Photo credit: Kory Canada
At the time of the interview, Erica Bryant was competing for the title of Miss Black America Coed 2018 which she has since won.
Who is Erica A. Bryant?
I am comprised of many different ingredients, which make me complex enough to be unique, but simple enough to be relatable. A few ingredients to make an Erica cocktail would be ambition, determination, courage, authenticity, respect, confidence, compassion, being nurturing, charisma, a dash of goofiness and humor and a fullness of faith and life. I don’t go with the crowd, popular opinion, or play it safe. I am passionate about my goals and beliefs and don’t accept the word “no” when it pertains to those things. Dr. Seuss sums this up best, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”
You have won several pageant titles and will soon compete for Miss Black America Coed. How did you become involved in beauty competitions? What are some of the common misconceptions you have heard?
I started pageantry in college. My best friend wanted to try out for the Miss Black and Gold pageant, held by Alpha Phi Alpha. She didn’t want to go by herself. I was very headstrong and thought that pageants were just about the way you looked, so after she begged me, I decided to accompany her to an interest meeting, although I was far from interested. They ended up calling me instead of her and told me that they were interested in me being a contestant. I was actually a little nervous about what would be expected of me but soon found that I had missed the mark in my perceptions. That pageant taught me a lot about the importance of giving back, education and sisterhood. There was also an emphasis on physical appearance and fitness, but not in the way that most people would think. It was not about being perfect, or who could spend the most money on clothes, looks, and fashion, but about presenting yourself well and taking pride in your health and appearance. After that, I was hooked. I look at some of those old videos and see how it made a young woman who came to college with confidence, a young woman who was confidently groomed. There is a distinct difference. The latter stands out so much more.
Some of the misconceptions of pageantry are that you have to be a certain size, certain shape and that you have to have been groomed to do pageants from a young age. This is not true. Throughout my pageant life, I have met people who have been a part of the systems from a young age, some who have competed multiple times before securing a win, and some winning pageants even with a late start. Confidence is a major key.
Who inspired you to become involved in philanthropy? Why is it important to give back to the community?
I was raised by my great-grandparents, and they were on a VERY limited income. My whole life beginning was full of people (I call them my village), giving back to me and pouring into me when I didn’t really do much to deserve it. I remember many times when people from church would buy my sister or me church clothes, shoes, make sure that my family had food to eat, would take us to different events, or accept payments for things extremely late, just to make it easier on my grandparents. This didn’t stop with the church – my school teachers, piano teachers, and all the people who came into contact with us did the same, no questions asked, and never made us feel as though we were “charity cases”. They never asked for anything in return. I never heard anyone complain, and even many years later, no one even brings up all the wonderful things that they did for us. I am eternally grateful for their care and assistance. I didn’t realize the importance at that time; it was a way of life for us. As I became older, I saw it for what God intended it to be. He provided a way for me when in the circumstances, it should have been impossible. I was a statistic at that time and one that was headed for failure.
(Top l) Erica Bryant participating in community service work; (Top r) Photo credit: Tina Johnson-King
(Bottom l) Nonprofit logo- Image Source: Bree Moore; (Bottom r) Hearts and Heels Fashion Show- Photo credit: Allison Images
As a child, my great-grandparents instilled manners and morals into my siblings and me and we were consistently involved in church and in community service. The mixture of those things made philanthropy something that is like breathing to me. It is not something that I even think about, I just help when I see a need.
You are pursuing a Ph.D. in the field of social psychology and hold two masters degrees. How will you use your knowledge of behavioral health to help those affected by current situations facing our country?
One of the main issues that I noticed when I started getting in the field of behavioral and mental health (and also an opinion that I held for a long time), is that minorities tend to see needing “help” as a sign of weakness. For some reason, we seem to think that “keeping it together” and being “strong” trumps taking care of self. There is a stigma with mental health that is causing us to digress and not progress. The way I educate others on this subject is comparing it to physical health. If someone tells you that they have broken their leg, you don’t say, “Just walk it off” or “Pray and it will get better”. While having faith is a good coping mechanism, there is more to it than that. No one would blink an eye if you suggest they see a doctor for physical health. If your body can get sick, why is it so taboo and shameful that your mind can get sick as well? Why not go to a doctor for your mind? African Americans are actually 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population yet less likely to seek treatment, which accounts for increased suicide rates. Behavioral health issues are not a “white person’s” issue – it can happen to anyone. It doesn’t mean that you are crazy. It is ok to seek help.
You recently created a non-profit organization “It Takes A Village Educational Foundation” which is dedicated to the educational and literacy advancement of school-aged children. What services do you provide?
