In an effort to highlight the people who are leading graduate chapters across the nation, we at Watch The Yard reached out to the sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.’s Zeta Nu Omega in Westchester County, NY and did an interview with Dr. Karen A. Williams the Basileus of the chapter.
The position of Basileus/president of a Black sorority chapter is a highly respected role and there is a special pride that one takes. Dr. Williams, who works as a College Vice President, has been in the position of Basileus for almost 2 years.
We interviewed Dr. Williams, who is a Pi Kappa, Spring 1990 (Charter Member) initiate of Alpha Kappa Alpha and talked to her about her position, goals, future and what it means to hold this type of leadership position in the digital age.
Read the full interview below.
What motivated you to take on the role of alumni chapter president?
Zeta Nu Omega chapter members are leaders in every professional arena. I was inspired to run for president because of the incredible legacy of leadership established by the previous Presidents. One of the chapter’s priorities is our deep investment in making sure members have access to excellent leadership development opportunities.
I was also inspired by Zeta Nu Omega’s trailblazing history in the Westchester County community. The chapter was established because as African Americans began moving from New York City into Westchester County in 1955, we saw a need to create connections with each other and provide service in accordance with our mission. As I thought about how I could serve Alpha Kappa Alpha and my local community during the pandemic, I thought that this would be a good time for me to use my skills to further Zeta Nu Omega’s visibility and impact. My administration’s theme coming into office was #LeadingByExample because I understood the members of our chapter had the motivation and talent to uplift our community through the pandemic, even as we navigated through our own personal and professional challenges. As I suspected, Zeta Nu Omega executed PREMIERE service and sisterhood and I am so proud to serve this award winning chapter as President.
What specific initiatives is your chapter heading up this year and how do you think they will improve the local community or the broader Black community?
Zeta Nu Omega chapter has a series of initiatives of which we are particularly proud. First, Enhancing our Environment committee teamed up with the Westchester Land Trust to create almost 500 grow bags in an effort we have called “A Love Letter to Nature”. The grow bags will be distributed to local families and can grow up to 30 lb of fresh organic vegetables.. Zeta Nu Omega and our service partners prepared more than 480 bags using locally donated organic compost, with the potential to grow more than 14,000 pounds of food. Not only is this effort important for sustaining our environment but African-Americans suffer disproportionate health challenges related to lack of access to healthy and affordable food in our communities. By providing these fresh fruit and vegetable bags for free, we are encouraging our families to focus on good nutritional health and agricultural principles that have guided our communities for generations. For some, gardening has a positive impact on those who have sustained trauma. As more people got involved in growing gardens during the pandemic, there was a notable positive effect on feelings of stress and anxiety.
Our work in Enhancing our Economic Development has also been impactful. Zeta Nu Omega chapter offers a series of programs and panel discussions focused on establishing legacy and completing documents to ensure our families’ economic wealth such as living wills, trusts and health proxies. We also offered opportunities for community members to learn about becoming established minority and women-owned businesses that are recognized by New York State and increased our programs on homeownership insurance and credit.
Finally, we are particularly proud of our programs related to Youth Development through our Young Leaders Institute for middle schoolers and “Adults Karing About People” service program for high schoolers, which has existed since 1984. Equally notable are our programs for Seniors focusing on health resources from Westchester County, insurance and medicare updates from the state of New York, as well as caregiver resources. We have so many programs which have made significant impact in the community and I must thank the ZNO Community Service Fund, Inc., which works closely with us to fund our programming efforts. Through the ZNO- CSF, Inc, Zeta Nu Omega chapter has awarded more than $20,000 in community impact grants to our nonprofit service partners and more than $750,000 academic scholarships since 1982. $22,000 in scholarships were disbursed this year.
What made you want to pledge Alpha Kappa Alpha?
I was grateful to be accepted into Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc in the spring of 1990 at the University at Albany. When I arrived on campus in the Fall of 1989 and I saw these women who inspired me. Everything about them was just…. EVERYTHING! From their service programs, to the way they carried themselves, to how the connections they had with other students and faculty on campus, I was intrigued. Everyone seemed to know these women and support their events. One of the members dressed in professional attire (with a briefcase!) every day because she was a business major. As a first-year student, I just found her and all of the women of AKA so impressive and I wanted to be just like them. By the time I figured out who these women were and I ran to the library to do research on this amazing organization. I vaguely heard of AKA in high school but hadn’t seen anyone who was a member in real life. Also, in 1990, there was no such thing as the internet. From that one book in the library and the women I saw on campus I was hooked! I fell in love with Alpha Kappa Alpha from my first semester. Thank God, the next semester, they accepted me into the Ivy Leaf Pledge Club where I learned so much more.
What is it about your specific chapter that makes it so unique?
Zeta Nu Omega is unique because even though we’re the oldest chapter in Westchester County, and the members of our chapter range from their early 20’s to members in their late 90s, Sorors are focused on ways to combine tradition with innovation. From chapter operations, service programs, leadership training, fundraising to sisterly relations, the members of Zeta Nu Omega are always looking for ways to introduce a fresh approach to our work. With Zeta Nu Omega, it’s never stale or business- as- usual.
How is your chapter providing for the undergraduate chapters you support?
