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Leadership Highlight

Leadership Highlight: DeShawn Burrell the Basileus of Zeta Phi Beta’s Grad Chapter in Louisville

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 Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.’s Eta Zeta Chapter in Louisville and did an interview with DeShawn Burrell the Basileus(president) of the chapter.

The position of Basileus of a Black sorority grad chapter is a highly respected role and there is a special pride that one takes. Burrell, who is a Student Affairs Administrator, has served in the position for 3 years.

We interviewed Burrell, who is a Spring 2001 Delta Theta Chapter initiate from The University of Louisville 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 does it mean to be a chapter president to you?

Being a chapter president means embodying the idea that I am a representation of something that is bigger than me. Growing up, I always admired and wanted to be like some really amazing women. I’ve always loved fashion and science so I followed and read about African American models and would learn about how they had to overcome industry jabs as well as personal image issues. On the flip side, I have always been fascinated with everything STEM, but immediately seeing an African American face in STEM was not as easy to find.

I realized early on that representation was key. Because I was taught to always put your absolute best foot forward in all endeavors, so presiding over a chapter fell right in line with acknowledging that representation mattered. As a chapter president, you are not only the face and primary reflection of your chapter, you get another opportunity to be the face for other African American collegiate women, women ascribing to serve a cause greater than them, and the face of someone who strives to uphold and tell the story, through actions, of women who withstood the test of their times.

Being a chapter president means embracing the unique opportunity to connect with women you may have never crossed paths with. Finally, it means that you have the personal point of privilege to uplift, encourage, mitigate, connect, and empower other women to be the change they want to see, not only for their respective organization but for themselves.

What specific initiatives is your chapter heading up this year and how do you think they will improve the surrounding community?

There are several initiatives that my organization champions through administration focus. Eta Zeta Chapter strives to align our individual chapter efforts with the desired initiatives of our current Grand’s administration. Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated is a community conscious, action-oriented organization that strives to help other people excel (ZHOPE). Eta Zeta Chapter has been recognized on the international, regional, and state levels for clocking thousands of hours of service to the immediate community of Louisville KY. We have adopted a school providing scholarships to pay for graduation regalia for students, stocked the school’s food pantry and bundled items for students to pick up and take home. Additionally, through the Adopt A School program, Eta Zeta Chapter has hosted health fairs, cultural exchange programs, talent shows, and coat drives. You name it, Eta Zeta Chapter has probably done it, or it is on the books for the immediate future. Adopting a school means that students gain a greater sense of belonging and support as they are able to depend upon their local Zetas to advocate, raise money, and work to fulfil basic and goal smashing needs.

Most recently, in the wake of the Breonna Taylor murder in Louisville, Eta Zeta Chapter ramped up efforts to support yet another International initiative, Zetas Get Engaged. Eta Zeta literally put our boots, heels, and flats to the ground and outreached to thousands of potential voters and registered right under 2000 and worked the polling sites with our Amicae friends. We not only strolled to the polls in style, we took to the streets and reminded our community that they had only a few days to truly see history change in our favor.

Last, Eta Zeta Chapter was the first sorority chapter to not only provide public support to the family of Breonna Taylor and her family’s legal team, our persistent efforts to bring awareness to such an injustice spearheaded Zeta’s International Social Action team to align and launch multi media campaigns and host a townhall educating our constituency about how to get engaged locally in order to see change globally.

What made you want to pledge Zeta Phi Beta?

Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated is a community conscious action-oriented organization. Well before I knew much about Zeta, I was drawn to campus recognized student organizations like NAACP, SNCC, African American Programming, and Student Activities board. I knew that I wanted to have a seat at the change agent’s tables. Unbeknownst to me, there was a sorority that aligned with being visible and impactful. There were ladies who were Zetas that embraced me as soon as I came to campus, not to join their ranks but to expose me to other student and professional development opportunities, which meant more to than anything, and what I grew up knowing about sorority life, as my late mother was an active member of AKA. Finally, Zetas are unapologetically Finer, which looks different for and on everyone. There were countless change agents on campus but the Zetas were so intentional about taking you for who you were, cultivating and harvesting your talents to make you a better person first, the organization second, which completely aligns with my personal integrity model.

What is it about your specific chapter that makes it so unique?

The Eta Zeta Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Incorporated is the oldest graduate chapter in the Great Lakes Region, home to the 7th International President Triumphant Soror Fannie R. Givens and home to the community change agent and first African American woman to pass the bar in the state of Kentucky, Triumphant Soror Alberta O. Jones Esq. Eta Zeta Chapter is truly a multi-generational chapter with membership age ranging drom 25 to 93. We have been extrememly fortunate to learn from leadership at the International, Regional and State level.

