Black Herstory Month: Uplifting Student Voices in Higher Education

By Jay Tran
Art Credit-Jay Tran, FMF Intern

Even as the end of Black Herstory Month draws near, Black Herstory has and will continue to be made by individuals like Arekia S. Bennett, a Jackson State University alumna. She has advocated against campus sexual assault as well as for the campus to provide accessible resources and assistance to survivors through lobbying with local lawmakers to push for increased access to Title IX aid as an undergraduate student.

Arekia S. Bennett
Arekia S. Bennett

Sexual assault has always been an issue at JSU, but one particular instance last fall involving the gang rape of a friend of hers pushed her to take immediate action. Campus police’s response to the report was to pay for her to transfer and not further discuss the issue. There have been numerous other occurrences of sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse on campus, yet both the administration and campus security have done nothing to stand in solidarity to the survivors of these attacks, choosing instead dismiss these as quickly as possible.

With the feminist collectives on campus, namely GIRL (the Feminist Majority Foundation JSU chapter Arekia founded) and Planned Parenthood, Arekia marched to the Title IX office with a list of demands on how to better provide support for survivors of campus sexual assault. As a student leader, she worked with her campus’s Title IX office to raise awareness and educate students about the issue, prompt an open door policy, and encourage campus security to be more open to hiring women officers so that students feel more inclined to report to them.

While there was student solidarity during the marches, administrative response to them was extremely negative. They called Arekia in to meet with the Student Government Association’s president, campus Chief of Police, and Deputy Chief in a tense standoff, where she and her colleagues’ method was berated and condemned for shedding a negative light on the university; her integrity was also called into question on whether the unreported assaults had even happened. The conclusion to the harrowing confrontation was that support from the Jackson State Administration was non-existent, and they did not want to be held accountable for the growing problem.

16 October 2015 - Members of GIRL march to raise awareness on campus sexual assault at Jackson State University.
16 October 2015 – Members of GIRL march to raise awareness on campus sexual assault at Jackson State University. (Photo by Imani Khayyam with Jackson Free Press)

Along with the work that Arekia has done as a part of GIRL, working closely with Title IX representatives on outreach, she also partaken in panel discussions regarding intersectionality, promoted sex positivity in association with a campus fraternity, and raised awareness for World AIDS Day. She has also worked extensively with her campus’s gay-straight alliance, Spectrum, as president. Under her presidency, Spectrum was able to push queer and trans issues to the forefront and pro-actively address issues such as housing discrimination and inclusivity in the classroom. The staff and faculty reaction to these outreach projects was incredibly positive, and with her leadership, they were able to spark a change to the stigmas around queer and trans people.

While her undergraduate career is over, her involvement with campus activism is far from it. Arekia now stands as both the advisor to GIRL and Spectrum, pushing for further change and creating a dialogue around issues that are uncomfortable at an HBCU and in a Christian area. When asked about what advice she has for young activists of color on how to be effective leaders within their communities, Arekia kept it simple.

Don’t be afraid to be a bitch. As negative as that sounds, if you believe in something and stand up for something, and [you’re] doing it because you know there’s a need for change, don’t be afraid of what other people might say. My whole life in undergrad has been berated; ‘she always has something to say.’ [But] the thing about having something to say is people will always listen. It’s just a matter of believing that what you have to say or what you believe is sound and just. Don’t ever let anybody tell you, ‘you can’t do anything.’ I wasn’t quiet for a reason…I’m not the only LGBT person on campus; my voice is not for me. It is for everybody else.”

Through her ongoing work, JSU is now providing healthcare for trans women, and by next year, trans students will be able to get hormones from their student health clinic. Arekia is also pushing to further amplify the voices of trans women of color on campus, to demand the university develop Women’s Studies and African American Studies programs, and eventually move on to reproductive justice through her work with student organizations.

Not only is Arekia advocating for change at JSU, but her fellow colleagues and the student leaders she serves are constantly contributing to the ever-growing fight for justice on campus, and reflection upon their work is critical. Their voices will not be silenced until they are liberated, and until then, they will continue to make Black history.

Photo credit: 1|2

By Jay Tran

Hi, folx! I'm Jay, a Feminist Majority Foundation Spring Intern. I'm a queer trans person of color (pronouns they/them or he/him), Women and Gender Studies major, Queer Studies and Journalism minor at Cal State Fullerton. I have a deep love and passion for visual art, theatre, education and outreach, and activism, specifically that which amplifies the voices of people of color, queer, trans people, and individuals with these intersections.

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