Bennett SGA President Strong on Civic Engagement – GDN Exclusive “A Call to Colors” Vol. II, Part VIIIby Cash Michaels, GDN Contributing Writer April 1, 2019
Say “Bennett Belles,” and those who know their history immediately think about the proud students of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro.
“You know ‘Bennett Belles’ are known as ‘Voting Belles,” says Bennett College President, Dr. Phyllis Worthy Dawkins. “We have faculty members who lead that initiative with our students. We have a tradition of marching to the polls on voting days.”
Gwendolyn Mackel Rice, president of the Bennett College for Women National Alumna Association, and a proud member of the Class of ’61, remembers that day in 1958 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to campus to encourage students to become civically engaged, and vote.
“I grew up in a home…where my father had people to sign petitions to get out to vote back in the ‘50’s,” the former Bennett Belle recalls.
Both Bennett leaders have endorsed “A Call to Colors,” the nonpartisan student civic engagement campaign targeting students on HBCU campuses across North Carolina per voter registration, education, and mobilization.
It is in this tradition that Bennett’s current Student Government President, Alexis Branch, leads today’s campus students.
Branch, 21, a graduating senior from Upper Marlboro in Prince George County, Md. credits her big sister, Déjà, for insisting that she attend Bennett, and become a part of student government. She ran for Freshman Class president, knowing that she wanted to immediately “make positive changes on campus.”
Ms. Branch later stepped down from student leadership, and joined the campus NAACP, eventually becoming chapter vice president.
A pre-law and political science major, Branch then left in 2017 – 18 to study abroad in Israel and China.
“I wanted to study in Jerusalem, but I also wanted to grow in my connection to God,” Branch told GDN. Being an African-American woman amid the ever-present Israeli-Palestinian turmoil was “eye-opening.”
“I also wanted to be more informed on other religions.”
Once she came back during her junior year, she decided to run for SGA president. “I’m very big on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Branch told GDN, adding that she has led anti-bullying efforts on campus to ensure that all students, regardless of color, religion or ethnicity, are respected.
Among her many accomplishments for students that Branch is proud of, were nonpartisan voting civic engagement activities like marches, special events like “Party to the Pools,” precinct meetings, and the return of “Operation Door Knock,” where Bennett students canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods registering people to vote, also recruiting students from UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T University to join them.
“Of course, we’re going to make sure that every single student is registered to vote, but I feel that we have a responsibility to the community around us as well.”
Branch added that she was surprised how many students wanted to learn how to register people to vote.
“That shows a level of the students wanting to be civically engaged,” she says.
And just like when Dr. King came to Bennett in 1958 to inspire students to be civically engaged, other notable figures of history, like Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), have visited with students, encouraging them to vote, and then traveling with them on buses to do so.
Branch is also proud that NC Supreme Court candidate Atty. Anita Earls came to campus to share why she was running in 2018, ultimately garnering support.
“It was such an overwhelming feeling to see her get elected,” Branch recalls. “To know that we were a part of that, really filled us with joy.”
Recently Ms. Branch worked shoulder-to-shoulder on campus to help raise funds in order to secure academic certification for Bennett. Over $8 million was raised, and thanks to a federal court order, the school has staved off the looming threat of being closed.
‘It’s amazing what can happen, when we all stick together, and fight for our institutions,” SGA Pres. Branch says.
GDN recommends that all HBCU SGAs and Black Student Unions (BSUs) incorporate the following in their efforts:
Standing civic engagement/A Call to Colors committees for SGAs and Black Student Unions (BSUs)
Students volunteering 8,16, 24 hours or more per election cycle
Earn up to 200 hours/4 years credit for civic engagement
Do outreach to Greeks, other student organizations and other schools