March 1 2018

Crystal Cartwright has a passion for creating safe spaces. Her office in Wheaton’s Student Activities Office (SAO) is impossibly well-furnished with a couch, an armchair and a lavender color motif that extends from the throw pillows to the pictures on the wall. Cartwright is the Associate Director of the SAO, and her primary duties include serving as advisor to Student Government and Chief Advisor to all SAO clubs. Cartwright volunteers her time as Staff Advisor to Sisterhood, a subset group under the William Osborne society (Willie-O) which caters to Black women on campus.

In 2006, when she was a student at Wheaton and served as president of Willie-O, Cartwright founded Sisterhood alongside Dr. Erin Strong, MD, ‘08, who was a Willie-O cabinet member at the time. Cartwright had realized that, while Willie-O played a crucial role in meeting the needs of Black students and of the campus at large, it lacked the specificity needed to address the issues that make a Black woman’s experience distinct.

“There is a very unique experience that Black women have at predominantly white institutions. We’re very underrepresented,” Cartwright explained. “In 2006, when Sisterhood was founded, there was this need for female mentorship, encouragement, and celebration of Black womanhood in a place where you didn’t see a lot of representation.” When Black female representation was scarce in the form of staff and faculty advisors, it was Rodney Sisco, Director of the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD) and Willie-O advisor, who mentored Cartwright as a student leader and provided her with an example of how to serve the students of Wheaton College.

Today, Cartwright serves as Sisterhood’s advisor, providing mentorship through one-on-one counsel with students and by connecting students with Wheaton alumni, faculty and staff members who can provide advice.

“Sometimes students may need an adult perspective that [a] peer isn’t equipped to offer. This is where my role best comes into play … Like all students, whether they are from SG or SAO clubs, Sisterhood women know that they also have an open-door policy with me. They can come see me for a laugh, prayer, mentorship and help at any given time,” said Cartwright.

Cartwright also works with the Sisterhood coordinator, junior Natasha Brown. Brown’s responsibilities are more detail-oriented, whereas Cartwright’s are more big-picture. While Brown’s official tasks include planning the weekly or biweekly meetings and organizing Sisterhood events, much of her focus revolves around student care. Looking after physical, emotional and spiritual development is no small task.

“It’s a 24/7 job. The main thing that I’ve been focusing on for this year is, really, just to make sure that the girls are cared for,” Brown explained.

The concept of student-to-student mentorship is nothing new to Sisterhood. At its founding, upperclass students worked with a group of five or six mentees, a structure through which leaders focused especially on caring for underclass students. While this formal structure is no longer a part of Sisterhood today, older students still play a crucial role in advising their younger peers.

When it comes to reaching out to younger Black women on campus, Sisterhood’s members are proactive. Freshman Naïssa Charles recalled meeting a group of Sisterhood members while she was at HoneyRock for Passage.

“They were very on top of it,” she said with a smile. “The girls who were there just came to me and were like ‘Oh my gosh! We’re here to support you! Welcome!’”

“It’s almost like everybody recognizes that we are responsible for the Black women on campus, to make sure that they are supported,” Brown explained. “This isn’t something you have to be told to do.”

Brown herself recalls the hospitality Sisterhood leaders extended to her during her freshman year in the form of an event entitled “Vizza.”

“So basically ‘venting’ and ‘pizza,’” she laughed. “It felt like a family, almost, just having a conversation, talking through our frustrations.”

“We’ve mostly talked about our experiences in classes,” Charles said in regards to the advice she’s received from her upper class peers. “Sometimes, if you’re the only Black girl or minority in [a] class, you’re automatically the spokesperson for [the] entire race. And Natasha and the other girls have just told me, ‘That is not your responsibility. And whatever story you’re giving them, that’s just your experience’ … They’ve just kind of guided me and said, ‘It’s going to be okay. I’ve been through this,’ and provided advice.”

Shared experience is a cornerstone for the Sisterhood community, strengthening their ability to empathize with each other. Cartwright emphasized the need for representation among Wheaton’s Black women, which is sparse in most classrooms and campus settings.

“When you come to a place like Wheaton and you don’t see a lot of faces that look like you, you can begin to just feel ‘other.’ And it doesn’t build up who you are. So representation matters and it is shown through … Sisterhood, which says, ‘We celebrate your God-given Black womanhood and we affirm it.’”

It is for this reason that Sisterhood takes on an exclusive quality, in the sense that it exists exclusively to serve students who are female and Black. Cartwright explained, “Sisterhood has identifying markers such as t-shirts, and we have our events, [but] it is not a sorority. It is not elitist. Something can be exclusive without it being, I think, harmful or derogatory towards others. It’s just really more of a cultural space for women to develop culturally and emotionally and spiritually.”