Omicron Eta has brought us deep pride since they were chartered in 1987. Our undergraduate chapter has produced leaders professionally and within the Sorority. Zeta Nu Omega chapter provides mentors for each undergraduate member based on the positions they hold, as well as by mutual interests or career aspirations. We support their programs and fundraisers and ensure that they can make their way to as many conferences and trainings as their schedules allow. Most importantly, when their tenure as Omicron Eta members is over, we provide the support and advice they need to transition directly from undergraduate to active graduate membership, into Zeta Nu Omega, another graduate chapter or as General Members of the Sorority.
How do you approach fostering a sense of unity and camaraderie among alumni members, and what strategies have you found effective?
Over the years, I’ve found that the best way to foster a sense of unity and camaraderie among graduate members is to prioritize the need to spend time together. Anyone can serve the community or focus on social action projects through other organizations but people do so through a Sorority or Fraternity for specific and intentional reasons. Zeta Nu Omega focuses on Strengthening our Sisterhood by hosting a breakfast hour in advance of the business meeting for Sorors to reconnect every month. Also through our Heart Sister program, newer members who have transferred and reactivated their membership through Zeta Nu Omega are matched with existing members to spend time getting to know each other and checking in with each other. As President, I also have an initiative to ensure that I spend time getting to know the members of the chapter through a series of activities called “Dinner with the Basileus”. Finally, Zeta Nu Omega members extend the sisterly love and camaraderie with other graduate members by doing joint service projects with other chapters and attending events to support other chapters in their fundraising endeavors.
What advice would you give to aspiring leaders within your sorority who may aspire to take on roles of leadership within alumni chapters?
My advice? DO IT!!! Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated is one of the best training grounds for leadership in any capacity. I have advanced in my life and career because of what I’ve learned as an undergraduate Soror, a committee member, a committee chair, and in elected office. The skills I’ve learned have been transferable at every stage of my career and the experience I’ve gained in the Sorority has been invaluable to my growth.
How has mentorship helped you get to where you are today? Are there any specific people in your org who have made a significant impact on your life as mentors?
Mentorship has been critical to my development as a professional and a Sorority leader. I’ve had formal mentors, informal mentors, and people whose leadership trajectory I’ve modeled. Their guidance has given me the confidence to say yes to so many opportunities to serve the Sorority at the local, regional and international level, including my current appointment on the Regional Constitution and Bylaws Committee and my recent role as Moderator for a workshop on Positive Chapter Climate at the AKA International Leadership Seminar. I’ve been mentored by Soror educators like retired School Superintendent Dr. Brenda L.G. Smith, Westchester community leaders, Audrey Staton and Charlette W. Finch, Bronx community leader Shirley Fearon, College President Dr. Claudia Schrader, and countless Alpha Kappa Alpha women and others who have supported me on my journey to become a College Vice President and Sorority President.
Why do you think Watch The Yard is important to Black greekdom?
Watch the Yard is an important voice in Black culture, not just Black Greek life. When I was in college, we watched TV shows where people wore fraternity and sorority paraphernalia on college campuses and successful Black characters achieved professional accolades in every field they represented. Watch the Yard brings these stories of achievement and vibrant campus life to real life by featuring our organization’s movers and shakers every day! The best part is that these stories aren’t just read by members. They are being picked up by “mainstream” media and broadening our reach with wider audiences. Watch the Yard offers a range of stories that are as diverse and multidimensional as we are- and an important counternarrative to how the Black community is often featured in the media.
Looking back at it, why do you love being a member of your org?
I love being a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. Becoming a member was the first “adult” decision I made at 18. The organization, most especially my linesisters and “Big Sisters” have extended the love support that was poured into me by my family. As one of the first in my family to attend college, Alpha Kappa Alpha expanded my worldview and supported my belief that I could be as successful as I wanted to be if I was willing to learn. My mother and other members of my family were service oriented and believed in using our skills and talents to give back to our community. In Alpha Kappa Alpha, I found kindred spirits with similar values, and for some on my line, a legacy of AKA excellence and achievement within their families. The organization’s history and legacy inspired me to stay as active as I could even when life became too busy to remain in a chapter. That same spirit of excellence inspired my sister, Dr. Aminah Jones to become a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha in the Fall of 1995 at Xavier University, and our legacy was passed down to my daughter Naja Williams who became a member in Fall 2014, in the same chapter where I was initiated as a Charter Member, Pi Kappa (University at Albany).
Lastly, what does sisterhood mean to you?
Sisterhood is everything to me. One of the greatest legacies that my mother gave to me was about the value of being a good friend. Sisterhood has carried me through the greatest joys of my life and it has been a light for me during my darkest days. Alpha Kappa Alpha’s very foundation exists because enrollment among women at Howard University was small– eight in the Class of 1908; two in the Class of 1909. As a means of survival and connection, these women gathered to provide each other with a network of support to sustain each other and enrich the community through their philanthropic efforts. More than eleven decades later, I consider myself blessed to benefit from the sisterhood I inherited and I pray daily that I have sown into my Sorors the love and joy they’ve sown into me.
We at Watch The Yard would like to commend Dr. Karen A. Williams for her work as the Basileus of the Zeta Nu Omega which has a legacy that spans back to 1990.
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