Rice For Black Life empowers Black students to create change on campuses across America

Student group has big plans beyond its successful fundraiser

On May 31, newly formed student group Rice For Black Life announced its creation with a roar, raising over $93,000 in 24 hours for four Houston organizations fighting anti-Black violence.

Rice For Black Life's successful model has already been replicated at universities across the country.

Rice For Black Life’s successful student-led model has already been replicated at universities across the country.

The group, which was established in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and other recent incidents of anti-Black violence, has now inspired students at countless colleges and universities across the nation to form similar organizations on their own campuses. It has inspired leadership inside the hedges too, such as the new racial justice fund created by the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning.

And Rice For Black Life is just getting started.

Recent Rice graduate Summar McGee ’20 sparked the group’s creation May 30 with a single emoji texted to a group of friends at Rice: a pair of eyes.

“Like, ‘Do you see what’s happening in the world?’” said Martell College rising junior Kendall Vining, Student Association (SA) Internal Vice President (IVP) and one of the Rice undergraduates on the group text.

McGee, an acclaimed Mellon Mays Fellow who received her degree in sociology, served as the president of Rice’s Black Student Association her junior year and was an active force on campus.

“Summar is a powerhouse of a woman,” said Vining, who kept in touch with McGee in part to continue receiving advice from a fellow Owl she’d always respected. “She knows how to get things done; she sets her mind to things and gets them done.”

Also on that group text were fellow Rice alumni Bilal Rehman ’20 and Sonia Torres Rodriguez ’19. Within hours, McGee, Rehman and Torres Rodriguez were brainstorming a bold new idea — and Rice For Black Life was born.

‘It wasn’t just one person’

They reached out to their network of recent alumni and friends back at Rice — including undergraduates like Vining — and asked if they’d like to join the new group, which quickly grew to over 60 people.

Their first task, they’d decided, would be a contact-a-thon and fundraiser. Their goal: $2,500 to split evenly between local groups like Black Lives Matter Houston.

“I was dedicated to making sure that the SA did its job,” Vining said. “As the IVP I can use our platform to reach a lot of people and let them know, ‘Hey, this fundraiser is happening.’”

She posted about it on the SA’s social media accounts as well as her own: Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn. She texted everyone she knew; sent emails; used every means of contact available to spread the word.

Everyone in Rice For Black Life did the same, over and over, until their one-day fundraiser ended at midnight with a grand total of $93,362.

“It was crazy to me to see all these people dedicated to supporting Black life and cherishing and valuing it in a way that I’ve never seen before — publicly and tangibly,” Vining said of the donations, garnered from over 2,200 individuals. “I just choked up and I started crying.”

With the Rice For Black Life contact-a-thon, students and alumni reached far beyond what their own individual networks may have yielded.

“It wasn’t just one person,” Torres Rodriguez said. “It was so many people — so many people supporting all the other Black students on campus.”

Torres Rodriguez graduated with a degree in mathematical economic analysis and received the Annise Parker Impact through Public Service Award from the former mayor of Houston at the 2019 commencement. Today, she’s a research fellow at the Stanford Center for Poverty and Inequality but remains close to Rice friends such as fellow former Hanszenite McGee.

Rice For Black Life members created a toolkit shared via Google Drive for other students to use at their own colleges.

Rice For Black Life members created a toolkit shared via Google Drive for other students to use at their own colleges.

Torres Rodriguez, among many others in the 60-plus-member group, assisted with the logistics of executing a large-scale contact-a-thon and setting up Rice For Black Life’s initial GoFundMe account.

“What we did was help people power their own network and activate that,” she said.

Student activism has long fueled civil rights movements, from sit-in protests led by freshmen at North Carolina A&T University to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was formed at Shaw University in 1960.

Since the success of Rice For Black Life’s fundraiser, over 100 colleges have been in touch with McGee and other organizers for advice on creating their own support networks.

Cornell Students 4 Black Lives raised $117,936 during a six-day fundraiser. Lehigh Students for BLM helped organize other campus groups to raise over $17,000 and convinced the Lehigh University Board of Trustees to match the total donation. Similar wins were achieved at Stony Brook University, Loyola Marymount University, Wesleyan University and many more colleges and universities.

“There’s a lot of energy on other campuses, a lot of people that are reaching out and are interested in replicating our model,” Torres Rodriguez said.

It’s vital, she said, these organizations continue to center Black leadership and students amid the successful fundraising efforts. To that end, McGee, Torres Rodriguez and others in Rice For Black Life have been advising on this and other topics by talking one-on-one with students across the country and using a Google Docs “toolkit” created to easily disseminate information and strategies.

“It’s a learning moment for a non-Black organizer to realize that this is not just a fundraiser,” Torres Rodriguez said. “When you are taking this toolkit, you are making a statement about what you believe about Black issues and Black students at your university.”

‘I’m just seeing things a lot more optimistically’

Rice For Black Life aims to continue supporting and promoting Black life on campus and off. That includes elevating student voices as much as preserving voices past.

Another creative fundraiser is currently raising money to help protect Houston’s historic Freedmen’s Town. All of the profits from the sale of Rice For Black Life T-shirts through July 12 will go to the Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, which works to preserve the Fourth Ward neighborhood founded by formerly enslaved people in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.

All proceeds from the sale of Rice For Black Life T-shirts go to support Houston's Freedman's Town Conservancy.

All proceeds from the sale of Rice For Black Life T-shirts go to support Houston’s Freedman’s Town Conservancy.

With these wins under their belt, Vining said she’s optimistic about the group’s future activism. Its efforts have already been spotlighted everywhere from the Houston Chronicle to Inside Higher Education.

Between this and the network of other college campuses inspired by their work, she and McGee even made it into Wikipedia, under the “performative activism” entry.

“It was crazy,” Vining said of learning the news. “We were in a Rice For Black Life chat and Summar just says, ‘Hey guys, we made it to Wikipedia!’ Like, what?”

Vining, an English major, plans to attend law school after graduation and envisions a future in civil rights work as an attorney. When she reflects one day, she said, she’ll be glad she spent her time on campus both in Rice For Black Life and as SA IVP working to improve the Black experience for future Owls to come.

“I just see myself being very proud, reflecting back and seeing the impact that it will hopefully have had on campus,” Vining said. “If I go for a visit and I see more Black faces — if I see more smiling Black faces — and if I see Rice For Black Life is an established group, that will make me so proud.”

Although it wasn’t always easy, she said, the group’s work has already made her feel more empowered than ever before.

“I’m just seeing things a lot more optimistically than I usually do,” Vining said. “But that really is how I feel

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.