“We Are Multitudes”
April 16, 2020
- Emma Lopez ’20, intern for the Office of Diversity Education
The most important thing that Alex Bell ’21 wants you to know about Empowering Blacks and Others to Never Yield (EBONY) is that the organization “is not just a space for Black students. It is an organization that is supposed to empower Black people, but anyone can empower Black people. That’s why I want it to be intersectional and inclusive. Everybody should feel welcome.”
A member organization of the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) and advised by Associate Professor of Sociology Reggie Byron, EBONY is, as Bell defines it, “an intersectional organization dedicated to uplifting and empowering Black people, LGBTQ [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer] folks, and their allies on Southwestern’s campus.” Coined in 1989 by civil-rights advocate and theorist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to how an individual’s class, race, gender, sexuality, age, belief system, ability, and other characteristics of identity overlap and, in combination, affect the way that person experiences the world—including how they might or might not experience inequality, marginalization, or discrimination. “Previous to this space, I don’t think there was really anywhere [on campus] where LGBTQ people of color felt comfortable sharing their experiences. [But] intersectionality is one of the core elements of EBONY,” Bell explains. “We don’t want people to feel like they have to hold back on any parts of their identity because we are so many things at once, and all of those things are super important and should be able to be at the forefront instead of, ‘I’m Black more than anything else’ or ‘I’m gay more than anything else.’ We are multitudes.”
The history and leadership of EBONY
EBONY’s name and mission have changed throughout its long history. The organization traces its roots back to the first Black student organization on campus, Blacks Organizing for Social Survival, or BOSS, which was founded in the 1970s. In 1980, however, Janine Pope Mays ’83 wanted a less militaristic name for the group and rebranded the group EBONY, which was not an acronym (Mays continues to be actively involved with today’s organization, mentoring Bell and even attending this year’s annual welcome dinner). In the 1990s, the group’s members decided that their name should stand for Encouraging Blacks and Others to Never Yield, which was then used, discarded, and revived by succeeding leaders over the years.
Today, Bell—who identifies as nonbinary and prefers they/them/their as their pronouns—prefers for the E in EBONY to stand for Empowering. “My fundamental belief is that empowering those that are the most marginalized in society empowers everyone,” they say. “So I think that’s the main purpose of the space: [to] uplift people that have been the most disregarded by society, that have been the most marginalized. Everyone should be empowered in some way, shape, or form.”
Bell says that some might also question why the NY in EBONY represents Never Yield; “‘to never yield’ against what?” those individuals might ask. “Any minority student at a PWI [predominantly white institution] needs to understand that they don’t need to yield to this culture [of] the overwhelming number of white people around them,” they explain. “That’s why the acronym was really important to me and why I wanted to reclaim that as president.”
Over the years, Bell has been active in various CDSJ organizations: they have been the vice president of the Latina-founded sorority Kappa Delta Chi, served as the president of the Food Justice Association, and attended meetings of Muslims and Allies as well as the Hispanics and Latinos Organization (HALO). But they sought out EBONY as soon as they knew of its existence their first semester at Southwestern; they served as president of the group from February 2019 through fall 2019. The anthropology major and Spanish minor recalls that when they first assumed leadership, they had very few resources at hand, but they are proud that EBONY now counts more than 20 students among its regular members, with as many as 30 on its email list. For a campus as small as Southwestern, that roster evidences the group’s appeal and success. Bell attributes this, in part, to coleading the organization the past couple semesters with “a really awesome and supportive vice president and secretary,” Tayvin Otti ’21 and Esther Nyaberi ’21, respectively. “We’re a trio for sure, and all of it [got] done because we coordinate[d],” Bell shares. “It’s a really good group. I appreciate them a lot.”
A welcoming space
In the past few years, EBONY has hosted numerous well-attended events: film and documentary screenings and discussions, Culture Days, and attendance at the Southwestern (regional, not University-affiliated) Black Student Leadership Conference. In fall 2019, the group collaborated with the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life to start a new book club in which participants read and discuss literature written by African-American authors; their first conversation focused on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. And earlier this semester, members screened the film Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, and performed at the Black History Talent Showcase at Korouva Milk Bar.
For Nyaberi, who recently stepped down from her officer position but continues to be an active member, one of the most memorable events the group has helped sponsor was a student panel titled “The More You Know about Racism,” which Bell coorganized and moderated during this past January’s Dream Week celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The panelists honestly discussed their experiences as students of color at Southwestern, fielding questions from an audience of more than 85 community members. “A lot of people came to that panel, so now we’re really growing on campus. I remember when it was just me, Alex, and Tayvin!” Nyaberi reflects. “But what I love about EBONY is it’s not only inclusive to African Americans; [our members are] Hispanic, white, Asian. I’m so proud of our organization.”
Bell expresses special fondness for IntersectionaliTea, a series of meetups, initiated in spring 2019, in which students, faculty, and staff of color who identify as LGBTQ+ were invited to share their thoughts about work, study, and life on campus. “I think creating the IntersectionaliTea was just super important because … we would just get so into it,” they recall. “At the first one, we were there for 2.5 to 3 hours just talking because there had not been that space to talk about the LGBT–Black experience.”
EBONY also collaborated with Students for Environmental Activism and Knowledge (SEAK) last April for the latter’s regular Global Food Feast. Students brought not just different dishes representing the cuisine of different countries but also informational cards that educated participants about environmental issues that were affecting those nations. EBONY’s vice president, Otti, hails from Nigeria, so her mother prepared Nigerian entrées and sides for the event. “The food was really good, and it was all vegan… . I learned about Nigerian water scarcity, [which] I didn’t know about, and just water scarcity on the continent of Africa in general,” Bell recollects. “The food was super awesome, plus learning was really fun. Food brings people together, so that was a really positive experience.”
A bright future
At the end of the fall semester, Bell handed the EBONY reins to Ivan Maina ’22 and Kellie Henderson ’23 before beginning a semester abroad in Chile as a Gilman Scholar. But the junior looks forward to returning to the intersectional, inclusive organization when they return to campus because of its commitment to making students of diverse backgrounds feel welcome, safe, and empowered to both speak and listen.
“There is something just magical about seeing people in a space where they feel like they can be the fullest version of themselves,” Bell shares. “[We] cultivat[e] a space where people feel like they can bring their full selves and [do] not have to hold anything back for the sake of not hurting people’s feelings or making people feel uncomfortable because we talk about things that are uncomfortable intentionally… . In EBONY, we’re really good into leaning into that [discomfort].”