if I should ever need them,” she says.

Several members mentioned the importance of having a group of women who understand how uncomfortable it can be to be singled out.

Peters explains: “As black women, we all experience it—the ‘reference glance’ that occurs when someone in class, be it the professor, a student, or the text, says ‘Africa,’ ‘black,’ ‘African-American,’ ‘poor,’ ‘race,’ ‘racism,”Negro.’ Then everyone turns to you, and with their eyes ask the Black Person in the class to validate the statement that was just made. It is the longest second of your day, and something you never forget. Someone has just demanded that you speak for your race, whether it was a silent request or a spoken demand; you are now different, and you are no longer completely comfortable in that space.”

In Wanawake Weusi, members speak about those moments and pass on strength to one another. “Every time a bias-related incident occurs, it is another reminder that you are different,” says Peters. “But WW reminds you to find glory and beauty in those differences and strength in our skin.”

Guillory also believes WW plays a crucial role. “We need the comfort and the encouragement of each other to hang in there and to keep going. At the end of the day, we want, and we need, that family to whom we can return.”

“When one of our members is going through something,” continues Guillory, “we can go through it with her, or see signs of trouble and direct her to the proper resources to get the help she needs, instead of having her struggle alone and then leave. The concept is simple: when you feel loved, and when you feel supported, you feel as if you can do anything.”

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Wanawake Weusi members emphasize the positive role modeling the organization provides.

Guillory explains that WW encourages women to pursue leadership just from watching their friends in leadership positions. “Every week, when we get together,” she relates, “we hear the intimate details of what our peers are involved in, and we hear the challenges and successes of the positions. From that, a normalcy of being in leadership is established and women in the organization come to believe that they are capable of leadership and actively pursue it.”

“Just watching the ladies that have been here before me,” says Ward, “I have role models that make me aspire to make my own contributions to Scripps just as they have.”

The group’s leadership is impressive and at the highest levels: Ashley Peters is this year’s president of Scripps Associated Students (SAS) andresident advisor at Toll Hall. Kimberlina McKinney was the second black commencement speaker at Scripps last May, chosen by her classmates. Ashley Franklin is vice president of judicial and academic review on SAS and resident advisor at Frankel Hall. Kareesha de Visser is vice president of student life on SAS and a first-year coordinator.

Camille Butts is senior class co-rep on SAS and an outstanding volleyball player. Though small in number, everywhere you look, black women play a vital role in the Scripps community.

After Peters learned she had been elected president of the student body, she called her friend Jaime Willis ’07, while walking across Jaqua Quad. “Am I speaking to the first black student body president of Scripps College?” asked Willis.

“I just started crying as the impact of those words hit me,” says Peters. “I am the first, but I know I won’t be the last.”

Along with support and
r
ole modeling, WW engages in significant community service projects and events during the year—both social and educational— that unite members, as well as enrich the larger Scripps community. In spring 2007, WW produced “Remembering Golden New Orleans,” a benefit dinner to raise funds for Katrina relief. The group is also actively involved in Black History Month and continues to collaborate with SCORE, the Music Department, Malott Commons, Scripps Associated Students, and other offices to help ensure the success of events and enhance the lives of all women at Scripps. According to Harrell, WW plans to have a benefit dinner to support a cause each year, and adds this sentiment, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

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What is the reality for black women at Scripps? Are a significant number of black students being offered admission and then enrolling, and what is the College doing to address a perceived problem of lack of diversity?

Patricia Goldsmith, vice president and dean of admission, reports a rise in black student enrollment in the class of 2011.

“The College engages in significant outreach efforts to traditionally underrepresented students, particularly through the Scripps College Summer Academy and the QuestBridge Program,” says Goldsmith. “This year I was particularly gratified that our black student leadership pushed hard for increased recruitment programming.”

Despite their many academic and extracurricular commitments, McKinney and Peters found time to think carefully about and plan for an expanded three-day program for admitted women of color. Patricia Alcala-Jacobo, associate director of admission, and Lynzie DeVeres, admission counselor, provided staff support for McKinney and Peters’ dream, and the College provided significant financial backing.

“Not surprisingly,” says Goldsmith, “this unified effort resulted in our enrolling eight of the twelve black women who attended the program. There is still, of course, much work to be done, but the passionate involvement of our current students is key to our future success in recruiting more black women.”

The recently adopted Scripps College strategic plan (Scripps College in the Next Decade: Leading with Excellence) has a commitment to diversity as one of its six key strategies and proclaims “diversity at Scripps College advances academic excellence.” However, the College also states in the plan: “Our progress is not viewed as sufficient by any constituency.”

“Women of color are a minority presence on campus,” says McKinney. “However, black women are the most underrepresented group. If we want change, it has to happen on a collective basis with an obvious attempt to bring, specifically, black women to campus and not just ‘women of color’, which is so broadly, and a lot of times inaccurately, defined.”

Peters is equally passionate: “What is nine in a class of 227? Until Scripps truly commits to ‘diversifying’ this campus, it cannot expect black women to continue to stay and succeed. Changes are slowly being made at Scripps, but it is time for Scripps to be more aggressive and proactive.”

As positive steps, Scripps College created a department called SCORE (Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment) to provide support to student organizations. The new director, Marla Love, is an African American woman with extensive experience working in a college setting.

According to Dean of Students Debra Wood, “The College’s work to diversify our staff has been successful in the area of student affairs, where the three top candidates for and new hires in residence life are also African American.”

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So, what would members of Wanawake Weusi say to young black women considering coming to Scripps?

“I would tell her that if she wants to come here, she has to be a strong woman, willing to work harder than her peers, always striving for excellence,” says McKinney. “There are challenges at every university; at Scripps you should be prepared to face ignorance of your culture, apathy to the struggles of your people, and extreme visibility as a minority student. As a black woman, you have to find a space where you can deal with those hard times and assert yourself in a dignified way. Wanawake Weusi served that purpose for me.” Harrell says she encourages African American women to apply to Scripps, as the opportunities are endless, and suggests that they stay true to themselves, remain positive, and be active and visible members of the community. She points to several professors, in particular Sheila Walker, Rita Roberts, and Amy Marcus-Newhall, who are role models and great encouragers of academic success.

The women of Wanawake Weusi: intelligent, caring, vibrant members of the Scripps community. They are doing all they can to see the College become ever more supportive in recruiting, enrolling, and retaining women of color in general, and black women in particular.