Sonja Stills Prioritizes HBCU, MEAC: 100 Influential Black Women In Sport

Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx highlight the diverse journeys of black women through sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more – in the series, Elle-evate: 100 influential black women in sports.


Success didn’t come overnight for Sonja Stills. Recently appointed as the new commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, effective January 1, 2022, Stills has already dedicated 19 years of his career to the conference, which is home to historically black colleges and universities in Southeast and Central America. ‘Atlantic. regions of the United States As the current Chief of Staff and COO of MEAC, Stills was an obvious choice to replace Dennis Thomas, the longest-serving commissioner in the conference’s 50-year history, after defeating the rest of its competitors in a nationwide search.

However, her historic appointment as the first black woman to serve as commissioner was not always within her sights. “If you had asked me, ‘Do you want to be a commissioner?’ years ago I would have said ‘No. I don’t need 11 bosses. I have my hands full with one. I just wanted to be an administrative assistant and go out at sunset, something simple, ”Stills recalls. “But as I grew in the position and worked my way up through the ranks, it felt natural to me. I’ve been here for 19 years, I can see where we’ve come from and where we need to go.

His legacy in the conference allowed him to create a clear vision and carefully plan for the future of MEAC under his leadership. Stills strives to give MEAC athletes access to opportunities outside of the conference and prepare them for a more dynamic future.

“I want to create and bring together a team to execute my vision, to get us to where I know we can go as a conference,” she says. “I want to make it more innovative, more creative. Find more opportunities for our students to be on national platforms. We have a long-standing relationship with ESPN, and we’re going to continue to have that relationship. We also want to find opportunities to promote our Olympic sports. “

One of its first initiatives, a permanent symposium on student leadership, aims to equip athletes with the critical thinking skills they need to showcase themselves. By preparing athletes to better understand high performance marketing, Stills focuses on increasing their chances of success during and after their professional careers. “The purpose of the symposium is to be able to provide them with information about branding, entrepreneurship, their name, image and likeness,” she says. “I want them to watch this and protect themselves as they make deals.

“Of course, how to market yourself is very important, but what is essential is leadership. We show them how to use the power they already have. Stills also has a deep understanding of the importance of mental health for black athletes for which she is responsible. While many student sports programs have recently chosen to focus and increase mental health resources in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and an international wave of protests focused on police brutality within black communities, Stills has always focused on resources for its HBCU students.

“Before the pandemic, we were pushing for mental health. It was an initiative of our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. We know that when the students are on campus there are thousands and thousands of people in the counseling center who need help, ”says Stills. “We want our athletes to be able to get free resources and be able to contact someone when they really need them, without having to wait weeks or even months to see someone. Being able to give them those resources so they can find someone to talk to, just when they need it? Its very important.”

Over the past two years, MEAC has lost three notable schools to other conferences: North Carolina A&T, FAMU, and Bethune-Cookeman. Even so, Stills is more than confident in the power of the eight remaining conference schools. “Of course, when you lose conference members, you have to make an adjustment. The institutions are going to do what they think is best, and we wish them good luck, ”she said. “We still have the eight elites; extraordinary institutions that remain competitive. So if it’s just the eight of us, then it’s going to be just the eight of us — doing great things. That suits me. The conference has undergone a realignment in its 51-year history. It is nothing different.

His overall hope for the MEAC is that black athletes will see the HBCUs within the conference as prime destinations for top athletic programs, and top college programs, and landmarks of black American culture, before considering to engage in predominantly white institutions (PWI). “We have a story, yes. But MEAC is a culture. Yes we are this place where students can come to have a good education. But other than that it’s just different, ”says Stills. “Even at games. It’s about fashion. These are groups. It’s like going back to basics every time you go to a game. We continuously disseminate our culture. The more we are on national platforms, the more stories we tell, the more people can see what we are doing. You don’t have to go to a predominantly white institution to reach the pros, and you don’t have to feel like going to HBCU is somehow less. You can come here and become a doctor, a lawyer, whatever. We are up there with them.

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Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse, multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sport for black women and girls.

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