AKA Sisterhood Defines a Continuum of Excellence

The legacy of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority spans from founder Ethel Hedgemon Lyle, whose grandparents were slaves, to Vice President Kamala Harris. Its reach spans college campuses nationwide, including the University at Albany.

“Before becoming a member, I wanted to be like the women in this organization and I want to follow in their footsteps. And I feel like people can look up to us because of the things we do in our community and what we’ve done, with Kamala Harris in the White House,” said Pi member D’Shaya James. AKA Kappa. undergraduate chapter at UAlbany.

Other prominent members, past and present, include actress Phylicia Rashad; author Toni Morrison; Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens, one of two Black women leading a Fortune 500 company; and Katherine Johnson, the NASA mathematician who calculated the trajectory of Apollo 11.

Locally, Kaweeda G. Adams, Albany City School District Superintendent; Nettie Crossman, president of Schenectady’s Safe Inc.; and City Court Judge Teneka Frost-Amusa, the first black judge appointed to Schenectady, are all members of Delta Mu Omega Chapter, the Capital Region AKA graduate chapter.

“It’s amazing. It’s very motivating. It’s very inspiring,” said Jada Ryder, a student at the University of Albany and member of Pi Kappa. no longer a leader, I communicated better, I gained sisters, I gained friends, I feel like I have gained a lot and that cannot be taken away from me.

In the beginning…

When Alpha Kappa Alpha was started in 1908 at Howard University, the Voting Rights Act was over 50 years away. The 19th Amendment was still 12 years away. Eighty-nine blacks were lynched that year.

The nine women who founded Alpha Kappa Alpha did so with the hope of having a positive impact on their community, said Glenda Glover, International President and CEO. They wanted to promote education and give black women and men “a way out.”

The emphasis on education is present in today’s AKA. Pi Kappa runs programs at UAlbany that bring business owners (often Delta Mu Omega members) to campus and teach financial literacy and study skills. Delta Mu Omega currently runs a college admissions process program that helps high school students with everything from finding colleges to applying.

Members of the AKA and members of other black sororities, particularly Delta Sigma Theta, participated in the women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s, although their white counterparts sometimes relegated them to the back of the steps.

This work on voting rights is also in progress. AKA has registered more than 250,000 voters for the 2020 election, according to Glover. These efforts helped land Harris in the White House.

“That’s why I’m really proud of our history. Like, we are creating history every day, Johann Zephirin, president of Pi Kappa told UAlbany.

Another focus of Alpha Kappa Alpha is women’s health and health care in general.

During the Great Depression, AKA started the Mississippi Health Project to provide health care services to black people in the Mississippi Delta, which were not served by the state health department.

Almost 100 years later, Alpha Kappa Alpha has revived that work, vaccinating hundreds of people against COVID-19 in the summer of 2021 and providing glucose, cholesterol and HIV testing and eye exams.

In the Capital Region, members of Pi Kappa organize drives for menstrual supplies and donate them to the UAlbany pantry, while Delta Mu Omega raises money for the American Heart Association with an annual Zumbathon.

Delta Mu Omega, the graduate chapter of AKA, was established in 1947 to be a cultural and service organization that could work to improve the welfare of the black community in the capital region. It struggled to attract members and eventually became inactive, but was reactivated in 1966 and has been serving the local community ever since.

“I see the chapter building on what our international founders have created, creating space for women, creating opportunities for women,” said Andrea West, President of Delta Mu Omega and Deputy Director of Resources. for the Albany City School District. “We really try to give back and we try to build on what our founding members and our founders started.”

The Pi Kappa undergraduate chapter was established in 1990.

“We immediately started programming in the community and on campus,” recalls Sabrina Fontenot, one of the first members. Programming included clean-up projects, food bank drives and reading to school children.

The next generation

“It’s definitely important now to have black women sitting around the table to make a difference and be part of making a difference. Decisions are made in the boardroom,” Glover explained. In addition to the “elements of service,” she said, AKA also teaches members “the elements of leadership.”

AKA’s Leadership Fellows program, for undergraduate students, focuses on early-stage career development. From leading college-level sorority meetings as an undergrad to Alpha Kappa Alpha leadership academies, members learn how to get things done.

“How to get the right job and how to act your first days on the job,” Glover said. “How to level up, how to understand the mentorship program. You don’t come home after work, we stay there, then you go out for a drink with them. Even if you want to have a coke, you go out for a drink with them and learn what’s going on in the company.

If a graduate chapter oversees an undergraduate chapter, as in the case of Delta Mu Omega and Pi Kappa, each undergraduate receives two mentors from the graduate chapter, one of whom is in the same field.

“It helps them see, get the bigger picture of, OK, this sorority sister is playing and operating in the role that I want to play in life,” West said.

But being a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha is about more than learning practical skills. Leecia Eve, a New York lawyer who worked for US Senator Hillary Clinton and organized several campaigns for public office in New York, recalled a conversation with her mother about how proud she was to be member of the AKA – the kind of pride James Brown sings about in “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

“Faced with systemic discrimination and violence against the black community, as well as the more subtle forms, as well as so many images and so many messages conveying that black people were ‘less than’, you are now part of ‘an organization of brilliant black women who have become doctors, lawyers, judges, astronauts, actresses, etc.,’ Eve said.

This pride shows and is part of what has attracted new AKA members over the years.

“In the black community, AKA represent excellence, women who carry themselves with some dignity, who are fundamentally good people,” said sorority member and jazz flautist Sherry Winston, who throughout of her career, has performed at the White House and in many major concert halls. “They’re there to help other people, especially other black women, but other organizations (too). And, you know, I just feel proud to be a member of that particular sisterhood.”

She first joined because “it was a really great way to get to know a special group of women who had great reputations and also behaved with great dignity.”

The same goes for UAlbany AKA members.

“I looked at the girls on campus who were part of the organization. And they were everything I wanted to embody. Everything they’ve done in school in terms of service, in terms of girls’ development, the programs they have, just how they act. You know, I feel like an Alpha female has such a caliber. And that’s something I wanted to be a part of for me,” Zephirin said.

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