Winoka Wendy Wilkes (SFS’91) (front center, pink sneakers) organizes the Soul Hoyas reunion event each year.

Title:“Plenty Good Room at this Table”

Author: Jane Varner Malhotra and Bhriana Smith
Date Published: September 28, 2022
black alumni council
Conan Louis (SLL’73, G’78, L’86), center, shares a laugh with LaToya Nelson Kamdang (B’97) and Donald Horton (C’72) at Reunion Weekend.

Early Organizing Efforts

Black organizing at Georgetown began with the formation of the Black Student Alliance (BSA) in 1968.

When Conan Louis (SLL’73, G’78, L’86) arrived on the Hilltop as a first-year in fall 1969, he was one of a very small number of Black students.

“During my first year there were 30 Black students out of 6,000 undergraduate students,” says Louis. “Of those 30, 23 were in my class, and that was the first ‘big class’ of Black students in Georgetown history.”

In the spring 1970, the BSA organized a protest at the president’s office to request changes that would help create a more supportive campus environment for Black students.
“All 30 of us marched into Father Henle’s office and, in typical 1970s fashion, we handed him a list of demands,” Louis recalls, smiling. “Among those were better recruitment of minority students, integration of support systems for minority students, and some places to congregate. That is how the university gave us the Black House.”

In 1971, Louis was elected president of the Black Student Alliance, but he recalls a team of student leaders. “Some of the shoulders that I stood on include Jerry Yancey (SFS’71), Wendell Robinson (SFS’70, L’78), and Michael Barton (SFS’70).”

A self-described rabble-rouser, Louis faced off with the administration in his junior year over a new housing policy. His efforts were encouraged by the university’s Vice President of Administrative Services Dan Altobello. “He said to me, ‘All that noise you’re making, that’s exactly what we want you to do because here, we teach you to speak truth to power.’ That conversation had a great impact on me.”

Louis has been involved in alumni affairs since he was a student, when he worked at the records department in Alumni House. An active alumni leader, he attended his first John Carroll Weekend in 1976 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, when he proposed a Black Alumni Association. The Board of Governors approved it, but the broader base of support wasn’t there yet.

“We had it, sort of, for a few years, but I couldn’t generate enough interest to sustain it,” recalls Louis. He adds that he was the only Black person at that John Carroll Weekend, and that at most alumni events, attendance by Black alumni was extremely low.

“Many Black alumni held onto negative experiences from undergrad. For years, I was the lone voice saying, ‘This place belongs to us just as much as it does to anybody else. Half of what you pay for is this network, and if you don’t avail yourself of it, you are missing out.’ I made that argument for years, and it fell on deaf ears.”

Mannone Butler (B’94, L’99) and Eric Woods (B’91) co-chair the biennial Black Alumni Summit
Mannone Butler (B’94, L’99) and Eric Woods (B’91) co-chair the biennial Black Alumni Summit

Inspiration from Patrick Healy

Together with his wife Gail Gillis-Louis (C’75), Georgetown’s first Black cheerleader and now a prominent figure in the banking industry, Louis decided to start a Black alumni reception during Homecoming to help draw the community back to the Hilltop.

“Nobody ever came to Homecoming because it just wasn’t culturally their thing,” said Louis. “So we decided to make our own thing.”

In 1987 they created an event in honor of Patrick F. Healy, S.J., the first Black president of a predominantly white university, who led Georgetown from 1873 to 1882.

The couple organized the Patrick Healy Dinner for several years without sponsorship from the university. That changed after three years when they invited university president Father Leo O’Donovan, S.J., who became the event’s first keynote speaker.

“That year we had about 100 people in the faculty dining room at Leavey. Father O’Donovan came every year after that, and when he was succeeded by President Jack DeGioia, he came every year. The Patrick Healy Dinner was the first formal way that we were able to get Black alumni back to the campus in any kind of numbers,” says Louis.

Over the years, Louis has found the event to have a unique, transformative energy.

“The Patrick Healy Dinner is special because you get a lot of folks who don’t come to anything else. Every single time, you meet somebody who has some story to tell about an issue they had while they were a student that soured them on the institution, but then being at the event makes them feel completely differently,” Louis says. “Invariably, there are people who come and it’s the first time they’ve been to anything at the university and all of a sudden, they’re engaged. It’s a celebration of excellence in the African American alumni community. And it’s just a feel-good event.”

The annual Patrick Healy Endowed Scholarship honors an alumnus, a university leader, and a student recipient of the Patrick Healy scholarship, and proceeds from the dinner support the scholarship.

Out of the successful launch of the Patrick Healy Dinner came the formation of another trailblazing organization.

