Through a shared love and support of HBCUs, these two women are stepping up and stepping into service to enact change for HBCU institutions and the Black community, at large. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have played an undeniable role in the progression of our nation, culture, and the lives of all Americans. Products of HBCUs have. consisted of some of the most recognizable and influential public figures in entertainment, politics, sports, and academia, including: Oprah Winfrey, Nobel Prize-winning author, Toni Morrison, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pulitzer-Prize winner Alice Walker, Andrew Young, Taraji P. Henson, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and our “Wakanda Forever “Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman.
Of all Black graduates with STEM degrees, more than 25% come from HBCUs, according to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), while HBCUs remain the top producers of Black medical students, judges, and lawyers, according to various academic and federal sources.
Despite their pivotal contributions and consistent output of talent, these establishments have been largely undervalued. Their treatment as second-class institutions is evidenced by the fact that white colleges have obtained and continue to receive significantly more funding. As a result, they gain more access to innovative programs. But the fault does not lie entirely with federal, corporate or money-driven entities.
“They [HBCUs] are increasingly becoming a lost gem, and we’re losing, as a community, an excellent resource,” says Dr. Donald M. Henderson, a respected academic, a PhD in Sociology and the first and only black Provost of the University of Pittsburgh, of HBCUs. His academic career began at Central State University, a public, historically black land-grant university in Wilberforce, Ohio.
“These treasures of the Black existence in our country are being lost because the significance and importance of these institutions is no longer being taught in the same fashion it was taught when I was a kid,” he shares. Henderson was born in 1931. “The more we lose the Black institutions, the more we lose our history, and our identity.”
Over the last two decades, several HBCUs have either permanently shut their doors, or lost their accreditation. One could argue that support of, or perhaps fascination with, HBCUs has seen a general uptick following America’s ongoing reckoning with systemic racism. In the wake of various tragedies, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, blatant discrepancies in the treatment of black and brown bodies by law enforcement, has brought to the forefront discrepancies found in all aspects of our society— the workforce, higher education, healthcare, and beyond.
While what comes next is uncertain, there exists one lingering question for many members of the Black population: is interest and concern for these institutions and their students fleeting?
Yes, MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated a portion of her $1.7 billion philanthropic endowment to six HBCUs. Yes, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and his wife, Quillin, split $120 million between Morehouse, Spelman, and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). But what about the more than ninety other HBCUs, and the federal budget cuts, the student loan crisis, and other challenges they must face? How will we shift foundations, alter preconceptions, and ensure that actions don’t temporarily trend?
Graduates of HBCUs are likely the best candidates to speak on the benefits and experiences that come from attending an HBCU. Two such individuals who recognized the value in preserving them long before it was trending are Yolanda Rodgers Howsie and Keshia Knight Pulliam.
Rodgers Howsie, a marketing guru who’s worked on notable projects like The Black Panther and The Hate U Give is a graduate of Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS. Knight Pulliam, an actor and our beloved “Rudy” from the hit family sitcom, The Cosby Show, studied at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. Together, in September 2020, they co-founded Stepping Into Service (SIS).
“Stepping Into Service,” also known as SIS, originated as an idea for the first All Celebrity Step Show, which would serve as a means for rallying the Black community and generating scholarships for the benefit of HBCUs and their students,” explains Rodgers Howsie.
“I felt that presenting more seasoned Greeks with the opportunity to step on a national stage would be a fun way to bring together the Greek community and extended Black community to champion a positive cause.”
Following a conversation with her co-founder about the state of HBCUs, the two decided that SIS could serve a much broader purpose.
“I was very excited to join forces with my Soror,” says Knight Pulliam. “As a graduate of Spelman College, I understand the importance of us ensuring that we financially support our HBCUs. It is imperative that we make sure they stay around to educate generations to come. It is so important that we invest in us, in every facet, in every way, and that’s what we’re doing with Stepping Into Service.”
Since then “the idea has grown significantly, evolving into a vehicle of change that uplifts various social, cultural and political initiatives designed to empower HBCUs, Black Greek organizations and all members of the Black community,” says Rodgers Howsie.
Though the All Celebrity Step Show will remain an annual fundraiser, it is currently slated for 2021 due to COVID-19.
Both Rodgers Howsie and Knight Pulliam are proud members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., one of nine historically Black Greek-letter organizations that together, comprise the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), also referred to as the Divine Nine.
Noting the NPHC’s historic contributions to and support of Black political unity, educational progress, and cultural uplifting, the SIS co-founders were excited to announce their partnership with the Divine Nine this 2020 election season by launching, The National Stroll to the Polls Contest.
“We’re launching with a political initiative which is a virtual contest that will be judged by a celebrity panel,” says Rodgers Howsie.
The competition is a virtual Greek challenge designed to encourage recurrent, and new voters to play an active role in our democracy and, more immediately, the 2020 presidential election. All competitors must meet specific requirements, including being registered to vote.
“The choices we make now through November 3rd will directly impact how the Black community recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, both physically and financially,” says Dr. David Marion, the forty-first Grand Basileus of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated.
“Policies and laws impacting the well-being of Black Americans are influenced at every level of government, from the local courts to the White House. It’s imperative that our Divine Nine fraternities and sororities continue in our tradition of effecting positive change by casting our votes, volunteering at polling locations, and taking our family and friends to the polls. When we vote, things change.”
Another partner of SIS is Black Voters Matter (BVM). Co-founded by LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, BVM is an organization dedicated to expanding Black voter engagement and increasing progressive power.
“Part of our focus is to build political power within Black communities,” says Brown. “We build the capacity of Black grassroots organizations that do this work. As we’re talking to people during this election cycle, it is really important that we create excitement, energy, and connectivity in this work,” she adds, referencing the organization’s partnership with SIS.
BVM is sponsoring $25,000 in cash prizes for the National Stroll to the Polls contest-winning chapters.
“Black Voters Matter has committed ourselves to continuing the work of the Black Power Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and that’s why we’re so excited to work with SIS. [Together] we’re doing the work because this is our moment, this is our time,” adds Brown. “And when we show up, we win.”
It seems that much can be expected by SIS, which already boasts a roster of ambassadors including Benjamin Crump, Esq., a high profile attorney specializing in civil rights and catastrophic personal injury cases, who is representing the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Aunjanue Ellis, and several others.
“Join us as we take a step into service,” says Rodgers Howsie, citing the organization’s tagline and call to action.
Now all that remains is to see who will answer the call.
To learn more about Stepping Into Service or get more details about The Stroll to the Polls contest, visit: https://www.steppingintoservice.org/. Submission deadline is November 10th.