“There were two intersections; I was black and I was a woman,” says Tunmise Fawole, a senior in the College, a former College representative of the Undergraduate Assembly, and former co–chair of UMOJA, the umbrella group for all black students and student groups on campus. “The stereotype against black women in particular is that we’re aggressive leaders, and so I’m by nature not necessarily an aggressive person, but a very assertive person, so I think [I sometimes had to] try to downplay that,” she tells me with a steady voice over the buzz of Starbucks regulars. “[My awareness of my race and gender] never went away. It was just always there. First, in terms of people questioning me,” Tunmise recollected. “But it’s also in terms of how I did my work, it was always from an ‘I’m aware of my race, I’m aware of my gender, so that’s how I’m gonna lead, and this is how I’m gonna take a stance on this, and this is gonna be how I operate.’”
Tunmise is not the only woman who feels the unique weight of what it means to be a woman of color in a leadership position here at Penn.
“I don’t think that I was ever not taken seriously—I think that I’m a pretty serious person—but I do get the sense that I had to be more serious than other people were,” echoed the Nya Wilkins. “[I sensed] that I had to overcompensate because if I come across screaming and yelling, it seems a lot louder than other people, because there is that stereotype of the angry black woman.” Nya is a senior in the college, and is a captain of the women’s water polo team. She is also the founder and leader of the Diversity Committee within Kappa Alpha Theta, her sorority. “At the end of my junior year, beginning of senior year I created the diversity committee, which was to enhance diversity—shocker— within not only our chapter but in Greek life in general, and discussing issues that can arise within Greek life,” meaning within IFC and Panhel, specifically.
Nya was immediately aware of the divide within her sorority, and she spearheaded a movement for dialogue. “You grow up around people who look like you and act like you and you never talk about it because if you're the only black person in a primarily white space you’re never gonna talk about it, and you’re never gonna talk about being white because no one talks about being white,” Nya continued. “I can understand why people don't think about being a minority or think about existing in a diverse community because if everybody looks like you, you never have to, and I’m really happy that I did it.”
Ramita Ravi, both the former chair of the Dance Arts Council and the artistic director of Arts House Dance Company, is another example of a leader who realized the importance of acknowledging diversity in a space where it might not always be acknowledged. “Junior spring, I did this thing called the Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative, and I learned about APA activism and understanding how to be a leader in Asian American spaces, or in other spaces,” she told me. “The biggest thing about that was that I realized that I kind of wasn’t representing [my] different identities. I don’t know, even with microaggressions and jokes and things like that, I let a lot of things slide before that I hadn’t thought about because I didn’t think that they were important, and I think the biggest thing that that allowed me to do was just connect with people and really create a space where people really felt comfortable having conversations about more challenging things.”
The Dance Arts Council is a subunit of the Performing Arts Council, where Ramita began to further explore how to implement healthy dialogue. “On PAC, we do chair chats, so we made those a little more about topics that affect different types of people. So we did one on socioeconomic status, and financial burdens of groups, and about race and diversity in the arts, and about mental health, and we did PAVE training, and then brought all of that stuff back to Arts House… it gave me a way to talk about diversity.”
Both Nya and Ramita make implementing dialogue about diversity look easy, but obviously it’s not that simple—neither for them, nor for many others on campus. And in some spaces especially, creating that awareness barely feels possible.
“I am very cognizant of my identity as a woman of color, and I feel like in a lot of spaces, just being very honest, especially in a lot of Wharton spaces, it’s like identity is almost erased,” said Olivia Nelson current president of Wharton Ambassadors, and one of the directors of Spectrum. “It’s like oh, come in and do this club and… I mean it kind of makes sense, just because Wharton itself is focusing on business, everyone knows, like pre–professionalism, blah blah blah, but… it’s to the point that it’s so insular…. I mean if I wasn’t in this context of being a leader of a Wharton club, [I wonder] how would these people see me, how would we interact? Things like that…. It’s been hard because at certain times my identity is allowed to be more salient than it is in other places, but I can’t erase my identity.” Olivia added, “I’ve definitely this year, in certain roles, felt as though when I say something, or a fellow woman says something, it’s not as respected by some of our male peers, even in those same leadership positions, but then if a guy says the same thing, then they’re more likely to listen.”
