Sherri Benn Uses Hip-Hop to Reach Texas State Students and Area Youth
Wanted: major hip-hop heads, grinders and hustlers. That’s what the classified ad might have read if Dr. Sherri Benn had placed one in 2004 when searching for Texas State University-San Marcos students to start an innovative new student organization called Hip-Hop Congress (HHC).
Benn, Texas State’s assistant vice president for Student Affairs and the director of Multicultural Student Affairs, recognized that hip-hop, which she calls “one of the common discourses of this generation” was absent from the university’s multicultural programs and activities.
“I don’t think it takes any kind of genius to recognize the power and influence of a phenomenon that has been steadily gaining momentum in terms of its cross-cultural mass appeal,” she says. We just needed to acknowledge it, embrace it and put it out there.”
So she sought students to bring hip-hop to Texas State. “The main criteria was that they had to be major hip-hop heads, grinders and hustlers when it came to hip-hop and their willingness to do whatever was necessary to create a buzz and then work it into something real,” says Benn.
She found those qualities in Ray Cordero, Ernst Bernard, Jeffery Plummer, Dustin Ray and Vince Milson. These five dedicated students, along with Benn, became the foundation for Texas State’s HHC chapter, an organization that uses “edutainment,” a blend of education and entertainment, to reach out to the community and spread its positive messages.
Hip-Hop Congress Texas State’s HHC is one of more than 30 chapters of a national nonprofit organization that uses hip-hop to inspire young people to get involved through social action, civic engagement and cultural creativity. Hip-hop is most often associated with rap music, but it is a culture based on four elements: dance (break-dancing), art (graffiti), poetry (rapping) and music (DJ).
The HHC chapter at Texas State was the first one in the southern United States. It has 30 active members and about 80 on its roster. Although hip-hop began as the artistic expression of mostly black, inner-city youth, members of HHC represent a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Joining is easy. Students attend a meeting, share why they love hip-hop in front of the group, pay their dues and join a committee.
In just a few years, HHC has become one of Texas State’s best-known organizations. “Hip-Hop Congress is one of the most diverse organizations on campus,” Benn says. “It spreads a positive message through a sometimes controversial medium, and that gets people’s attention.”
In 2005, HHC was voted Texas State’s Organization of the Year as well as Multicultural Organization of the Year. In 2006, the Black Student Alliance named HHC the Outstanding Community Service Organization at Texas State. And in 2006 and 2009, the Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education recognized the group with Outstanding Conference Presentation awards.
Outreach Programs HHC helps Texas State attract a diverse group of students by performing at university events, and it makes the campus a place where students from all backgrounds feel welcome. The group’s high-energy presentation always gets rave reviews from the incoming freshmen who experience it during Paws Preview, an orientation event.
For an event called Hip-Hop TRiO Exchange, the group invites 150 high school students to the Texas State campus for a daylong conference. “We educate students on college preparation, filling out financial aid applications, the college admissions process, effective study habits, how to be a good leader and much more,” says Ray Cordero, HHC founding member and advisor. “As a first generation college student, I understand that many high school students, minorities in particular, sometimes don’t go to college because they are unfamiliar with the enrollment process or think they will never fit in. This program opens their eyes and motivates them to seriously consider enrollment in a four-year university. Many of the kids we have met in TRiO have enrolled here at Texas State.”
Other HHC programs called Congress Kidz, WORD UP and CREAM reach out to elementary students. Congress members edutain the children with skits, songs and other presentations. They send the message that bullying is bad, having a positive self-image is good, saying no to peer pressure is OK, and pursuing higher education is important.
Benn’s Role In her role as advisor to HHC, Benn, who holds a doctorate in higher education administration, serves as a liaison with university administration and the community. She also provides leadership to group members through coaching and guidance. Benn helps them plan and think through the logistics of their events.
The group’s careful planning is one of the reasons behind its success. “We try to know our target market,” Cordero says. “When we plan events, we meet for hours and discuss who we are trying to market to and how we can appeal to them. Eventually we formulate our event around those brainstorming sessions. We are much more than an student organization; we have essentially become an advertising and promotion firm, in a manner of speaking.”
While Benn oversees HHC’s event planning, she gives credit for the group’s creativity to the students. “I’m the one who tries to make sure they’ve thought of the things that will make or break the event,” Benn says. “The students typically have the great ideas. They are so creative, talented and dedicated. They inspire me and motivate me, and they remind me of why I’m here. They are one my greatest sources of pride and joy.”
Texas State students love Benn, too. She was among a handful of Texas State faculty and staff recognized and thanked by the university’s 2006 graduates for her contributions to their success while attending Texas State.
Cordero, now an accountant at Texas State, says she has impacted his life as well. “Dr. Sherri Benn has been a huge influence in my life,” he says. “She has served as a personal mentor for me for many years now. I feel very fortunate to have met her, and I am glad we have consistently taken Hip-Hop Congress to new heights.”