by Marissa Lee
You take a deep breath, and you look up to a sea of faces that could not be more different than your own. Your brain flashes through your greatest fears, what ifs, and “I told you so”s like rapid fire. The heat is blazing so heavily you're not sure what exactly will make you faint. You smile at those around you and pretend to be nervous for the same reasons. Maybe your dress is too short, or your hair has fallen too much, or you’ll spill this ice water as soon as they hand it to you. You know in your heart your list sounds a little different. Instead, you wonder, do they want me for me? Will I be ostracized by my community and theirs? What if this is a trick? Didn't you read those articles? What makes you think you can really make a difference? Turn around. Don't line up. Don't start walking. STOP before it's too late.
You cross the threshold, and as a 17-year-old, you just altered the course of some of the most defining years of your life. That is the story of me and so many of the women I love: a story of resilience, bravery, and grit that often goes untold. I grappled with telling my story, because for a long time, I simply did not know how. My story does not look like burning crosses and constant black jokes. It does not always scream the n-word and end in tears. It does not look like anyone's expectation. Yet, it is still a story worth telling.
According to the Crimson White, 190 minority women accepted panhellenic bids at the University of Alabama in 2014. This change came on the heels of one of the most negative spotlights in our campus' history: a time when women decided to stop being silent. A time when it was no longer acceptable to drop a woman of color from recruitment with an excuse as small as an unflattering dress. A time when our university, with the largest Greek life in the nation, sat in the hot seat and actually felt its sting. A time when every sane thing said to run away, but instead we chose to run toward. Toward a truly diverse campus, toward changing a decades-old institution, toward being the only different face in the sea of same. We ran toward at-times awkward parties with serious side eyes, toward ridicule from minority and majority communities, toward the unknown, toward the under-rewarded and under-represented, and toward the future.
It is one thing to advocate for change. You can attend meetings, sign petitions, join organizations and dig in. However, it is a completely different monster to BE the change you wish to see. To be the boots on the ground... To run for positions in organizations that some don't believe you even deserve to be a member of. To hold your head high as your friends attend date parties and formals that you may never experience. To advocate for those who look like you to be pursued just as actively as a "traditional" member. You see, change doesn't just come from complaining about a problem. Change comes from a will to fight the problem until it is dead.
In my time at this university, God gave me more blessings than I could ever deserve. Perhaps one of the greatest was the opportunity to serve as the first African American president of my traditionally white sorority. However, God is a God of the details, and He gave me two best friends who were doing the exact same thing the exact same year. Alongside them, he gave me more and more women who looked like me steadily joining Panhellenic sororities year after year. Beyond that, He gave me women who are in the majority that have rooted for me more than I have rooted for myself. Women that have listened to me, cried with me, prayed for me, and even fought for me at my lowest and highest points. When the enemy meant to divide us, my God used our differences to unite us. He gave me the courage to step up, and He gave them the courage to stand with me. As I took on the role of educator like never before, I gained patience, compassion, and a greater sense of pride for the resilience of my people.
A people that were brought to this country in chains but find the will to fight every day to remain free. A people that gave us forces like Harriet, Malcolm, Martin, Maya, Shirley, and Angela, and even closer to home Vivian, Autherine, and James. While I have nowhere near reached their courage and unstoppable spirit, I looked to them in times of fear. Times when I second-guessed rushing, times when I felt disconnected from those around me, times when I felt abandoned, betrayed, or underestimated because of my race. Times when many thought we weren't black enough but still too black. Times when our Greek system fell under attack, and the immediate feeling of shame swallowed us whole. But I also looked to them when over 450 women elected me to serve as their president. That same scared 17-year-old girl leading the very ones she feared would not accept her. Loving and praying and fighting for her people no matter their skin color.
To my women that stood up for what was unpopular, thank you. To those who encouraged what was different from the status quo, thank you. To those who pushed me when I wanted to quit, thank you. And to my seven percent, I am honored to know so many incredible women like each of you... hold your heads high and remember all that you represent. Each time you see a face that looks like yours walk through a door song be proud. Each year that we become truly diverse and move away from the outdated idea of quota be proud. Each time our council unites with another to create a balanced Greek system, be proud. Be proud each time you remember that girl who lifted her head, smiled and crossed that threshold.