It was sickle cell anemia that brought Chicago-born, Detroit-raised Tiffani Jackson to Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal in 2017. Having endured some attacks, called pain crises, while attending Grambling State University, she made the decision to move closer to home.
With that, Louisiana lost a music technology major but Illinois gained a journalism major, a change in focus prompted by her professors’ suggestions. Jackson parlayed the new focus into creating Onyx Connect, a media source for the diverse population on and around campus.
During a semesterlong stint writing for ISU’s student-run news organization, the Vidette, Jackson began scrutinizing campus-area media outlets from the lens of having transferred from a historically Black college to a predominantly white institution.
“It was a very intentional walk,” she said. “I joined to create more articles and stories about our communities. … I was the only Black reporter there; there was a Black photographer (Nodel Dugbo) there and we immediately connected. I was telling him about the stuff that I saw on campus, and he said, whatever stories you have, just tell them you want me as a photographer, and we can go on these stories together.”
While reporting, Jackson learned that Black students would arrive in Bloomington-Normal with concerns about resources such as hairstylists and barbers, and other things needed to make them feel comfortable in their new surroundings. So Jackson found people on and off campus who provide these services and wrote about them for the Vidette. The community responded. Those Vidette stories led Jackson to create a stand-alone media outlet for the underrepresented, Onyx Connect.
By February 2018, Onyx Connect was being disseminated on campus as a print-only newsletter, showcasing diverse, positive stories along with resources for students of color. Jackson wrote the articles. Dugbo took photos. Jackson funds Onyx Connect on her own — first through her internships and now as a full-time reporter.
By 2020, Onyx Connect transitioned to sharing stories on social media. Staff do person-on-the-street interviews for the camera and post videos on social media sites. These days, 15 staff members produce content for Onyx Connect. The media outlet also hosts events like Onyx on Wall Street, which connected local entrepreneurs with students of color in a meet-and-greet in 2021.
“There was about 50 different Black businesses featured,” Jackson said. “Students on campus came out … it was more about creating long-term connections for them.”
Members of Onyx focus a lot on community journalism, but also cover breaking news such as campus protests and the mysterious death of ISU graduate student Jelani Day. Jackson, now a culture, diversity and inclusion reporter at Springfield’s State Journal-Register, said Onyx Connect gave an ISU student from the LGBTQ community who was assaulted last semester a platform to tell his story.
“If something breaks and other media outlets are not telling the story right, we’re gonna be here to tell it the right way,” Jackson said. “Onyx is there to be able to give more context and be able to give more of our voices.”
Kierra Turpin, a senior from Elgin, is one of those voices. She joined Onyx Connect after her roommate, Victoria Aguirre, a Schaumburg resident and Onyx Connect member, found the news source through Instagram. Turpin, who transferred to ISU from Northern Illinois University during the pandemic, said Onyx Connect is the only Black news outlet on campus and it fulfills her need for a Black community away from home.
“As a person of color, it is hard to get involved with things that you don’t feel other people can understand,” she said. “Not only are the members of Onyx my community, but I get to reach out and pour into my community, people who aren’t a part of Onyx, but they get to know about these different events that Illinois State has that you might not have known otherwise.”
According to Jackson, Onyx Connect’s voices come from all educational backgrounds on campus — accounting, criminal justice, business, graphic design and marketing. Jackson trains the Onyx staff on Monday evenings, teaching journalism fundamentals and media literacy.
“Some of them have no clue what journalism is or they just want to contribute to our purpose, which they see as helping uplift a voice of someone,” Jackson said.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, come be a part of this community. We’ll train you, we’ll work together, we’ll develop these professional skills,” Turpin said.
Aguirre agrees. “It’s essentially learning a lot of new skills and being able to advance your skills with other people’s knowledge,” she said.
Prior to joining the Springfield publication, Jackson worked as an intern at WGLT, the National Public Radio affiliate in Normal for over two years and with Angela Rye’s Impact Strategies consulting firm in Washington, D.C., for a year. Two classes shy of completing her undergraduate degree, Jackson received a call from the State Journal-Register, which is part of the USA Today network, to work in Springfield. She’s been working as a reporter there for a year and a half.
