Travel can change you, and writing about your travels can help you to see the world with new eyes and new possibilities. It was a belief in this transformative power of travel that led Sonya Bernard-Hollins to form a club allowing girls from Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor to travel and write about their travels.
The Merze Tate Explorers club — the Merze Tate Travel Writers Club until last year — was inspired by an 80-year-old photo of Merze Tate, says Bernard-Hollins.
Bernard-Hollins had been a reporter for the Kalamazoo Gazette when she first learned of Tate in 2003 while researching African-American firsts of Western Michigan University. Tate, a professor, scholar and expert on U.S. diplomacy, was the first black woman to receive a bachelor's degree from Western State Teachers College — now WMU — in 1927. During her career, Tate explored the world, learned five languages and worked as a writer and photographer for the U.S. State Department.
Bernard-Hollins found a “gold mine” of information about Tate in WMU's archives, including a photo “which never left me,” she says. The photo was of a travel club for students that Tate created in 1928 when she was a history teacher at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. The club’s intent was to teach students more about U.S. history by traveling to places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Niagara Falls.
“This was during the Depression years of 1928, and Indianapolis was the heart of the Ku Klux Klan,” says Bernard-Hollins. “Many of the parents of the children in the club were servants and chauffeurs, a future they expected for their own children. While the parents wanted more for their children, Tate's efforts of taking African-American students on educational excursions met with critical questions from the media. However, Tate's vision was to expose young people to the world so that they could go beyond the expectations of their time.”
Inspired by Tate and thinking “a travel club for girls would be fun,” Bernard-Hollins created the Merze Tate Travel Writers Club in 2008. The club’s purpose was to provide girls with an opportunity to travel, discover women who had made an impact on their communities and write about their experiences. Bernard-Hollins received a $2,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation to create the program.
The Merze Tate Travel Writers Club began with 12 girls, who had to apply, be interviewed and demonstrate their writing skills. Members met two Saturdays each month during the school year, and their first trips included visits to Detroit to see the Motown Museum, Wayne State University and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and to Tuskegee, Alabama, to see the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum. There, they met original Tuskegee airmen and a woman who stuffed parachutes for the airmen.
In the second year of the club, more than 50 girls participated. In its third year, club members created a documentary on Tate’s life, The World Through the Lens of Merze Tate. It debuted at the Grand Rapids Public Museum during Black History Month in 2012.
“We always have the girls' mothers for chaperones on the trips, and many of them had never been to the places we were going,” says Bernard-Hollins. “As we went through the years and families saw how excited the girls were, more and more volunteers came forth, including the girls' fathers and aunts.”
Bernard-Hollins also emphasizes career and leadership development to the girls. Members meet local professional women from various occupations to help them think about future careers. One of these women was Eileen Wilson-Oyelaran, the former president of Kalamazoo College.
“Dr. Wilson-Oyelaran was seated in the boardroom when the girls arrived, but none of them had a clue as to who she was,” says Bernard-Hollins. “When she was introduced as the president, they all perked up. That showed me that exposing them to influential people can make a huge difference for them.”
Eight of the original 12 club members went to college, says Bernard-Hollins. One of those young women, Tori Zackery, 19, is a sophomore at Michigan State University studying photojournalism. In 2015, Zackery received a $2,000 study-abroad scholarship to visit Berlin, Munich and Paris, and she credits the travel club as her inspiration.
“I didn't realize at the time how valuable it would become to be able to look beyond the surface of a place I've lived my entire life and report on its history and secrets,” says Zackery. “Those skills separate tourists from travelers, and they became extremely useful during my time in Europe.”
In 2013, Bernard-Hollins established a week-long residential Travel Writers Academy on the campus of Kalamazoo College. It allows girls in grades 4-12 to experience college life and interact with women from various career fields and with world travel experiences. The academy participants then write about their experiences and publish them in the organization’s annual Girls Can! magazine, which is unveiled during Art Hop in September.
In 2015, the organization became a nonprofit and changed its name to Merze Tate Explorers. In addition to girls from Kalamazoo, it now has members from Ann Arbor, Albion, Battle Creek, Richland and Portage.
Merze Tate traveled around the world twice, and now the Merze Tate Explorers club helps facilitate international travel opportunities for its members as well. In 2015, Claire Khabeiry and Natasha Mahonie, who were both 15 at the time and members since 2009, went to France for 30 days. The Greg Jennings Foundation covered half of their travel expenses, while The Faces of America program provided additional funding. Fundraisers and the girls’ families paid the rest.
Bernard-Hollins admits she didn't have a complete plan when she decided to start the Merze Tate Explorers but says there has been a consistent philosophy behind its success.
“We eliminate all excuses not to dream big.”