Exhibit Honors Historically Black Sorority’s Return to Chico State
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, La’Netta Bowden was in need of socially conscious, community-focused women to look up to. She found them while participating in Delta Academy, a program for African American, adolescent girls put on by local chapters of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.
She decided, if given the opportunity, she would join the organization while attending college.
When she decided to attend Chico State in 2018, she was disappointed she might have to give up on that dream. The University’s Pi Xi chapter, first chartered on campus in 1986, had been dormant since 2008 due to declining enrollment of Black students.
The following year, unbeknownst to her, a group of Black women, led by alumna Jasmine Dawson (Business Administration, ’21), active in social justice work and committed to community service, began investigating how to bring the sorority back to campus. The lengthy process involved working with Chico State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, mentorship from alumnae, and, of course, recruiting a new line of prospective members.
Bowden was tipped off by a guidance counselor in early 2021 that the return of the Deltas might be in the works. Later that year, she received the official flyer, rushed, and became a member in spring 2022. Today, she serves as vice president of the organization.
“For me, being a Delta means I have a safe space to be around other African American women where we support each other,” said Bowden, noting it was particularly important while attending an institution where just 3 percent of students are Black. “Since joining, I feel like I have more confidence, am more uplifted, and am more motivated because I have a support system away from home.”
Bowden’s story doesn’t stop there. In addition to being a Delta sister and an exercise physiology major scheduled to graduate in spring 2023, she works as a student assistant at the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology on campus. It was in this role she started collaborating with Stephanie Laurencell, a graduate student and curator of a new exhibit to honor the sorority’s historic return to campus.
Working in close consultation with Bowden and other members of the sorority, Laurencell created a pop-up exhibit in the museum’s newly renovated lobby gallery space. Utilizing both current chapter photos and archived photos from the national organization, the display offered testimonials and artifacts, and introduced visitors to the various aspects of sisterhood and service that are at the heart of the PI Xi chapter’s vision and identity.
“The exhibit is super important because it enables people to see what this campus is capable of,” said Laurencell. “It allows the members of the sorority to tell the story of Delta Sigma Theta in their own words while honoring their legacy.”
Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. is part of the nationally recognized “Divine Nine” historically Black Greek organizations. Each of the nine National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organizations evolved during a period when African American people were being denied essential rights and privileges afforded to others. Racial isolation on predominantly white institution campuses and social barriers of class on all campuses created a need for African Americans to align themselves with other individuals sharing common goals and ideals.
With the sorority’s vibrant crimson and cream colors that represent courage and purity, the bold exhibit both salutes the current members who revitalized the chapter and pays homage to alumnae members. One of the most powerful pieces of the display is the “Bridging the Gap” poster, in which alumnae discuss their favorite memories as Deltas while at Chico State and discuss what staying connected with their sorors has meant to them as they move forward in their lives and careers.
As a pop-up, the exhibit ran from October 7–14 in the Valene. It will soon make appearances throughout the remaining academic year at other Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. events, where the women tell their stories and continue to make their mark on the campus.
“Museums are increasingly inviting communities and groups to give more input in telling their story. This was the approach I took to this exhibit, and the experience of working with the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. to bring their story to the wider Chico community was really special,” Laurencell said.
Laurencell, who is pursuing her master’s in museum studies, said the creation and collection of materials, including the text, photographs, and objects, were all done in collaboration and with review from the members of the sorority.
Chapter president Arianna Punter also hopes the exhibit will help the organization market itself to the campus community.
“We currently have five members and many of us are scheduled to graduate this year,” said Punter, a multicultural and gender studies major. “I joined because I’m about social action and so is Delta Sigma Theta. It is very important to get the word out that Deltas are back and are a place of socially conscious women.”
Anyone who is interested in seeing the exhibit or learning more about the sorority should keep an eye on the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc Instagram page, Punter said.
Pi Xi chapter members are committed to the idea of creating a community for Black women on campus, while serving the community. Delta Sigma Theta puts on “Trunk or Treat” and Cookies with Santa for local children at Emma Wilson Elementary School. Sisters also participate in a community park clean-up each semester with Butte Environmental Council and devote a week every year to the mental and physical health of Black women during Women’s History Month.
Now a leader at the sorority she once dreamed of joining, La’Netta Bowden has become a socially conscious, community-focused role model who inspires and welcomes the next generation. “We really want more Black women on campus to be aware that there are people who are like them. If they need something, we are there for them. And if they would like to join, they are welcome to,” Bowden said.