February 22, 2011
"So I've never been a pageant girl, ever in my life," Liane Membis ES '12 insists. Nevertheless, she holds the current Miss Black Connecticut title and will compete for Miss Black America in November 2011. Membis got her start in pageants only last spring, when she competed in the Zeta Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha's Miss Black & Gold pageant. "It was one of those ‘college happens only once' things, and I thought 'Oh, I'll take a chance and try it.'" To her surprise, with no pageant experience, she won Miss Gold (first-runner-up) and Miss Congeniality. Throughout the competition, her impressions of the pageant world and its contestants changed: "I got to see a different side to pageants."
Over the summer, Membis took a chance again and applied to represent Connecticut in Miss Black America, a pageant created in the 1960s to support black women and counteract their representation in media. She eagerly anticipates the national pageant, especially the opportunity to "be part of [the pageant's] history and to be part of a new history." Liane adds, "It's not just about the night that you're on stage. It's about meeting other women and hearing stories and learning more about different platforms." Each candidate will choose an issue close to her heart as a "platform" she will publicize if she is crowned.
Membis herself has plenty of stories to tell. A first-generation American (her parents are from Nigeria), she graduated from a high school in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was class president and a star student. She also developed a strong work ethic and a commitment to public service, volunteering with Special Olympics and Best Buddies, both of which serve people with disabilities. Not surprisingly, Membis’ teachers pushed her to apply to Yale.
At Yale, Membis gradually discovered that "there is so much more I can offer to the Yale community and the community at large than what I could afford to give out of my pocket." Today she is co-president of the Yale Black Women's Coalition, which has led sexual-health education efforts for New Haven youth and coordinated the Gentlemen's Awards Dinner, a night of tribute to "what black men are doing right." She is also a Public School Intern at Hillhouse High School, where she volunteers with the journalism class, and the Education Network Membership Coordinator for Dwight Hall, where she oversees more than 30 education-related groups.
Besides service and outreach, journalism is Membis' chief passion. Although she started out writing for The Yale Daily News, even becoming the multimedia beat reporter, she realized that she wanted to challenge herself beyond the limits of a campus publication. So she took the initiative to look for opportunities outside of Yale, beginning as an intern and then freelance writer for CNN, then expanding to write for publications that include Ebony and Clutch Magazine. In 2010, Membis received Glamour's Ruth Whitney Scholarship through the New York Women in Communications Foundation. Membis attributes her openness to taking chances to her decision to seek opportunities beyond campus: "Saying 'I'm going to see what else there is' was really helpful and shows now in the work I do."
Membis is looking forward to participating in Miss Black America. She is also excited for what the future might bring — whether pursuing a career in journalism, multimedia, a Ph.D., or public service. A double major in English and Ethnicity, Race & Migration, Membis has proven her ability to unite a variety of interests and explore new fields. Just last semester, for Investigating the Present, a class focused on social documentation of contemporary issues, she studied literacy in the African-American community. In addition to conducting research in library books and journal articles, Membis interviewed professors, students at Hillhouse High, and participants in a local reading club, which she led. From her research, Membis crafted a multimedia project, including a recorded piece and a website, as well as a term paper. She plans to continue the project next year because she has become so passionate about the issue and realizes there are many more questions to answer.
When asked why she does what she does, Membis responds simply: "Being a risk-taker is something that drives me, and I'd rather live life doing the things that I love and knowing that I'm doing the things I love."
This story was written and reported by Elisa Gonzalez ’11. A senior in Pierson College, Elisa is an English major in the Writing Concentration.
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