TeKema Balentine’s journey to the Miss Black USA 2019 stage was far from easy. Early on, the 25-year-old realized that she couldn’t afford a coach, so she researched and trained herself in the world of pageantry via youtube videos. She fundraised as much as she could to pay for the costs to compete—including the cost of gas so she could drive herself from Wisconsin to Washington D.C. The drive itself was unrelenting. Recovering from an aching back and desperately needing a shower, Balentine arrived at the hotel just to find out she was too early for check-in. When she returned to the hotel lobby later, she was pleasantly surprised when her assigned roommate Miss Black Texas Sharaya Hill spotted her and rushed to hug her. “Immediately, I felt this sense of sisterhood,” Balentine said. “It didn’t feel like I was arriving at a competition, it felt like I was arriving to hang out with my family.” And a family it is. Established in 1986, The Miss Black USA Scholarship Pageant is the first and oldest scholarship pageant for women of color, according to the pageant’s site. Since its founding, the program has awarded over $500,000 in scholarship. The women who competed this year were judged based on evening gowns, an on-stage interview, talent and personal fitness. Because of her midwestern roots, Balentine initially worried that her Blackness would be called into question and that she wouldn’t be able to connect with other women. “So many people act as if real Black people don’t exist in Wisconsin, so I was prepared for that,” Balentine told ESSENCE. But her fears were proved unfounded. As she met other women, she felt more and more welcomed. Though, some girls would gasp when they found out where she was from, Balentine shared. “Oh my God, Wisconsin?! You’re from Wisconsin?” she recalled with a laugh. But the sisterhood, unexpected and needed, was real. PLACE IS MORE THAN GEOGRAPHY As the first Miss Black USA from the LGBTQ community and from Wisconsin to ever reign, Balentine understands how each of her identities played a role in helping her win. “I’m a brown girl, I come from Wisconsin,” she said. “On top of that I’m a gay woman, I’m a coach, I’m in school. So, for me, to be the one to win from Wisconsin while wearing so many hats is not only an honor for me, but a responsibility.” Currently, Balentine—in addition to being a model, high school track coach, and avid community organizer—is pursuing a nursing degree in her hometown of Madison. She also educates youth about health through the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health PATCH (Providers and Teens Communicating for Health) Program. And with her expanding national platform, Balentine will also be an advocate for the Heart Truth campaign to raise awareness of heart disease. When she returned home after the competition and organized a gathering so her community could celebrate with her, she was blindsided when Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway showed up to honor with her very own day. “I was honored to proclaim August 21, 2019, as TaKema Balentine Day in Madison. As the proclamation reads, TeKema Balentine represents the perseverance, beauty and dreams of our black youth whom she continues to inspire,” Rhodes-Conway said in an email. “She is an incredible role model for young women of color everywhere. I can’t wait to see where her plans and dreams take her.” MOVING FORWARD AND GIVING BACK Wherever Balentine ends up, her heart will always remain in Wisconsin and she will always give back the city that raised her. To that end, she’s hosting an essay competition for young women at her old high school who would like to wear her pageant dress to prom. She is also hoping to organize a mentorship program for girls to inspire them to be their most authentic selves. The multi-talented queen said that as she continues a journey that began first in Madison, then a daunting car ride to D.C., and finally to being crowned Miss Black USA 2019, it becomes more clear to her that this crowning achievement is not solely about gender or even Blackness, though those identities are important; rather, it is also in recognition of her skill, perseverance, and resilience. “Everything about me that I feel is important is represented,” Balentine said. And that Wisconsin toughness will ensure that she paves the road for generations of young, Black women to come.