Women who look just like us are rising and shining in all arenas. It felt like an important time to have a conversation about sisterhood, community and leadership. Of course, the best place to go for such a conversation is none other than the International President of my sorority, the very first African American sorority, Ms. Carolyn House Stewart. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, has a 106-year-old rich legacy of serving the global community. Installed in St. Louis in 2010, Madame Stewart is the first president to serve a full term in the Sorority’s second century and the first lawyer to head the organization.
Emerging Young Leaders, the signature program initiative under Ms. Stewart’s administration, should be of special interest to the readers of Mommynoire who are raising daughters. Emerging Young Leaders targets middle school girls and mirrors the sorority’s mission to cultivate leadership skills in young women so that they can meet the challenges of tomorrow.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is a service organization and your successful term of leadership has been about “global leadership through timeless service.” What does service mean and why should it matter to women in general?
We are all members of a global community. If you go back to the basic tenets of the Bible, “render unto the least of them,” “love thy neighbor as thyself.” We’re in a global community and service means giving of yourself to help someone else to lift. Part of the Emerging Young Leaders program, where we have 15,000 young girls engaged, it is about leadership which helps the community, civic engagement, learning about our government, the school board, city council. It’s about academic enrichment in non-traditional careers because a society that’s literate, we can have people trained to make our quality of life better.
So this whole component of service is really giving of yourself to make the world better for all of us, inspiring young people to come up with new ideas for environmental sustainability, doctors for quality of life, scientists for quality of life, invention. And invention is also a part of serving humankind. Service is basically living up to our existence as a human being on this earth.
What is the importance of sisterhood for women and what does sisterhood mean to you personally?
Sisterhood is a concept of women helping women and bonding with women. We cannot choose our families, but service in a sisterhood is that you consciously choose this association. In the words of Marjorie Parker, and service as a way of life, this is meaningful to you.
The entire Divine Nine Organization, these were women and men who were educated and believed they owed something back to the community. So this collective of our 86 founders took a bond to help each other and help their community. So the sisterhood concept goes beyond, you know, your family, beyond your church. It’s to every other organization that touches, helping humanity.
Why did I become a member of the sorority? I had one sister and there are years between us. It gave me an opportunity to interact with like-minded women on a predominantly white campus who wanted to do things for the community and better themselves. Part of the internal leadership training for external service concept is to help us not only to learn about the sorority but help us in our professional lives and our personal lives. So to me, sisterhood is choosing an association and service as a means of self-fulfillment.
Thank you for talking about Divine Nine because sometimes, when we have these conversations, they’re so segmented and you made it really about unity. For those who are unfamiliar, the Divine Nine is the collective of Black Greek Letter Organizations that make up the National Pan Hellenic Council. In historical order this includes: Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi, Delta Sigma Theta, Phi Beta Sigma, Zeta Phi Beta, Sigma Gamma Rho and Iota Phi Theta.
Can you please tell us about your social justice and human rights initiative?
We now have 981 chapters. Our newest chapter was chartered in November in Johannesburg, South Africa and will also benefit the communities of Soweto. Last year, we donated 1.4 million hours of service as an organization.
The civil rights and social justice initiative relates to human trafficking, it relates to children aging out of foster care, it relates to awareness of domestic violence, and voter education and voter empowerment. During the election year, we took over 12,000 people to the polls and registered over 60,000 new voters. But human trafficking is a big, big, as a large initiative that we started in so many communities raising awareness. When we went to Canada, we’d had a human trafficking panel there, and all of our communities, we had human trafficking awareness. A chapter in California, the church has celebrated, the United Methodist Church and Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter there are partners to raise awareness of human trafficking. It’s the new slavery. It’s the second highest international crime next to drug trafficking.
So our human rights and social justice relates to voter empowerment, voter education, human trafficking, and children aging out of foster care and children of incarcerated parents, that forgotten population.
Thank you so much for shedding a light on social justice issues that may generally fall between the cracks.
Also, of course, [there’s still] equal pay for women. You know, women have cracked the glass ceiling in some instances, but we’re still absent around the boardroom. And women still make 32 cents less than men. And so we still have a long way to go despite the laws that talk about equal pay. So that is at the forefront of what Alpha Kappa Alpha women do.
We had a panel on cracking the glass ceiling in Canada at leadership. And we’re having one at the Boule on cracking the glass ceiling, too. But this time, instead of having the women who crack the glass ceiling, we’re having the men who control those decisions come to tell us, “what are you doing in your corporation to bring qualified women to the executive level in your community, in your company and around the board table?”
You are a bold and intelligent leader with lots of courage and that can seem out of reach for some. For women of color in particular it’s been taboo to talk about depression and other issues. How do you personally cope with feeling nervous, afraid or sad when challenges arise?
I pray. I find peace and solace in prayer. I have strong religious convictions. And we all have fears because we think that if I go to pursue this dream, will I make it? Will I fall short? But I always tell people, first, never be afraid of yourself. Never be afraid to pursue your dreams.
Work on your shortcomings because none of us are perfect. And we have to find, as you say, this balance of I am not superwoman. I’m just a person that God has given some gifts and help me to wake up everyday to say, “God, what is it that you want me to do this day?”
Thank you so much for sharing something so personal. I know that that’s going to help a lot of women.
Find more information on Carolyn House Stewart and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated at AKA1908.com.
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