Shyla Lavalle hopes to focus on black womanhood and awareness of black mental health in her 2018 campaign as Miss Black USA in preparation for the pageant this August.
Lavalle, a third-year University of New Mexico student majoring in Public Communications and Africana Studies, received her title and crown as Miss Black New Mexico in August of 2016 and has held the position since.
Her original campaign was based on the platform of promoting black womanhood and awareness of environmental distress, she said.
Lavalle said she feels her original campaign platform could have focused more on promoting the empowerment of black youth in Albuquerque and volunteering with them.
“In my opinion, last year I wasn’t doing enough community outreach, and I wanted to do more,” Lavalle said.
Many issues faced by the black community are caused by a lack of dialogue, Lavalle said.
“This can easily be fixed if we just talk about things,” Lavalle said. “It’s not that easy, but it would be a crime against myself and the black community to not promote that talk.”
Lavalle was inspired by many factors in her childhood adolescence, beginning with the principles her grandparents impressed upon her, she said.
“Growing up, my grandparents always said to me, ‘School is about more than grades, you have to be well-rounded,’” Lavalle said. “When it came to joining organizations, I was always pushed to do more, because I wanted to keep myself focused on my grades, but I also wanted to branch out.”
Lavalle’s grandparents also showed her the importance of giving back to the community by donating coats to services like Goodwill. These principles, along with her Mexican heritage, formed her into someone who takes pride in her ethnic lineage, she said.
“I got to UNM, and I started learning more about the history of myself as a black American, and I realized how much help my community needs,” Lavalle said.
As soon as she began attending UNM, she became involved with campus resources like El Centro, African American Student Services, the Black Student Union, the Powerful Movement for Educated Sisters and UNM's Zeta Phi Beta Nu Tau chapter. Now that Lavalle is in her third year, Lavalle hopes to join the UNM chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and work with the National Alliance for Mental Illness for her platform this year as well, she said.
“These organizations not only have helped me to help others, but they’ve also helped me identify as a proud black woman in America,” Lavalle said.
When Lavalle took her first college courses, she was inspired by Dr. Finnie Coleman, a professor within the English and Africana Studies departments, she said.
“That’s where it all started; I was like, ‘I want to be a teacher, I want to be like Dr. Coleman,’” Lavalle said. “But then I realized that I want to go bigger than that.”
To Lavalle, identifying as a woman of color is one of the most important titles that she wears in her day-to-day life, she said. Dr. Coleman helped her understand the importance of being proud of your identity and being a prime example of a woman of color, Lavalle said.
“New Mexico has a black population of less than 5 percent, so it’s important to increase initiative and let our small population know that there are platforms we can stand on too,” Lavalle said. “We are just as valid and important in this community, and it disgusts me that people try to make us even consider that we are not.”
Lavalle is motivated by the societal inequities that lead to the black image being specifically devalued, she said. Her title as Miss Black New Mexico is one way she hopes to make an impact on the public image of blackness.
“It’s not just a pretty crown. I’m not just Miss New Mexico — I’m Miss Black New Mexico,” Lavalle said.
When reflecting on her progress, Lavalle said she asks herself, “How can I reach more?”
UNM currently does not offer a graduate program for Africana Studies, so she hopes to attend graduate school out of state. Lavalle said she has thought about schools that offer this program in Georgia.
Moving forward in adulthood and as a result of forming her career, Lavalle’s dream is to one day own her own television network or have her own television show, she said.
Rebecca Brusseau is a news reporter at the Daily Lobo. She primarily covers the LGBTQ community. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @r_brusseau.