Charles made a similar clarification. “Don’t feel uncomfortable if you’re around a group of us. We’re very welcoming to everybody else. It’s just a safe space for the Black girls, so don’t think of it like a sorority.”

The need for representation extends beyond the lives of undergraduate students and into the lives of Wheaton faculty and staff members.

“I’m Associate Director in the SAO,” said Cartwright. “I made a very intentional decision and felt very God-led in coming to work in a majority-white office.”

Cartwright made the decision to come to the SAO with the purpose of demonstrating God-ordained integration and appreciation for all of her brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of ethnicity. Daily, she feels affirmed that choosing to personally model integration for Wheaton’s students was the best decision.

“I am very grateful for the support of my boss, SAO director Peter Hansen. His support has made it possible for me to share my cultural identity and mentorship with all Wheaton Students regardless of cultural background,” said Cartwright.

Cartwright notes the importance of sharing her experience from her perspective as an alumna, as she is able to look upon her time as a Wheaton student in retrospect. She connects the women with other Black female alumni, staff and faculty like herself, sometimes inviting those alumni to speak at the OMD-sponsored Sisterhood workshops she hosts twice annually. Each workshop focuses on a different topic, but the themes often relate to issues of self-care and self-esteem. Trustee Emeritus Ruth Bentley, the first African American woman to serve on Wheaton’s board of trustees, attended the last workshop as the keynote speaker.

While these workshops are less frequent, Sisterhood is active on a weekly basis. Every Tuesday night, the women meet to pray for both Wheaton’s Black students as well as the college as a whole and to catch up with each other. Members of Sisterhood will sometimes meet informally, gathering at the homes of women who are seniors or graduate students to talk and do homework. Occasionally, Brown will organize an event which brings Sisterhood together with Brotherhood, a similar group for Wheaton’s Black men.

Charles appreciates the casual nature of Sisterhood’s community.

“You’re free to text Natasha any time,” she explained. “I texted her at the beginning of the week, ‘Would you like to meet up?’ And then another freshman girl and I went to her apartment and just chilled. She took me to Los for the first time, so that was really sweet of her.”

Brown noted that events under Willie-O’s leadership have often focused more on serious topics. While discussing these issues is important, Brown has found that it can become draining. It was for this reason she and the Brotherhood coordinator, sophomore Sammie Shields, hoped to incorporate more events where Sisterhood and Brotherhood could relax and have fun, such as game nights and movie nights.

Despite the crucial role that Willie-O and its subgroups plays on campus, Brown has found that not all Wheaton students recognize the importance of Black student groups or even conversations concerning race at large.

“I’ve heard people comment, ‘Why do we have to talk about this so much? Why do we have to deal with this issue of race?’ And it’s almost funny to me, because I know, for certain people, they don’t have to ever think about the color of their skin or the way people are going to perceive them based off of the way they look … For me, personally, I have to think about it every day. This is not something that I get a break from,” Brown said.

Cartwright highlighted the difficulties of navigating race at Wheaton, stating that, “We’re really trying to empower young women to believe that they are enough and to understand that God didn’t make a mistake when he created you. He didn’t accidentally make you Black. And being Black isn’t all there is to you.”

Looking forward, Cartwright hopes to see Sisterhood partner with other women’s groups on campus.

“I think we all have in common that we are women and we are always fighting for equality and the right to be respected and truly seen for who we are. … [Sisterhood] can partner with other women’s groups and we can just see the amazing women that Wheaton women are in general.” She emphasized that she and Brown “are open to anyone who has questions about Sisterhood [or who would like] to collaborate with us. We want them to reach out to us.”

While Sisterhood provides a platform for Black women to talk about and navigate the difficulties they face during their time at Wheaton, its leaders exemplify an admirable degree of hope, which is founded largely in the deep friendships that Sisterhood nurtures.

“There are people in Sisterhood [who] are going to be my bridesmaids,” said Brown. “They’ve been through thick and thin with me. They’ve seen me at my worst and they’ve seen my at my absolute best, and they have celebrated and cried alongside me through everything that I’ve gone through. So that is definitely something that I think continues post-graduation. I feel like Sisterhood isn’t just this four-year thing and then you’re done. It’s a lifetime bond for sure.”

Even broader than the friendships formed among Wheaton’s Black undergraduate women, Sisterhood connects its members with the struggles and triumphs of the women who have come before.

“Yes,” Cartwright admits, “Percentage-wise, [Black women] are still a small number on this campus. But compared to 15 years ago, 10 years ago, we’ve made so much progress. You have a legacy of Black women who have come before you — Black women who have been maybe only one of two Black faces in a class. That means something. Your time here is not wasted. You’re setting the stage and the path for those who will come after you.”