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Criminal Justice Major Launches Owning My Blackness to Focus on Elevation of Black College Students

A Criminal Justice student posing in front of artwork

Briaunna Embrey-Banks ’22 will bring this new organization to the York College of Pennsylvania campus in the fall of 2021.

Briaunna Embrey-Banks ’22 knows that accomplishing big things has a lot to do with relationships. As a young Black woman studying Criminal Justice at York College of Pennsylvania, she took it upon herself to build relationships that could change the experiences of Black college students at York College—and beyond.

“People still get nervous talking about racism, and I know it’s an uncomfortable conversation for a lot of people,” she says. “But, when I approach people with these topics, they know what I’m about. They know I’m here to find ways to work together, to create real change.”

She organized several events last year that focused on student-led conversations about Black Lives Matter. Black Out for Black Lives, an event that used poetry, songs, and art to share stories of Black student experiences, sparked the idea for something bigger.

Embrey-Banks didn’t want the work that started with Black Lives Matter to get lost in the return to routine, as news headlines moved on to other stories. So, she got to work building the framework for Owning My Blackness, a new organization coming to York College in the fall of 2021.

What makes it different

Embrey-Banks wanted to find a way to focus on education, advocacy, and elevation of Black students. As she prepared to present the proposal for the new organization to Student Senate, she did her homework. She pulled data on grade point averages, SAT scores, and graduation rates at the College. The data matched most of what can be found across the country—Black students fall behind in nearly every category.

While some Black students might not enter college at the same level as their peers, they tend to struggle to catch up. For example, there are many on-campus jobs that require students to have a certain GPA, Embrey-Banks says. When Black students fail to meet the standard, they miss opportunities to get those jobs.

As part of Owning My Blackness, Embrey-Banks wants to work with those who hire for those job opportunities. Through a funnel of communication, Owning My Blackness would work with students who are turned down for a job because of their GPA and offer them a chance to bring their grades up to a level where they can be reconsidered for the position.

She’s also working to create a database of students with various majors, so Black students can connect with one another, create study groups, or find opportunities to build relationships.

“If students feel like you care about them enough to dig into their issues, the hope is that they will care enough to help themselves, too,” Embrey-Banks says. “We have to recognize that the systems that are currently in place aren’t helping those students get ahead. They’re keeping them behind.”

A bigger vision

Embrey-Banks knows that students entering college could be more successful if they had the connections they need before they step onto campus. Her vision for Owning My Blackness goes beyond York College.

In fact, she’s reaching out to local high schools to start chapters of Owning My Blackness within the schools, giving students a chance to connect with college students and create advocacy groups that would carry them through the enrollment process.

She got the idea from studying Four Diamonds, which runs annual Mini-THON events at high schools to raise money for childhood cancer research. Those events energize high school students, helping them rally around a single idea and goal, and it often carries with them to college. Embrey-Banks even reached out to the Four Diamonds to share her idea and hear how they work to coordinate with high schools.

“It goes back to my thinking that if we start with relationships, we can do really great things,” she says. “I know that by building a framework for this organization, we can accomplish some really great things. We can change the story and redefine success for Black students.”

Who else is involved

Owning My Blackness includes the work of the following students: President and Founder Briaunna Embrey-Banks ’22; Vice President Brianna Simms ’23; Treasurer Sarah Goodman ’24; Head of Programs Tahliek Palmer ’24.