“The year before Father O’Donovan left office, he contacted Dennis Williams, head of the Center for Multicultural Equity & Access (CMEA) at the time, to create a vehicle for Black alumni involvement,” says Louis. Launched in 1999, the mission of the African American Advisory Board (GUAAAB) has been to foster inclusion, networking, and communication among Black students, alumni, faculty, and staff, and to advise university leadership on important issues and policies that will make a positive impact on the Black experience at Georgetown.

“We all need to be engaged as alums to ensure that those who come behind us have better experiences and opportunities.”

Mary Broadwater (C’87, L’91) reconnects with an old friend at Reunion Weekend 2022
Mary Broadwater (C’87, L’91) reconnects with an old friend at Reunion Weekend 2022

Reunion Redefined with Soul Hoyas

The trajectory of celebrating the Black experience and increasing engagement continued to grow with the 2009 founding of the Soul Hoyas reunion by Winoka Wendy Wilkes (SFS’91).

Nearly two decades after graduating, Wilkes and two fellow Black Hoyas—Lisa Young (C’92) and Keith Dent (B‘89)—connected over social media and decided to come back to the Hilltop for Reunion Weekend. Wilkes and Young joined Dent at his 20th Reunion festivities, and together they organized an unofficial party for Black alumni.

“We literally crashed their reunion,” she laughs. “Our makeshift party was essentially the genesis of the Soul Hoyas. Every year it got bigger and more organized.”

Over time, Soul Hoyas became more than just a great party. Under Wilkes leadership, the group prioritized five tenets for alumni engagement. She notes that it’s not just about contributing financially, but also about giving time and talent.

“The first tenet is support the Soul Hoyas, the second is attend the Healy Dinner, the third is go to John Carroll Weekend—it’s the most expensive event so do what you can—the fourth is to be a part of Black Alumni Summit, and the fifth is to be a Loyalty Society member,” she explains. “Giving matters. It’s not about the amount, it’s about consistency. That money and activity is how we were all able to get to a table to create the Black Alumni Council.”

Black and white students encounter different aspects of Georgetown, notes Wilkes, and that’s important to consider for alumni engagement. “Our experiences on campus are vastly different. The university has begun to recognize that you have to engage with us differently.”

Wilkes believes that diverse alumni showing up helps the university be a better place for other alumni and for students.

“It’s imperative to come back, because there are people behind us who need us to come back. We need to lead by example.”

During the most recent reunion weekend, Soul Hoyas gathered on the Healy steps for an official photo to commemorate 13 years of organizing that helped lay the foundation for the new Black Alumni Council. The lively crowd that afternoon reflected the spirit of the community that has been celebrating Black Georgetown for more than a decade. Joyful and welcoming, the group cheered on latecomers who jogged up from the Healy Gates.

Wilkes can’t help smiling at the memory of that moment. “On the steps, those cheers were heard from Lauinger past ICC. That scene is who we are. We cheer our family on. We cheer when they succeed. We hold them up when they are weak. And we love on them unconditionally. We cheer them home.”

Monika Dawson (B'17) and Nona Johnson (C'17)
Monika Dawson (B’17) and Nona Johnson (C’17)

Convening Excellence with the Black Alumni Summit

Overall, Eric Woods (B’91) had a positive time as an undergrad at Georgetown, but he notes that the same can’t be said for everybody.

“Not all of my Black or Brown classmates had the same experience I had,” says Woods. “Not all of them felt welcomed by the institution. I think that carries over into their alumni engagement. We all need to be engaged as alums to ensure that those who come behind us have better experiences and opportunities.”

A classmate of his attended Stanford University for graduate school, and they had a Black alumni event in New York City in 2015, Woods recalls. “We discussed how great something like that would be for Georgetown.” Soon he and classmate Tammee Thompson (C’91) pitched the Black Alumni Summit concept to the university, and the event had nearly 300 attendees.

Held every other year since 2015, the Black Alumni Summit draws hundreds of Hoyas together to celebrate Black excellence.

“Our panels highlight the personal and professional experiences of Black alums,” explains Woods. “Who are the Black alums? What are they doing in their spaces? How can they impart knowledge and experience on the rest of us and the university more broadly?”

“What we hope to do moving forward is create entry points for other people to be engaged, show leadership, bring in new ideas, and build upon what we’ve started.”

Bringing it all Together

As Black alumni participation continued to increase, the course to a unified channel for engagement became clear.

“We brought together these three points of engagement—the Black Alumni Summit, the Georgetown University African American Advisory Board, and Soul Hoyas—as an inaugural group, a governing body of the Black Alumni Council,” says Woods. “What we hope to do moving forward is create entry points for other people to be engaged, show leadership, bring in new ideas, and build upon what we’ve started.

