When journalism major Tiffani Jackson launched The Onyx Connect in 2018, she aimed to provide the Illinois State University community with a campus news source dedicated to telling positive stories—and countering stereotypes—about students of color. Over the past four years, The Onyx Connect has flourished into a prominent registered student organization (RSO), growing from a staff of two to more than 20 reporters, photographers, graphic designers, and marketers.
“Onyx is my dream,” Jackson said. “It’s something that I started because I saw a problem, and I believe that the solution never has an end—the solution always grows.”
The problem, Jackson said, is that Black people have been traditionally represented in the media based on historical stereotypes. “We’re often put in boxes of being excellent in sports, entertainment, or crime,” she said.
To address this issue, Jackson teamed up with then-student Nodel Dugbo ’18 to produce a printed newsletter showcasing a diverse selection of positive stories along with resources geared toward students of color. Dugbo took photos, and Jackson wrote the articles. She also paid for printing by working three jobs and applying for a state-funded grant.
Students across campus took notice, including Eric Donaldson ’21 who felt compelled to join The Onyx Connect team. “There’s a lot of talent and there’s a lot of intelligence here in the Black community at ISU, so being with Onyx allowed me to help highlight that,” said Donaldson.
An integrated marketing communication major, Donaldson became The Onyx Connect’s vice president and collaborated with Jackson to expand the organization’s reach through community events—the first of which was Onyx on Wallstreet, held in September 2021 at Normal’s Anderson Park. Jackson said she was inspired by the Greenwood District—known as Black Wall Street—the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 which had been an affluent, thriving African American business district and community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“When students of color come to a school like Illinois State—a predominately white institution—they don’t necessarily know where to go to get things that cater to our cultural needs,” Jackson said. “For example, not every salon in Bloomington specializes in Black hair. Where do we get ethnic food? I thought it would be cool to develop something like the Black Wall Street.”
Jackson and her team worked with dozens of local businesses to create Onyx on Wallstreet, a well-attended meet-and-greet event that connected students of color with local entrepreneurs.
“It was a big success for us,” Jackson said. “The community came together, people met business owners that they didn’t even know existed, and a lot of students were happy to find entrepreneurs who could cater to their self-care.”
While The Onyx Connect continues to publish news via social media, Jackson said events are an additional way for her organization to fulfill its mission. She and her team are planning to host more events in the future.
The Onyx Connect is providing its members with hands-on experiences and networking opportunities that have paid dividends. Donaldson was hired as a media associate with the international media agency Starcom immediately upon graduating in December. He credits The Onyx Connect with helping him develop networking, organization, and marketing skills that made him stand out among other applicants.
Jackson landed a full-time job that she has already started while completing work on her bachelor’s degree. She was hired in January as the culture, diversity, and inclusion reporter for The State Journal-Register in Springfield.
“The focus of this position is to highlight communities of color and their issues and the stories that matter to them and telling the stories that elevate their voices,” Jackson said. She is also embracing the new role as an opportunity to connect the Onyx’s aspiring journalists with industry professionals.
“The people I meet here at The State Journal-Register, I’m introducing them to my Onyx members,” Jackson said. She understands the power of networking firsthand. While managing The Onyx Connect, Jackson developed industry connections and gained on-the-job experience as a paid student intern with Bloomington-Normal’s National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate, WGLT.
“GLT definitely prepared me,” Jackson said. “They taught me how to converse with different people, how to go about producing a story, and different things that really helped me get acclimated in my new role.”
WGLT Content Director Ryan Denham recruited Jackson to join the station’s newsroom and served as her internship supervisor. He said Jackson caught his attention because of launching The Onyx Connect.
“She had a vision for what a student media outlet could look like, how it could make money, how it could recruit staffers, how it could host events, etc.,” Denham said. “This sort of entrepreneurial thinking is important for the future of journalism.”
Jackson is focused on completing her Illinois State degree this summer while developing as a reporter. She is also committed to growing The Onyx Connect into a national, collegiate news network.
“I really see us as becoming a major organization and being an important vessel for the minority community,” Jackson said. “It started as a seed that was planted, and now it’s on its journey of blossoming.”
Follow The Onyx Connect on Twitter @_TheOnyxConnect and on Instagram _theonyxconnectISU. Explore opportunities to get involved in Illinois State student organizations at RedbirdLife.IllinoisState.edu.