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Four Sorority Presidents on State of Black Women

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In part two of our look at the state of African-American women, ESSENCE's Dawn M. Baskerville asked the presidents of the nation's four predominantly Black sororities to consider how far we've come -- and where we need to go next? With nearly 2 million members worldwide, the nine Black Greek organizations are a brain trust of committed and influential African-Americans. They are on the front lines of our communities, tackling issues that most affect us, from educating our children to HIV prevention to mental health advocacy to financial empowerment. We sat down with the leaders of the four Black sororities to get their take on the power and purpose of sisterhood. ESSENCE: As the heads of sororities, what are some of the issues you find your membership dealing with today? CAROLYN HOUSE STEWART (Alpha Kappa Alpha): Our theme for the next four years is Global Leadership Through Timeless Service. The impetus will be to address the issues of young girls, young women, health, literacy collaboration and global initiatives through awareness, advocacy and action. For the first time in our 102-year history, we have a program called Emerging Young Leaders, which focuses on middle school girls to prepare them for leadership, encourage civic engagement and support them in pursuing nontraditional careers. CYNTHIA M.A. BUTLER-McINTYRE (Delta Sigma Theta): As we approach our 100th anniversary in 2013, we've charged our membership to continue to transform lives and communities. Sisterhood, scholarship and service are what Delta Sigma Theta is all about. Our project, My Cry in the Dark, engages communities in serious dialogue on mental health. We also have programs to mentor our young girls and ensure their success, just as someone helped to ensure our success. SHERYL P. UNDERWOOD (Zeta Phi Beta): Zeta has always been an international organization in terms of working with African nations, but to go forward and have even more diversity, we're also working with Eastern European, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries, addressing such issues as the trafficking of young girls. Our members are on fire to serve their local communities too, through hosting town hall meetings for health care reform and working to bring about legislative awareness and voter turnout in the critical elections. JOANN LOVELESS (Sigma Gamma Rho): Sigma is focused more than ever before on our sororities working together. We encourage folk to learn more, dream more, do more, become more. One example: Our Wee Savers program partners with local banks to teach young people about saving, investing and managing credit. You're never too young to start. ESSENCE: Mention the word sorority, and people think you're talking about something you did in college, not as an adult last weekend. How would you explain the lifelong reach and relevance of Black sororities? BUTLER-McINTYRE: Our organizations came together out of a need--a clarion call to serve our people. And that call didn't end on the college campuses where our sororities began. It went back to our communities when members returned home. Our education was not just for those of us who were privileged to attend college. It was for the whole culture. UNDERWOOD: Every woman needs another woman who will say, "Okay, you're doing well, but you can do a little better, and I can help." STEWART: Where else could you find a better support system than in a sister, particularly one in a sorority? The Black female leaders in major corporations and in politics are often members of one of our Greek letter organizations. LOVELESS: We're at a point where even good parents don't have the time to train children because they've got to work two or three jobs. Sororities and fraternities fill in the gap. There's always the need for our children to have positive role models other than pop stars and rap artists. UNDERWOOD: For us, sisterhood is timeless. The way we work and interact with one another is an example for others in corporate life to follow. Usually people want Black women to be against each other. We're showing that we're not. ESSENCE: We're sisters, but sometimes we're not sisterly. Even our men have been known to refer to us as hard, mean, bitter. Is that why we now lead the nation in single-parent households and in staying unmarried longer? UNDERWOOD: What other race of women had to go through the Middle Passage? Had to lead people to freedom? Had to stop our men from being lynched or our children sold to another plantation? And then to have our men decide that we're not good enough because we've been holding it together for all of us. Now you're mad because you think I'm strident? BUTLER-McINTYRE: My mother and grandmother looked at men more as a need because they relied on the financial assistance and security they provided. Now for me, I can buy my own house, get my own car, do my investments. I want to have a husband to have a man in my life and to have a family, but it's less of a need. UNDERWOOD: Some of us were raised with "You don't need no man to do nothing for you." So we became the man and the woman in our relationships. And we decided we'd live what turned out to be a lonely existence because we didn't want anyone tearing up our furniture or letting the cold air out of the refrigerator. [Laughter] But there's nothing wrong with us wanting a man who gets up every day and goes to work, because you have no manhood if you're living off me. LOVELESS: What we should need a man for is companionship and help in raising our children, particularly our male children. We shouldn't be reading our own press to the level that we don't realize the importance of having a partner. It's not about the money; it's about the support. ESSENCE: What about HIV/AIDS and other challenging aspects of Black women's health right now? UNDERWOOD: In Zeta we have a health justice program to deal with Black women's superwoman syndrome. We have to stop burning our bodies out, not getting any sleep, eating too many Happy Meals. BUTLER-McINTYRE: We can't help others until we help ourselves. STEWART: Health is really the basis of our wealth. If you're not healthy, you can't serve. And so part of our health initiative is to get moving, get fit. LOVELESS: And, of course, we're all focusing on HIV and AIDS, making sure we encourage everyone to get tested. Sigma has a partnership with the CDC to ensure that all our members get tested. You might have been married 20 years, but you still need to set an example. ESSENCE: Speaking of setting examples, how do we empower ourselves and our communities financially? UNDERWOOD: If you don't have self-esteem, you don't understand what money is--it's freedom. That's why financial literacy and jobs are our next focus in Zeta. If you put people to work, you can move them forward. STEWART: There's a program for college students out of Philadelphia that we're exploring, where you volunteer for a year and in return they finance your college education. Of course, AKAs maintain a high academic standard for the scholarships we give through our foundation. But sometimes the reason a student has a C-plus average is because she also had to work. We have an obligation to support that student too. ESSENCE: We look at the White House and we see three generations of beautiful Black women residing there. What are you excited about for Black women as we move forth into this millennium? BUTLER-McINTYRE: Possibilities and potential. Today little Black girls can see that the girls in the White House look just like them. And they're beautiful. UNDERWOOD: What we have right now is only the start of where we can be. We lead everyone. Look at our First Lady. She travels internationally, she cares about fitness, she cares about when there's no grocery store in the neighborhood, and it's not because she's Black. It's because she sees the humanity in everyone. STEWART: I see the manifestation of the power of hope. LOVELESS: I see that the success of young girls today is only limited by the height of their dreams and the level of their commitment to see it through to the end.
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