Story and photo by LORIEN HARKER
On the Miss Black USA pageant website there is a statement that reads, “It’s time to redefine what it means to be a courageous, compassionate [and] CONFIDENT black woman today. We’ve got obstacles to overcome and stereotypes to smash. Sound like your kind of revolution? Join the movement.”
Thelina Smith has got some smashing of her own to do.
Smith is the current reigning Miss Black Utah USA. She also is a junior at the University of Utah who is studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis in biomaterials and leadership studies.
Smith is extremely busy with duties of the crown and sash, such as being an advocate for heart health while promoting her own platform. However, she makes sure to be involved with her studies. Smith started the first chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at the U, reactivated the U’s Society of Women Engineers and is a biomedical engineering ambassador for the College of Engineering.
As a requirement for her title, Smith also promotes a platform, or an issue she feels needs to be addressed within the community. Smith says her platform, “Engineering the Leaders of Tomorrow, Because Tomorrow Matters Today,” is meant to “motivate minorities and underrepresented students to engage in STEM education.”
Smith says her platform has three goals. First, to reach out to the community, specifically women, through educating them on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Second is to “continue to charter diverse student organizations throughout Utah that serve to recruit and retain minority and underrepresented students in STEM fields.” And third, she wants to “establish a council” to mentor the youth she hopes to recruit into math and science education.
“I feel that this pageant allows me to take my efforts to the next level,” Smith says in an email interview. “I want to challenge young ladies to think about what it is to be beautiful and smart and to capture the attention of young men to let them know they can have a future within STEM education.”
Smith has also been working on partnering with the National Society of Black Engineers, The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, The American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Society of Women Engineers, of which she has been an active participant. Smith wants to partner with these societies to form a council called STEM-Diversity Industry Advisory Council. This council would include “community leaders and local STEM company representatives that will [oversee] the support of these student chapters,” Smith says.
Despite her full schedule, Smith is making time to run for Miss Black USA in Washington, D.C., in August 2013.
Although there have been women of color to win larger national and international pageants, Smith doesn’t feel women of color are being represented to their full potential within these programs.
“I wouldn’t consider myself ‘marginalized’ in pageantry but rather ‘underrepresented.’ There have been women of color to capture the crown as Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, [but] this is still relatively a small number in comparison to the number of years that these organizations have existed,” Smith says.
Lana Thompkins, the public relations spokeswoman for Miss Black USA, says in an email interview that the Miss Black USA is necessary because women of color do not feel beautiful with today’s standards of beauty.
“Self-esteem is the core of a woman’s belief in herself. Miss Black USA sets our own standards of beauty,” Thompkins says.
African-American women have been faced with many stereotypes, Thompkins says, and the purpose of the Miss Black USA pageant is to disprove these stereotypes.
“While 80% of Miss Black USA contestants are graduates or professionals and represent a new generation, we are often negatively typecast, demeaned, and portrayed in the media and in the workplace as ‘broken,’ ‘unattractive,’ ‘alone,’ ‘hard to work with,”’ and even ‘violent,’” Thompkins says.
Raychellene Talbot, the wardrobe coordinator for Miss Utah under the Miss America Organization, feels that Miss Utah has a “melting pot of pageant girls” despite the fact that there has yet to be an African-American Miss Utah.
“We have so many different contestants at the local and state level. I know Miss Utah Outstanding Teen 2011 had 6 different nationalities,” Talbot says.
The Miss Black USA pageant was founded in 1986 by Karen Arrington. The scholarship program boasts a two-year tuition scholarship to Miles College, a historically black college in Fairfield, Ala. The scholarship also awards a fully furnished apartment close to campus. If contestants such as Smith win and choose not to attend Miles College, they do not receive the housing benefits.
Women who have competed for the title of Miss Black USA have gone on to win titles within the Miss USA organization. Chenoa Greene, Miss Black New Jersey 2007, went on to become Miss New Jersey USA in 2008.
Thelina Smith says, “The Miss Black USA pageant is a showcase of women who otherwise may have been overlooked.”