As previously stated, I was raised by my great-grandparents and they both passed away in 2013, within months of each other. These were not grandparents to me – they were my parents. I did not really know my biological parents well and can count the number of times I have interacted with the both of them combined. Since these were the only parents that I knew, I wanted to celebrate their legacy and honor them, but to also give back. I decided to take money from my own pockets and use it to give scholarships to East Texas students who demonstrated a need and desire to further their education. That was the start. Now, I am planning to expand the scholarships to include other East Texas towns, the city of Houston, and am working on grants and partnerships as well as mentorships for school-aged children.
You fund etiquette training to young girls and have created a scholarship program for deserving high school seniors on behalf of your great-grandparents. How do you prioritize your time? Are they any mentors or persons you connect to who revitalize your energy to keep going?
The best way I have found to prioritize my time is to have balance, and an active prayer life. It cannot be all work and cannot be all play. I am very ambitious and I have had an issue with overworking myself by getting too involved in many different things. I have learned to start telling people “no” or “not at this time”. I have learned to take care of myself because if I am unable to function, I cannot be of service to anyone else. I look at life like money in the bank. If I keep allowing others to make withdrawals and no deposits, where does that leave me? Drained, with nothing to show for it. Positive energy is important to me, and I have learned this the hard way. I cannot just have anyone around me. My inner circle consists of my pastor, church members, close friends and family and people who have shown me that they have my best interest at heart. When I feel depleted, I know that I can turn to them and they give me the energy that I need to keep going.
Does your faith help you to balance yourself as a student and as someone active in the community?
Absolutely; I tend to take on many projects – I work a corporate job, and I work on my own non-profit and additional projects as well. I am involved in many things, serve on several boards and it can be easy to lose myself in all of the things that I am trying to accomplish. God keeps me centered. Through scripture, I know that I can do all things through Him, but He also provided the example of resting! If God had a rest day, I definitely should have one!
Do you believe women can have it all? On the other hand, do you believe it takes a village for us to maintain our wellness?
The word “all” is subjective to me, and I believe that society has conditioned women to have a one sided ideal as to what “all” is. “All” for me is whatever goal a woman has set forth for herself, and I strongly encourage women to pursue whatever that goal is. This could be anything from being the CEO of her own business to being a stay at home mother – we all differ and we all have different strengths that we bring to the table, which only we as an individual can bring. We cannot look at what the next person brings and try to bring that – that is unique to that person. I agree that it takes a village to maintain our wellness. Somehow, we have gotten this misconception that to be strong or achieve, we have to do things alone and to just “hold it together” and maintain this façade that we cannot be shaken or bothered. That is not realistic. Sometimes we will be bothered, sad, hurt, broken, tired, and affected, and that is an ok experience. It is just important in those moments to not remain stuck and to have healthy methods to get back on track. My great-grandmother used to have to tell me when I was a teenager that everyone is not out to get me. That is the truth. Support systems are very important to have. Your strength shows more when you are able to say “this is too much for me” and ask for help. That is the true strength.
What advice do you offer to our youth when it comes to image and social media?
I am VERY glad that Facebook was barely getting started when I was in high school. Facebook will sometimes remind me of posts that I posted in 2009, and I cringe at some of the content. I would stress to the youth that Facebook is not a diary, and once you put something out on the internet, it is hard to retract. Social media does not substitute reality and does not take the place of authentic human interaction. We can be anything we want to be behind a keyboard, a phone, or a nicely taken selfie. In reality, though, if you have a problem with someone, reach out to that person to solve that grievance. Don’t tweet about it and be a broadband bully. Don’t ruin your chances of having an awesome “real” life by trying to keep up and maintain your fake social media life, full of “likes” and going viral.
How do you practice self-care?
I love to go to the gym, shop, get manicures, help others, read, or do any activity that is going to relax me and take me to a calming space.
What are your short and long-term goals?
Short term I would love to bring home the title of Miss Black America Coed, the competition I am competing for in September. I am also looking forward to vacationing soon, and am working on some grants for my non-profit. In the long term, I would like to create more opportunities to help others, further my education and have a family of my own.
What next? How can our readers stay connected?
You can follow me on Instagram at Erica_antoinette8. I am also planning to create more opportunities in the East Texas and Houston area, so keep an eye out for those things.
CONGRATULATIONS ERICA BRYANT ON WINNING MISS BLACK AMERICA COED 2018 AND THE PHILANTHROPIC WORK YOU DO FOR THE COMMUNITY!
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