Tiffani Jackson noticed a problem.
The Illinois State University senior communications major found when media reported about Black people, they tended to reflect the same three areas. “I would only see Black people mentioned in entertainment, crime, or sports, which land in historical stereotypes,” said Jackson. “Because those are the only messages seen, Black people are not seeing ourselves as more than those stereotypes.”
Hailing from Michigan and transferring to Illinois State from a university in Louisiana, Jackson witnessed the same stereotypes perpetuated in media across the country. “My mother always told me when you see a problem, find a solution,” said Jackson. “I knew that solution meant showing our community is more than what is being portrayed.”
In her position as a student reporter at The Vidette, Jackson decided to explore stories about resources geared toward underrepresented students, including registered student organizations (RSOs) and local businesses. “When students of color come to a predominantly white institution, they might not know where they can find cultural resources—like finding people who can do their hair, or restaurants that cook the food they are used to eating,” said Jackson. “That makes it tougher to feel at home or feel like they belong.”
As the positive stories grew, Jackson realized more was needed. “The Vidette was positive about my work, but I wanted to create a dedicated resource to shed light on entrepreneurs and connect the campus and the community.”
She founded The Onyx Connect, sharing stories and insights on social media. “The onyx is a dark stone, known for dispelling negative energy and promoting positivity,” said Jackson, who started the project with then-student Nodel Dugbo in 2017. Today, The Onyx Connect has more than 20 student writers and photographers.
Though The Onyx Connect became an official RSO in 2018, many of the expenses still come from Jackson and other members. Unwilling to give up on her dream—even in the face of COVID-19’s grip on the economy—Jackson applied for a grant through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER). The fund supports targeted initiatives in Illinois to enroll and retain underrepresented, first-generation, and high-economic-need students during the pandemic. So far, the University has allocated more than $2,000 for identity-based RSOs, with another $18,000 available. GEER grants are still available for Illinois State registered student organizations that qualify.
The success of The Onyx Connect is drawing the attention of students at nearby universities, who began requesting Jackson give presentations on how to develop similar news sources. “I think this is a model that can be put in place at universities across the country,” said Jackson, who added she wants to see The Onyx Connect become a national, collegiate news network.
Jackson says she envisions taking The Onyx Connect into more avenues. A website is under construction, and Jackson is starting to speak with student televisions station producers in Georgia and Texas. “I think this can be similar to what Oprah Winfrey created, with a magazine, network, and social media,” she said. “I think we are just getting started.”
Follow The Onyx Connect on Twitter @_OnyxConnect and on Instagram _theonyxconnectISU.