Already a nursing student and high school track coach, TeKema Balentine can now add “royalty” to her resume. The 25-year-old Madison native was recently crowned Miss Black Wisconsin, earning a spot to compete in the national Miss Black USA pageant in August. The title also provides the publicity to raise awareness about a cause of her choosing, one of which is the education gap between white students and students of color in Wisconsin schools. Milwaukee Magazine spoke with TeKema about opportunity, history, and what it means to be a role model.
Why did you choose the education gap for your platform?
I grew up in Madison public schools, and I was low-income. I was a smart kid, in a lot of accelerated classes. But I found that once I got to those higher-level classes I didn’t know how to network with my peers. I often didn’t have the same supplies or materials. For example, shadowing your parents at work: my mother worked in retail or didn’t have a job, and it was really hard for me to navigate through the system without having a mentor or really anybody to look up to.
How does the Miss Black Wisconsin pageant give you opportunities to spread awareness about the education gap?
I’m really hoping to get into schools and talk to girls about career goals and where you can find resources. Because we have resources, but I didn’t know how to find them when I was younger. So my goal is to use this pageant to gain publicity and get my voice out there so girls and educators can see there’s someone who’s also pushing for that.
In what ways do you see that disparity in Milwaukee?
With what I’ve seen, with children who come up to Madison from Milwaukee for the PEOPLE program (UW-Madison’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) and things like that, it’s a similar situation. They just don’t have these resources at home. And Milwaukee’s so much larger than Madison; I’m sure resources are even more difficult to access. In Milwaukee, you have to search a little bit harder because it’s larger.
Are there small steps that can be made right now to address disparity in Wisconsin schools?
Successful Black people and brown people need to make themselves more available and become mentors to these young kids. [One good example is] Sabrina Madison (founder of The Progress Center for Black Women). She’s very popular; she just makes herself accessible. She’s letting women know, ‘Hey, I’m here, do you need anything? Here’s my office, you can come.’ We need more successful brown people to say, ‘Here’s how I got here, and how I can help you to get here.’
Do you see any larger-scale changes that need to be made?
I think the history curriculum should change, just a little bit. You can’t learn Black history in one month. You can’t learn Native American history in a week. It’s unfair, and to a brown student, that solidifies in their mind that their history isn’t as important. And for white students, I feel as though it solidifies that their history is what matters and what is important. And it’s all important, and they should all be touched on. But it’s drilled into your mind – what have our white ancestors done? What happened to our Black ancestors? And it shouldn’t be ‘what happened to them’; it should also be ‘what have they done to improve this country? What have they done to contribute to this country?’ It’s hard to want to soak up information that doesn’t feel like it relates to you. So therefore [students of color] lose interest, they fall behind, and they don’t have anybody outside of school that would help them make that connection.
What advice do you have for those who look up to you as a role model?
The biggest thing young adults should start to think about is just being true to themselves. And if you have a question, ask. I feel like my biggest mistake growing up was being really timid. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to ask, ‘Well, what about this part of Black history? And what about this part of Native American history?’ I just took what was given to me, and I didn’t have anybody at home to contradict that. Children are curious, and I think if they start to ask questions, challenge their own knowledge and dig a little deeper, they’ll find that it can be really interesting to learn. There are lots of things that they should know about themselves and where they come from.