The women of the sorority aim to inspire their membership of more than 120,000 to speak out, serve and engage the community on issues like criminal justice, elder support and infant mortality
When it comes to advocating for the black community, the ladies of Zeta Phi Beta prefer to lead by example.
It’s a philosophy International President, Dr. Mary Breaux Wright, said is at the core of the sorority’s mission to be “servant leaders,” who get off the sidelines and into the communities they represent.
“It’s not about the colors we wear, it’s about us serving as leaders,” Dr. Wright told ESSENCE. “We’re not afraid to roll up our sleeves.”
When the Zetas realized that portrayals of black women in media are overwhelmingly negative, they worked to counteract that narrative by launching a social media campaign, #IHaveADream, where the sisters wrote empowering messages to their younger selves on what they wished they’d known at that age.
“Note to my younger self: Never let anyone steal your joy and never apologize for who you are!” one sister wrote. “You are a happy, beautiful, smart, caring person. Not everyone will understand you, and that’s okay.”
Two years ago, the sorority took a stand on the pervasive lack of trust between law enforcement and communities of color by creating the “Get Engaged” initiative, a partnership with the NAACP to tackle some of the systemic issues affecting African Americans.
Local chapters hosted voter registration drives and teamed up with police departments and community leaders for frank discussions at town halls. The sisters also used webinars and other tools to educate the public about their rights and how to stay safe.
“We’re constantly keeping our members informed of what’s going on, and they take it back into their communities,” the president said. “If you don’t know why you’re there and what you’re doing, you’ll lose your focus.”
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And for women dealing with the legal and financial implications of caring for older relatives, the Zetas provide education and support through their Elder Care Initiative, a project that Dr. Wright said she started after she had to scramble to find a nursing home for her mother after she fell in the home they shared.
“Had we been prepared for that, maybe we wouldn’t have had to spend that much money or the time,” Dr. Wright said. “My mother passed, but this program isn’t going to pass.”
Additionally, the sisters’ Stork’s Nest prenatal program aims to increase the number of healthy babies born to black mothers – a population that is 3.5 times more likely to deliver babies who die as newborns as compared to their white peers, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Through a partnership with the March of Dimes, the Zetas use prizes like baby gear to encourage moms-to-be to take positive actions such as attending doctor visits or prenatal classes.
“Most importantly,” Dr. Wright said, “We’re educating low income mothers on how to have a healthy baby.”
In addition to their work stateside, the Zetas have brought their commitment to service to Africa, where in the last few years, they’ve donated more than 10,000 books to create a library for children at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana – a former slave dungeon – and installed 60 water wells, lessening the burden for many young African women who have collect water every day. The sorority also supports a medical clinic that serves some 3,000 women and girls.
“I’m just so proud with the way the sisterhood has embraced service,” Dr. Wright said. “It’s helping us to expand outside our boundaries as we continue to do the work our founders have envisioned over 96 years ago.”
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