'Owning My Blackness': York College senior creates a mentorship network
Heading into her 2020 fall semester, Briaunna Embrey-Banks had one goal in mind — to host an event at York College called Black Out 4 Black Lives.
Then a junior resident assistant, Embrey-Banks met her first obstacle before the semester even began: COVID-19.
In-person events were out of the question the whole semester.
That didn't stop Embrey-Banks. She started working her way up the chain of York College officials, and after hitting several road blocks along the way, finally got the approval to host an event last September.
Black Out 4 Black Lives was the only in-person event held at York College last school year. It was a cross between an open mic night and communal processing event for students, remembered Phillips Thomas, a former York College student life director who helped organize the event.
"It was neat to see students who thought they were just a voice in the wilderness," Thomas said, "realize they are part of a choir."
Though the event aimed to address Black trauma and Black history in the U.S., Thomas said the event drew a truly diverse group.
The event would serve as a precursor for bigger things.
Embrey-Banks didn't realize it at the time, but Black Out 4 Black Lives would serve as a catalyst for her launching her own organization, Owning My Blackness, which aims to educate, elevate and advocate for Black students. The organization currently has about 60 members at York College and York Suburban High School and is growing by the day, she said.
The idea for Owning My Blackness came after Embrey-Banks organized several other events addressing racial sensitivity. Nearing her senior year, she said she started thinking about what the lasting impacts of her work would be once she graduated.
"I was worried my work was going to disappear," she said.
When she discussed this with Thomas, Thomas said much of Embrey-Banks' focus was on allowing students a space to explore Black identity. It was Thomas who suggested the name "Owning My Blackness," setting Embrey-Banks off on a year of dedicating every spare moment to developing the organization.
"She doesn't bite off more than she can chew, but she's got a really big mouth," Thomas said.
Owning My Blackness offers multiple services. By becoming a member, students enter a network of other members who can connect with each other for mentorship. Members do not need to be Black, Embrey-Banks said, they just need to be a student of York College or York Suburban High School.
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There also is a network of professional contacts available for members. Embrey-Banks said she spent months building partnerships with local businesses, who now can act as connections for members to get their foot in the door of the professional world.
In addition to the networks, Owning My Blackness also hosts events where members can share more about how their relationship to Black identity has impacted their lives. The organization also works to find scholarship opportunities for Black students.
There's also research materials for members to learn more about racism and black history. Embrey-Banks said it was important for her to make Owning My Blackness research-based, so participants can form their own opinions.
When she was a student at York Suburban, her mother would regularly remind her that her classes would not be able to teach her everything.
At first, Embrey-Banks said she didn't believe it.
Then during her senior year, she learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre, but only through her personal research, not because her school taught her about it. This kicked her activism into high gear.
When Embrey-Banks returned to her old high school to ask for Principal Brian Ellis' blessing to bring Owning My Blackness to York Suburban, she asked him if he remembered her.
Of course he did.
"Briaunna, in my mind, is a source of pride for our high school," Ellis said.
From that launchpad, Embrey-Banks hopes to expand the program to other local school districts, including for younger students. She said it is important to reach children at a young age, because elements of racial bias impact children early in their lives.
For a community like York County, where most residents prefer to remain quiet about racism, Thomas said, an organization like Owning My Blackness is even more necessary.
Evidence of ignorance within the county was showcased through Embrey-Banks' early struggles to get approval for Black Out 4 Black Lives. Initially, she said she was sent in circles and was only connected with Thomas after officials became concerned about her planning a protest — which she wasn't.
While she was planning the event, Embrey-Banks said a different college official suggested she think about changing the name, out of concern that "Black Out 4 Black Lives" was too divisive. That would defeat the purpose of the event, Embrey-Banks said.
Once Owning My Blackness was established, Embrey-Banks said she was subject to many racist comments online from white residents who accused the organization of being racist. One person even asked if an organization called "Owning My Whiteness" should be created in response.
Until the community is prepared to have a discussion about racism, Thomas said it's important for organizations like Owning My Blackness to exist.
By preparing younger people with the knowledge they need, she said, they can be ready to have that conversation when the time comes.
"There is power in knowing your own potential," Thomas said.
To learn more about Owning My Blackness, check out its Facebook page here.
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