Graphics By June Anderson / Photography By Myles Mclymont
Sororities aren’t just about parties: they’re about giving back
How Alpha Kappa Alpha is helping to bridge the opportunity gap for Black girls in GTA schools
BY KIM HONEY
If we’re to believe films like Animal House and House Bunny (and why ever would we?), sororities are all about parties, hook-ups and social status. But for the sisters of Toronto’s brand-new graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA), the oldest Greek-letter organization for Black women in North America, those tired tropes couldn’t be further from the truth. “[In no way] is partying one of our missions,” chapter president Renée Rawlins says drily. “Our organizations are not at all like that stereotype, which is still so prevalent.”
Many modern-day sororities and fraternities are working hard to dispel the reputation that they’re all about women shopping for rich husbands and men guzzling alcohol at epic, headline-grabbing parties. In reality, many Greek houses work toward purely social causes, while others support a specific religious, educational or ethnic community: students who major in agriculture, for example, or those who identify as LGBTQ+. AKA’s mandate? Sisterhood, scholarship and service.
For her part, Rawlins decided she wanted to join AKA because the sorority was steeped in history and culture, with roots back to 1908 at Howard University in Washington, D.C., at a time when Black students, and Black women in particular, were a small minority on campus. Founder Ethel Hedgeman envisioned a network of educated women supporting each other and raising the status of other Black people. The group’s early work included advocating for anti-lynching legislation and fighting the racist idea that Black people were unfit for certain professions.
“For our founders to get together and say, we need this network, we need to encourage this high scholastic achievement and help the communities around us, that was a real forward-thinking concept,” says Rawlins. “And so, 110 years later, this is still the story—and it’s bigger than ever.”
Rawlins and her friend Kimberley Tull were two of the first five women on Canadian soil to join AKA in 2003, and were among the members of the first Ontario chapter, established in Windsor in 2007. In June 2018, Rawlins decided a Toronto-only chapter could focus on urban issues particular to the city, supporting the Black community here and providing sisterhood closer to home.
Growing up in Scarborough and Unionville, Rawlins was always on the path to university. Her Barbadian-Canadian parents emphasized the importance of a good education. But as head of the guidance department at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, she sees how Black students can be discouraged and diverted from reaching their full educational potential.
In Toronto-area public schools, Black students are subjected to what researchers call “a web of stereotypes,” reflected in the fact that they’re more likely to be expelled, to drop out or to take courses in the applied stream rather than those in the academic stream that are prerequisites for getting into university. “Black students face an achievement and opportunity gap in GTA schools,” concludes a 2017 York University study called Towards Race Equity in Education.
This is precisely where Rawlins thinks the sorority can help make a difference. The group is partnering with the Boys and Girls Club of East Scarborough to start a program called Her l.i.f.e (lived, inspired, fearless experience) to help Black girls in Grade 8 choose high-school courses. Sorority members will work with elementary school guidance counsellors to encourage girls to sign up for weekly mentoring sessions at the club. “In Grade 8, you’re 13,” says Rawlins. “Thirteen is not the time for someone to make lifelong decisions [on their own] that will impact what kind of career they’ll have, or what kind of school they’ll go to.”
The sorority members, who are authors, lawyers, social workers, businesswomen, teachers and artists, will counsel the girls, encourage good grades and help them develop skills like critical thinking and public advocacy that are linked with success at school and in life. Later, they hope to do the same in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood in the west end, specifically targeting communities with a higher proportion of Black residents.
Other service initiatives build on the group’s expertise, from helping high-school graduates with college and university applications, course selection and even application fees, to literacy outreach, led by sorority sister and author Ndija Anderson-Yantha, who wrote the kids’ book What Are You Going to Do With That Hair?
For 110 years, AKA has been a place where Black women can share their experiences and build a foundation for future generations. After all, the sorority’s founding credo is “being supreme in service to all mankind.” Their focus, like that of their predecessors, is on shouldering the disproportionate burden carried by Black girls. “That’s where we want to make a difference,” Rawlins says. “That’s where our expertise lies. As Black women, we understand how we experience the world.” They also understand what they need to do to change it.
(Photography courtesy of Dria Mayers; inset images. Photography By Adobe Stock; Roses.)