Miss Black USA Pageant Founder Shares How Poise Can Lead To Professional Power
Credit: Karen Arrington

Empowerment has always been Karen Arrington’s thing. 

As the daughter of civil rights activists, she saw the effects of speaking truth to power at an early age. Her father was the mayor of the small Maryland town they lived in and her mother was a political strategist who, in the 70’s ran for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. 

This was a move that was a game changer for Arrington. 

“My mother’s decision to run a political campaign back then was an important one because it was rare to see a woman, let alone a Black woman in the Maryland state legislature,” Arrington told Essence. “She was really my first teacher mentor and role model.” 

These early examples of triumph, success, and self belief eventually led her to forge her own path to impactful public service. “My mother was really my first look into how to unapologetically take up space, all while positively affecting others’ lives while there,” she shared. “I wanted to give other young, Black women the opportunity the same way I did.” 

This passion led her to found the Miss Black USA in 1986, one of the largest Black-led pageants in the country. It didn’t start this way, however. “I started the package as a scholarship program and went around the country literally carrying  a single briefcase with a crown and sash in it to Black radio stations to spread the word.” 

In a few short years, her tenacity eventually led to raising more than $500,000 in funding for scholarships allocated to the pageant winners. But she says the pageant is about more than money. 

“We’re in the business of celebrating Black women through education, opportunity and offering them the tools needed to succeed, no matter where they are.” 

She writes about this in her first book, which outlines core principles she believes can help young Black women tap into their inner power both on and off the pageant stage. “I completely dedicated one of the chapters to the power of packaging, presentation and how to have that inner-conversation with yourself that’ll lead to you always showing up as your best self,” she says. 

She recalled a time when she had to take her own advice that led to securing an international multi-million dollar deal for her organization in 2007.  

“At that time, Miss Black USA was celebrating their twenty-year anniversary and we did it on African soil,” she explained. “In Gambia, West Africa, I looked into the eyes of the president and negotiated a $2.5 million sponsorship deal. This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t give myself permission to walk in my purpose, something that I’m teaching other young, Black women to do.”