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With theme housing, Sisterhood cements place on campus

What was first a sorority has grown into a popular, active organization for women of color.

Sisterhood, an organization that provides support for women of color on campus, recieved theme housing in Caples Residence Hall this year, giving them a more prominent place on the Kenyon landscape. While Sisterhood is (officially) a new organization, its origins date back two decades.

Unfortunately, much of Sisterhood’s past remains unknown. Despite members’ efforts to uncover the group’s early years, not much exists before the group became official in 2012. Tina Smith ’00, who became the first president of Sisterhood in 2000, could not be reached for comment.

“Before she became president in 2000, it was run by the ODEI [Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion],” Sisterhood President Jasmine Wilson ’19 said. “But they didn’t exactly have a historian, so we’ve just decided to use 2000 as our founding year.”

Before that, a group of Kenyon students decide to form Nu Iota Alpha (NIA), a sorority that would support women of color  at Kenyon. Members of Sisterhood see it as a predecessor to the existing organization.

“When going through the necessary channels of getting approved by the school, a question was posed to us,” Colette Battle ’97 wrote in a 1995 Collegian op-ed defending the new sorority. “Why do you need a sorority when you have the BSU [Black Student Union]?”

Her answer to the question was simple: “What needs to be recognized is that the more diverse the population gets, the more diverse support organizations will become.”

NIA, which is the the Swahili word for “purpose” and is one of the days of Kwanzaa, was founded to unite women of color (although all were welcome) on a Kenyon campus that was, at that point, the most diverse it had ever been. While no sources could give a definitive date on when NIA disbanded, the last mention of the organization  appears in a 2006 issue of the Colegian.

But to ask the question that the Campus Senate asked Battle, why Sisterhood?

“I actually get that a lot, because people often think it’s the same as BSU, but it’s not,” Wilson said. Sisterhood welcomes women of all backgrounds of color. While Sisterhood holds political discussions, Wilson added, it focuses more on creating a network of social support.

Michaela Jenkins ’19 said one of the most important aspects of Sisterhood is being able to relax among peers that understand you.

“I think people don’t even know where we meet,” she said, “so people that come to Sisterhood really enjoy coming to Sisterhood and are familiar with the way it works.”

While Jenkins attended a primarily white boarding school for two years prior to Kenyon, she said living in a predominantly white environment can still be hard for a student of color.

“Especially as a freshman, it was frustrating, because there was never a moment where I wasn’t surrounded by people learning from me all the time,” Jenkins said. “There’s no negative intention behind it, but it’s hard to be ‘off.’”

Jenkins described a specific episode in which she and her friends were taking the braids out of her hair after a Sisterhood meeting, and people came into the bathroom and watched. While these attendees were only curious, she said it was a “very self-conscious moment.”

Wilson agrees, adding that she feels it is important to have an organization that represents her and is specifically intersectional. “Crozier [Center for Women]’s nice, but it doesn’t always focus on the issues that surround the lives of women of color,” Wilson said.

The decision to pursue theme housing followed a decision last year by Men of Color to do the same. Wilson said pursuing theme housing has increased both the support Sisterhood can provide and its visibility on campus. Now that the organization is required to hold all-campus events, a stipulation of theme housing, Sisterhood has increased their outreach by organizing movie screenings and meeting with groups like Kenyon Working Women of Color.

Today, despite quickly expanding their on-campus presence over recent years, Sisterhood is still, Wilson said, “testing the waters.” Wilson said Sisterhood has less funding compared to older cultural organizations like BSU. Their advisor, Manager of Summer Programs Barbara Kakiris ’97, said their level of alumni engagement was also lower than that of Men of Color.

“Those guys jump at a chance to come back to Kenyon, and jump at a chance to mentor a young man,” Kakiris said. “The pass of the baton has happened for them, but with Sisterhood it really hasn’t happened.”

Kakiris, who was at Kenyon when NIA was active, is hopeful that she’ll be able to get in contact with some of the members of NIA at her 20th reunion this year. For now, though, she’s proud of all that Sisterhood has done.

“As an alumna, it touches my heart,” Kakiris said. “I’m very proud that this is what Kenyon looks like now.”