Mannone Butler (B’94, L’99), chair of the GUAAAB and current co-chair of the Black Alumni Summit with Woods, echoes the importance of the new council’s work going forward.

“Our community is integral to the university. Our experiences at Georgetown shaped, molded, refined, and pressure-tested us. Our alums have gone forth and prospered,” she notes. “I say prosper because we have teachers who are exquisite. We have artists who are impeccable in their craft. We have lawyers who are leading the charge, and so on. The Black Alumni Council is an opportunity to strengthen the alumni engagement work we’ve been doing, and formally connect the dots. There is power in the collective.”

As an undergrad, Butler was a finance major who “fell in love” with her business school courses. “Georgetown helped me hone, develop, and exercise my voice.”

“My senior year, I made the decision to pursue a law education so that I could be able to help others develop their voices. The ethos of the university helped to cement that for me.” Today Butler is head of programs and partnerships for the NBA Social Justice Coalition.

The work to establish the Council has been underway for a little over two years now, and the leaders emphasize that the success of its implementation would not have been possible without the participation of Georgetown leadership, specifically President John J. DeGioia.

“His generosity of spirit, his commitment to service, to leading from a space of values, has always been a north star in my relationship to the university,” says Woods.

Council leaders also note that this historic next step in Black organizing on the Hilltop was also made possible by the active participation of Julia Farr (C’88, Parent’19, ’21, ’24), executive director of the Alumni Association.

“I invited Julie to be in on the formation discussions very early on in the process. She never missed a meeting,” says Louis. “She’s been a great partner every step of the way.”

“Over a two-year period, we worked hand-in-glove with the Alumni Association to craft the first-ever affinity group,” says Butler. “It’s not lost on me that we are blazing a trail, finding even more ways to bring community members in. There’s this spiritual saying, ‘plenty good room at this table.’ We’re creating a table with plenty good room for the breadth of our community.”

 Tyree P. Jones Jr. (L’86, Parent’21), member of the university’s Board of Directors, accepts the John Carroll Award in 2019.
Tyree P. Jones Jr. (L’86, Parent’21), member of the university’s Board of Directors, accepts the John Carroll Award in 2019.

Hope for the Future

This idea of working together, of truly being “people for others,” is one of the most important components of the Black Alumni Council, leaders say. The Council will encompass voices of the Black community across main, medical, and law campuses.

“Having had experiences on both the main campus and Law Center, I know how different the vantage point is.” says Louis. “Those different voices make for a fuller engagement and ultimately a much more vibrant decision-making process.”

Butler notes that since the announcement, there has been an outpouring of support and interest. One of the ways the council is gauging the feedback of the Black community is by hosting focus groups.

“We want to hear from those who are figuring out ways to plug in and be engaged as alumni, but also those who have not yet raised their hand,” says Butler. “Let’s talk about your experience. Let’s talk about the ways that the council can support you.”

“I’ve been pleased to see Black alumni engagement grow,” notes Woods. “The Black Alumni Council will continue to catalyze that growth, because we aim to meet people where they are.”

“It’s about bringing the entire Black alumni community together in service of each other and also the university,” says Louis.

The Black Alumni Council aims to engage not just alumni, but students, faculty, and staff as well. It will also centralize events and programs hosted by the Black alumni organizations, including We Are Georgetown: Celebrating Our Black History. The oral history project launched by the GUAAAB in 2021 documents the rich experiences and contributions of Georgetown University’s Black community.

The African American Advisory Board, the Black Alumni Summit, and Soul Hoyas celebrate Georgetown’s Black community but also highlight the challenges within it. The establishment of the council is not to deconstruct these organizations and events, but to add to them—to better organize the vehicle that carries these voices to other branches of the university.

Louis sees common threads among all alumni in the pursuit of justice. “When we say we are ‘people for others,’ we’re serious about that. Everyone who graduates from here understands that that’s in your DNA now.”

black alumni council logo

The Black Alumni Council is led by seven alumni: Mannone Butler (B’94, L’99), chair of Georgetown University African American Advisory Board, co-chair of the Black Alumni Summit, and member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association Board of Governors; Tyree P. Jones Jr. (L’86, Parent’21), member of the Board of Directors and past chair of the Georgetown University African American Advisory Board; Gail Gillis-Louis (C’75), member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association Board of Governors; Conan N. Louis (SLL’73, G’78, L’86), member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association Board of Governors; Tammee Thompson (C’91), co-founder of the Black Alumni Summit and former vice chair of the Board of Regents; Winoka Wendy Wilkes (SFS’91), co-founder and chair of the Soul Hoya Alumni Group; and Eric Woods (B’91), co-founder and co-chair of the Black Alumni Summit and member of the Board of Regents.

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