For senior Stephanie Hodges, another co–director of SPEC-TRUM and primary drummer in African Rhythms, representing her identity is always paramount to her role. (Hodges is also the co-host of "In the Cut," a podcast produced by The Daily Pennsylvanian.) “Something that I think is super important is having women of color in leadership positions, and even just representation is really important. For example, with our last [SPEC-TRUM] show we were thinking of people to perform, and I was like we need to have a woman of color in our show, so I reached out to this DJ from Brooklyn to have her open up for Young Thug, and she was amazing.” As a leader whose primary goal is to create spaces that feel inclusive to undergraduate minorities, she is always aware of finding ways to make this message clear to other women, and students in general, of color. “Just uplifting them and making sure they feel like they can lead is super important.”
Joyce Hu, one of the directors Jazz and Grooves and former Graphic Design Chair for SPEC, echoed the importance of representation. “Students love to see artists, and especially artists of color if you are of color. It’s really important.” As a Korean-American, she notes the lack of Asian representation in the entertainment industry, and within her position specifically. “Thinking about all the shows I’ve been to because that’s my main concern… it’s always like typically older typically white American males calling the shots, wearing the credentials, wearing the headsets… so sometimes I do look at myself and I’m like wow, I wonder if people take me seriously when I’m running these shows,” however, she doesn’t always let this discourage her. She adds, “I’m like, hey, it’s cool that I’m doing this, I don’t give a shit, I’m wearing a credential, I know I’m running the show.”
Ramita, too, has found pathways to empowerment even through the more difficult parts of being a leader in her area. “I think that DAC... really did change my whole perspective on women in leadership,” She told me, “Just because it’s a really thankless job... and a lot of women do thankless jobs, all the time.” She’s not wrong, and it is time that we start doing some thanking.
It seems like these women are forever branching out and pushing new boundaries, but even strong natural leaders get wary sometimes too. At the end of the day, everyone needs a support system to return to. “If I could tell my freshman self something, I would just be like, don’t be afraid,” Stephanie Hodges added, “The black community is always gonna be here for you at college… don’t lose sight of your home, because you can always come back.”
Joyce Hu echoed the importance of finding a home in the people here. “I think honestly, find a good group of people,” she added at the end of our conversation. “Find at least one or two friends that will support you. Like no matter what race they are. Because I’ve found that it can get lonely here, and knowing you have friends, at least that gives you one less stressor, and then you can do your job.” Having a safe spot and a group to lean on at a place like Penn is important for every single person at this university, leaders and followers alike.
The experience of a woman of color at Penn is not a monolith. Each of these women and countless others are always engaging with their own experiences in their own ways. But there is one thing that unites them all; regardless of color or gender, these women are leaders, and they cannot be stopped.
“I think I’ve really been able to lead by just being me, and showing that regardless of what you might’ve thought a woman in leadership looked liked, or a woman of color in leadership looked like, this is how I lead,” Olivia concluded.
Though being a woman of color in leadership here is by no means simple or easy, it can also be one of the most powerful and unifying roles on our campus. “The reason that I joined Theta was because I felt like there was a huge gap between the white community and the black community on campus, and over the past four years I’ve become a bridge between those communities,” Nya contributed. “I think my position on campus as a woman of color and a leader on campus is to bridge that gap.” She continued, “Something I had to realize as a woman of color [was] that I couldn’t just represent myself as a black woman from the south side of Chicago, I also had to speak up for all women of color to be leaders on campus.”
"Stand up for yourself," Ramita advised, "Be humble enough to recognize when you are wrong, but have confidence in the work you produce and lead with pride... stand up for yourself so that no one makes you feel unrecognized or unappreciated," She continued, "Bring your experiences as a women of color into every space you're in —- listen to people whose voices may not be the loudest, be compassionate to people's needs and experiences, and build dialogues that will make all people understand that the issues that we face as a society may affect students we know every day."
Olivia too, spoke to the need to stay alert and empowered. “I’d say, I know sometimes easier said than done, but one, go for it, and two, speak your mind. I think especially as I’ve expressed, there’ve been a couple times where I’ve felt almost like I should’ve been suppressed, or people would’ve rathered me not speak up… and it might sound dramatic, but something I always think of is my parents are immigrants, my whole family is from Jamaica, and my parents did not come here for me to not speak my mind and not stand up for what I believe in… I think a lot of times we as students don’t recognize how powerful we are.”
“At the end of the day, it’s really not about me. It’s just about hopefully being an example for future generations of women of color to really see, especially on this campus… you can still make change and be a kickass student leader,” Olivia concluded, “Don’t be discouraged and look at other women of color who are doing amazing things and being amazing leaders and just realize that you can do just as much if not more.”