“My hospital visits delayed my graduation (in 2020) since I’d be in for at least two weeks dealing with attacks and that affected my ability to get class work done on time, so I had to play catch up a lot,” Jackson said. “I was working three jobs and under a lot of stress and stress triggers sickle cell crises. It was really a struggle to manage everything on top of school, but I kept trying my best.”
Jackson’s mentor, Charles Alsberry, says her success comes from perseverance and seeking advice from the older generation. “When she is led in a certain direction, she makes sure she focuses on it,” he said. “That is her secret sauce. … She is a person that does her homework. And she is a real star and leader.”
Ryan Denham, digital content director at WGLT and Jackson’s supervisor, said Onyx Connect is different from other student media. Jackson’s entrepreneurial outlook prompted him to offer her an internship.
“She just stood out because she saw a problem in the media,” Denham said. “She didn’t just look at the problem and stare at it and talk about it. She did something to try to fix it. It’s an uncommon amount of hustle.”
Jackson’s goal is to launch Onyx Connect on campuses around the nation, creating a national collegiate news network at predominantly white institutions so students of color and underserved voices are seen and heard.
“Onyx will serve as the voice and connector to resources so that students don’t feel isolated when at a predominantly white institution,” Jackson said. She hopes to start a chapter of Onyx Connect at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign by 2025. She plans to go to schools across Illinois to learn about their specific needs before establishing other chapters.
“I’ve heard from students at NIU, EIU, WIU, students who’ve seen what we’ve been doing and who are interested,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out what campus has the biggest need right now and also making sure that the foundation at ISU is stable before trying to multiply. I really want to be able to buy a building on campus, to be able to have a headquarters where we could produce and have a safe haven.”
Aguirre, who is majoring in communication and English, didn’t realize how much she liked journalism until Jackson got her more involved with Onyx.
“Tiffani is one of the first to try and do this and although this organization is small right now, we do see it growing,” she said. “I have a few friends at Western Illinois University and Eastern Illinois University who have expressed similar feelings that we share here. They tell me how lucky we are to have such a community.”
Onyx Connect alumnus Eric Donaldson served as vice president before graduating in 2021. The marketing communication major now lives in Bloomingdale and works for a media marketing agency. He said he went to ISU because his older sister was already enrolled there, but he stayed because he found Onyx Connect.
“I wasn’t used to change,” he said. “We have to adjust regardless, but it made it easier because as a Black person in a community, it made it feel more welcoming.”
He said Onyx Connect not only highlights the underrepresented population on campus, but also highlights how it evolved over time.
Jamillah Gilbert, Onyx’s faculty adviser and ISU’s assistant director for curriculum services, said the campus needed a media outlet that connects Black students to each other and the Black community at large. Gilbert said Onyx Connect has been able to do that.
“It is unapologetically celebrating all the beauty, the talent, the dreams, the goals, the hard work and the celebrations of the community,” she said. “And when I say unapologetically, it’s without trying to muffle. Sometimes we try to dim our light to not make others uncomfortable. I believe Onyx Connect is every bit bright light and unapologetically shining.”
Jackson sees Onyx Connect as the start of her own media firm and she’s studying Byron Allen’s and Oprah Winfrey’s paths of success to pick up pointers. And Jackson is not letting her medical condition get in the way. In fact, she says living with sickle cell partly fuels her ambition. She said growing up around the term “life expectancy” pushed her to do as much as she can before that time comes.
“I want to be known as somebody who made an impact on somebody’s life,” she said. “A lot of people ask me why I chose the name Onyx. The reason is because onyx is a black stone that is known for dispelling negative energy and promoting positivity. I correlated that with our purpose, which is to dispel negative stereotypes about our community and communities of color and promote positive images and positive news stories in our media.”
More information can be found on Twitter @_theonyxconnect, Instagram @_theonyxconnectisu or Facebook at Onyx Connect Media. The group is trying to raise $5,000 on GoFundMe for equipment and apparel.
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