How NU students rely on group chats to build community.

Illustration by Stephanie Zhu

Editor's Note: The writer chose to use the spelling womxn to be more inclusive of all identities.

Afnan Elsheikh stared down at her phone and felt alone. She found herself disappointed by a lack of connection to other Black womxn at Northwestern.

“I realized I didn’t know that many Black girls on campus,” she says.

Determined to change that narrative, Elsheikh and one of her friends would later create a space linking Black womxn from all over campus with the help of the messaging app GroupMe.

A year later, Elsheikh stares down at her phone and watches the messages stream in from the group chat community she helped create.

For some Northwestern students with marginalized identities, these spaces connect them with others who look like and see the world like them. They check in with each other, complain, find comfort and laugh together knowing that this virtual space was created by them, for them and belongs to them.

Blk 'Cats

Elsheikh and Jamaica Ponder, both second years, started a group chat with their Black female friends last spring. But it wouldn’t stay confined to that small friend group for long.

“At first, the group chat started with Black womxn in our year, and then, after that, upperclassmen were added,” Elsheikh says. “It just became all Black womxn on campus.”

For these two friends, the Blk ‘Cats chat became a step toward building the Black community.

“I think that it’s really, really hard to foster a cohesive sense of community because we’re constantly being forced to navigate within predominantly white spaces, whether it’s academics or extracurriculars,” Ponder says.

The Blk ‘Cats chat serves as a resource for Black womxn to connect and ask questions related to textbooks, joining student organizations, best places to get your hair/nails done, classes and more. I was added to the chat a few months before this school year started. Since then, I’ve found suggestions for the best eyebrow threading place in Evanston and gotten a textbook or two.

“It’s a lot easier to just open an app and say, ‘okay, this is what’s going on and these are things I can go to if I’m passionate about them. This is the information I need to be there.’ It just makes it more accessible,” Ponder says.

At a predominantly white university like Northwestern, it’s easy for Black students to feel disconnected from a larger Black community. These students often find themselves separated by different majors, schools and activities.

“There’s a lot of fragmentation within the Black community,” Elsheikh says.

And that’s exactly why Ponder thinks this chat is so important. The chat currently has 175 members and is still growing.

“I also felt when I got here that there wasn’t as much a Black community as I would have wanted,” Ponder says. “But then there are ways to mitigate the physical and logistical barriers to that. And I think that group chats are a really good way.”

Many Black womxn on campus heard about Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, a visiting evolutionary psychology researcher, through the Blk ‘Cats chat. In 2011, Dr. Kanazawa published a highly controversial article titled “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women,” which was brought up in the chat.

“We found out about it through the Blk ‘Cats group chat and like talked it through, decided next steps and actions,” Elsheikh explains. Those next steps included sending emails expressing concern to the Northwestern Provost, starting a campuswide petition to have Dr. Kanazawa removed from campus and in-person discussions about how best to protest his presence at Northwestern.

Where to eat?

In a lot of ways, group chats serve as safe spaces for underrepresented people, but their discussions aren’t always centered around those marginalized identities. Most of the time, third year LaTesha Harris, a Black womxn, uses her online spaces to kick back with her friends and have heated discussions about potential dinner spots.

“I’d say my biggest group chat right now is actually comprised of just gay people, bi people and gender nonconforming people,” Harris says. “There was this time where we argued about where to eat for like two hours.”

Harris says that the demographic configuration of the chat is purely a reflection of the people she chooses to surround herself with, rather than a coordinated affinity group. Beyond general groups, she also enjoys using themed group chats to send funny images and even talk about board games.

“I have one that we really only send memes in,” Harris says. “And I have another one for Dungeons and Dragons updates.”

Secret Secret Group

Fourth year Brittany Owens, like many students, mostly uses her personal group chats to release tension. She finds herself venting to her friends or sharing funny photos she’s stumbled across on Instagram.

But Owens also has a reputation for creating secret group chats that don’t include everyone. When it comes to celebrating birthdays of close friends and getting gifts together, she feels compelled to use covert group chats.

“Basically, it’s just discussing what you think the best gift idea is and then sharing prices and links to it,” Owens says.

For Owens, who enjoys the process of planning and giving surprise gifts best suited for each of her friends, this type of group chat is especially important.

“We can speak without having to speak in person because that is suspicious,” she says. “Especially if you’re in a friend group, it’s going to look suspicious if y’all are out whispering somewhere.”

Owens was once able to coordinate two different secret group chats at the same time, where people in group A were trying to get a secret gift for group B, without realizing group B was also setting up to surprise group A with gifts, as well.

“We presented the gifts at Taco Diablo, and they were unsuspecting. I think for me that was the most memorable,” she says. “The planning for that and trying to manage all these chats at once to pull off the surprise was good.”

Informal LTA

Third year Yurizet Villa finds comfort in the informal group chat of her sorority, Lambda Theta Alpha. In contrast, their formal chat focuses on topics surrounding business items, but their casual group chat is a place where she can talk about her day in a judgment-free zone.

“When something goes down that happens to you, and you have to tell a specific group of people that you’re comfortable with, they’re the first people. I start sending capitalized messages like ‘OH MY GOD you won’t believe what just happened to me,’” Villa says.

Villa, a legal studies major, identifies as Mestiza — a woman of mixed race, descending from indigenous and Spanish ancestry. In a world that separates ethnicity and race into clearly defined boxes, this grouping feels more inclusive for Villa.

Lambda Theta Alpha is a Latina-based sorority that serves as a support system for womxn in higher education. This informal group chat supports Villa and her fellow members by informing each other about resources.

“We also use this for a lot of reminders, like reminders to tell each other like, ‘hey, there’s an opportunity on campus, you should totally do this.’ Or, ‘if you want this free thing, there’s food here,’” she says.

Most importantly, the informal LTA chat provides a welcoming atmosphere. Recently, Villa used the chat to talk about her interest in immigration law.

“I just felt my heart pour out all my passions. I sometimes feel like I can’t necessarily put [that] in just any type of group chat, you know?” Villa says. “I find myself sometimes like policing myself to make sure I’m not talking about myself too much, but here I’m very comfortable to send like a thousand messages.”