Eta Zeta is known for taking charge and setting the tone, strategically passing that torch of moxie and fortitude to our collegiates as we sponsor two collegiate charters including a city-wide charter. Eta Zeta Chapter boasts the charge of executing “teachable moments” for sorors old and new. We pound the pavement and do the work of our Founders, which is well known across the city of Louisville. We truly embrace, “when Zeta calls we will answer one and all.” Eta Zeta chapter teaches you alot about yourself and how far you can stretch beyond your comfort zone. There are many things to be said about my chapter, but what makes us so unique is that we are The cause and we are The effect, because #WeAreEtaZeta.

We now live in a digital world, what do you think alumni chapters across all orgs need to do to represent themselves online in 2021?

Alumni chapters should take a page out of the undergrad/collegiate’ s notebook when it comes to utilizing various social media platforms. Collegiate chapters are not only learning to navigate virtually, they have been marketing, promoting and using social media platforms in order promote their individual businesses, programs, themselves way before many graduate chapters turned to social media.

Additionally, the undergrads grew up with computers, smart phones, and tablets as a staple, not just a luxury, so their ability to navigate and introduce the most relevant and applicable platform is key to maximizing efficiency and operational effectiveness. Out of the mouth of babes trully hits differently in the 2021 online world that we are living in.

How is your chapter adapting to navigate the pandemic?

Navigating this pandemic is truly a labor of sisterly love for my chapter.

We hit the ground running trying to convert our Zeta business practices, protocols, and procedures into safe, secure, and easily managed online meeting platforms. We have roughly 3 Zoom accounts that are used to host general body meetings, executive board meetings and committee meetings. We changed up our rules of the day to incorporate virtual platform options as well. We have ramped up efforts to go live from our various social media platforms and share with the community the activities we are actively supporting or participating in so that they can join us if they so desire. We have worked diligently to establish small intentional safe and masked up activities when permitted by our governor and international administration. For our first Virtual Boule our Virtual sisterhood team prepared Boule schwag bags and did surprise porch drops, maintaining the tradition of registering and getting a conference gift safely from the comfort of your own home.

Finally, we have taken our unique continuing Zeta education platform (Eta Zeta Academy) from a brick and mortar operation to a virtual platform that is recorded for sorors to either actively engage and learn or watch and reflect upon the key learnings at their leisure. Eta Zeta Academy was designed after I conducted a small research study seeking to answer the challenge of retaining new members. Eta Zeta Academy provided/provides a smaller group learning session (think Sunday school) about a relevant Zeta topic that could transcend into your professional life. Topics include; parliamentary procedure, how to run a meeting, prep tips for conferences, Finer Womanhood workshops about hair, make-up, and attire all facilitated by professionals or tenured subject matter experts.

What does leadership mean to you?

Leadership is taking the time, talent, and treasures of your team to the next level by leading from within. Leadership is setting aside your personal directives, intentionally seeking to find value in alternative methods of reaching targeted populations both within and outside of chapter operations. Leadership to me modeling the change you want to see come to fruition, giving and accepting sisterly correction and taking the unlikely path to the top. Leadership is not always pretty but it is always rewarding.

Why do you think Watch The Yard is important to Black greekdom?

It has allowed for Black greeks world wide to experience different perspectives of what brotherhood and sisterhood looks like and can look like. Watch the yard places emphasis on the positive and progressive aspects of Black greekdom, which is needed given the current state of affairs. Finally, Watch The Yard inspires prospective members and graduates by highlighting more than the social aspect of Black Greekdom, which is vital for lifetime active membership and service.

What does sisterhood mean to you?

Sisterhood to me means finding the safe space to be vulnerable and authentically yourself. It means remembering and hearing the important unspoken dreams and aspirations through intentional conversations and support. Sisterhood is showing up when the chips are down and celebrating the ultimate highs. Sisterhood is being told you are wrong and knowing it comes from a place of love and it is meant to sharpen you and not tear you down. Sisterhood is having my back when I am not present and correcting anyone who means harm towards me in my absence

How is your chapter providing for the undergraduate chapters you support?

My chapter has enacted an intentional sisterhood mentoring program where undergrads are paired with a soror in the graduate chapter with similar personalitites or likenesses. When allowed, the mentor/mentee groups may go to dinner/lunch/brunch, take in a movie or some other engaging activity for them to build a strong bond with a graduate member. Additionally, we invite and highly encourage our undergrads to attend Eta Zeta Academy small groups to learn about Zeta operations in smaller more tenured settings than their chapter meetings. We have invited our undergrads to our themed professional photoshoots and social advocacy events.

We at Watch The Yard would like to commend DeShawn Burrell for her work as the president of
Eta Zeta Chapter which has a long legacy that spans back to 1928.

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