A woman wearing a white two piece suit standing in front of a ram horns statue.
Saniya Phillips founded the student group, Leadership for Women of Color, among many other efforts during her undergraduate experience at VCU. (Contributed photo)

Class of 2023: Saniyah Phillips finds her stage beyond the theater

Activism and community are central for political science major, who next will pursue a Master of Public Administration degree at VCU.

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Saniyah Phillips sees parallels between theater and protest. She entered Virginia Commonwealth University as an art student with a love of the stage but soon switched her major to political science.

“I found more passion whenever it came to politics and activism and advocating for minority rights,” Phillips said. “I've been involved in different marches as well as protests,” touching on issues such as the importance of reparations and the impact of Interstate 95 construction on Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward neighborhood.

But theater techniques, from breath control to speaking from her diaphragm, haven’t left her. Phillips knows that speakers at a protest need stage presence, confidence and character to grab an audience's attention.

“Whenever it comes to protests or even speaking in front of a lot of people, even though I'm still a very shy person, I use a lot of the mechanisms that I've learned with theater,” Phillips said. “It has helped me gain a sense of audience. You can really read people's body language and just read the room in a better way.”

As a VCU undergrad, Phillips has found many audiences in her work to influence the political process, empower people, enact change, embrace the spotlight and elevate others.

She is an intern with Alex Taylor Law, works as an assistant in the VCU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and is a mentor with the R.E.A.L. Girlz organization. Phillips also is part of the Pi Gamma Mu social sciences honor society, the VCU NAACP Richmond chapter, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated as a spring 2023 initiate, and the Black Caucus at VCU, which focuses on the campus experience. 

But one of her biggest impacts at VCU grew out of a personal mission. When Phillips was new to campus, she enjoyed the Development for Women of Color class taught by Lauren Jackson, director of the First and Second Year Experiences and Transitions program. Phillips was drawn to the class because she was looking to grow. “I've always found myself wanting to be in leadership positions or wanting to be around women who desired to be in leadership positions.”

Eleven woman standing in front of a hedge with white letters that spell out \"VCU\"
Saniya Phillips with other members of the Leadership for Women of Color student group. (Contributed photo)

She had heard that the organization called Developing Men of Color sponsored an event on finances — and that spurred her to action.

“I was like, ‘OK, Black men need to know this, but women, Black women or minority women, they need to know this as well,’” Phillips said. “This is something we are completely out of the loop with. And that's something I really want to understand as a college student … so that I can pass down from generation to generation. I was missing a lot of [this kind of] education. It’s something you don't get in your gen ed classes. You have to find it elsewhere.”

So Phillips decided to create another VCU student organization — Leadership for Women of Color — both to help her grow as a leader and to bring others along. Jackson guided her to Tabia Matthews, a student success administrator, who became the club’s adviser. Activities initially ranged from networking to cooking. Virtual programming through the pandemic helped the membership, which has grown to more than 400, feel connected.

“I've learned a lot about finances and networking as well as how to dress professionally,” Phillips said. “We put on LinkedIn workshops as well as résumé workshops” and other events, including welcoming Cleo Powell, the first Black female justice on the Virginia Supreme Court.

Programming this year has ranged from a leadership conference to a pajama party and a night of Leadership Bingo.

As Phillips nears graduation, she said other active students will step up to ensure that Leadership for Women of Color continues. Next year, she will be pursuing her Master of Public Administration degree in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, and she is likely to advise the group she founded as she stays nearby.

Reflecting on her undergraduate studies, she highlighted the standout course Black Health Matters, taught by Mignonne Guy, Ph.D., chair of the Department of African American Studies at the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

“I had to go out into the Richmond community and learn about the history of Gilpin Court as well as Fairfield and a bunch of other public housing projects in Richmond, take pictures, go to the corner stores, and understand the impact on how their corner stores have impacted the Black community and housing,” Phillips said, adding this praise of Guy: “She always made sure she taught us that our ZIP code determines our life expectancy.”

Through the course, Phillips realized more deeply that much work is needed locally as well as nationally in terms of public policy. She said she hopes her continuing education will help impact the mission while giving her more knowledge of Richmond’s “beautiful, heartbreaking and rich history.”