Donors rally to Stand with Bennett CollegeBy Sam Rakestraw, Peacemaker Intern / January 31, 2019
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Students, teachers and guests of Bennett College provided the college’s choral ensemble with a resounding standing ovation as the young ladies took a bow after performing an original gospel piece, “We Who Believe In Freedom.” There was much applause and the sound of amen inside Bennett’s Global Learning Center where The Rev. Dr. William Barber and Dr. Sharrelle Barber, his daughter, talked about the deep roots Bennett College has with women’s education.
As one of only two Historically Black College/Universities (HBCU) in the United States for women (Spelman College in Atlanta being the other HBCU), the college continues with its mission of educating strong, independent and gifted young women. At this time the college is facing a major financial challenge that many hope will merely be a brief bump in the road to success.
In December of last year, college administrators learned that the all-women’s institution is in jeopardy of losing its accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) due to a lack of funding. The college must raise $5 million by this Friday, Feb. 1 in order to save its accreditation with SACSOC. Bennett College administrators will meet with SACSCOC on February 18 with their appeal. So far Bennett has received donations from across the country totaling more than $3 million (as of Wednesday, January 30) which includes two $500,000 donations respectively from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston Salem and Papa John’s Pizza Restaurant Company. With this fundraising goal expected to be reached with the help of locals, families of students, foundations like Z. Smith Reynolds and corporations like Papa John’s, it’s become clear that there are many people who stand with Bennett.
Rev. Barber is senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He was North Carolina state chapter president of the National Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 2006 to 2017, an author and political activist. Dr. Sharrelle Barber is an alumna of Bennett from the class of 2007. While a student majoring in Biology at the college, she continued to make strides in her academic and personal development. When Barber applied and was accepted to the college, she knew that Bennett was the school for her. As the valedictorian of her high school class with several college acceptances and scholarships from schools across the U.S., she would ask herself “how can Bennett recruit a valedictorian if I don’t make the decision to go there?” Bennett helped Barber cultivate and sharpen her academic prowess which served as a springboard for her to earn a Master of Public Health from UNC Chapel Hill and a doctorate from Harvard University’s School of Public Health.
“A Bennett Belle is a woman of purpose. When we think about why we’re standing with Bennett, that is why Bennett matters, because this is not the norm. And we need to have more spaces like this. This is not only a jewel in Greensboro, North Carolina or in the nation but in the world. Bennett is a jewel and a sacred space that really pours into Black women,” said Dr. Barber.
What is it that makes something sacred? According to Rev. Barber, it’s something that is sacred in its past, present and future. Bennett, in the past, had to overcome to become the safe space it is now. Bennett Belles in those days were the first in a long line of students who wouldn’t allow Bennett to be shut down. Just under 50 percent of the students were arrested during the 1960s sit-in protests, but that didn’t stop them from going to school. Dr. Willa Player, then president of Bennett, brought them their homework in jail.
“Sometimes when we think sacred, we think ancient, old or something that was done in the past. But sacred things live. Like church, it’s sacred because it has survived over 2,000 years and it continues,” said Rev. Barber, “It’s not something you look back at, but something you take in. Part of what makes something sacred is honoring the sacrifice of the past.”
In the present, Bennett continues to be a place where a woman can realize just how powerful she really is. The school’s Stand With Bennett initiative has the goal to raise $5 million within 50 days by February 1. Administrators are expected meet the goal by raising 2,000,000 more in under a week. Meanwhile, enrollment has increased from 409 in 2017 to 471 in 2018 as did the average GPA of new freshwomen from 2.8 to 3.2.
The future of Bennett College includes more of these increases. “We need to continue to build and create opportunities for women to see and experience the world. It is a priceless thing, having a space where you can develop as a global citizen, where you can really flourish and learn about the activism of the past and engage in the activism of the present,” Sharrelle Barber said.
Bennett sent Dr. Barber on her journey from her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology to a Master of Public Health degree from UNC Gillings School of Public Health and finally, a Doctor of Science in Social Epidemiology from Harvard.
Rev. Barber said, “Students come to university to make sure that they learn their history and it becomes embedded on that hard drive of their mind and they become conscious of the world around them, to reality. Campus shouldn’t become a quarantine. One of the worst things we could be, in the moment, is academically trained to sleep.”
Peacemaker intern and world traveler, Sam Rakestraw, is a senior majoring in journalism and mass communication at High Point University. When he’s not traveling to East Africa, the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, Sam is at home with his parents and four younger brothers in Chicago, Illinois.
Editor Afrique Kilimanjaro contributed to the writing of this story.