Spreading the Fire:
Darlene Aiken and the Empowerment of Women
by Robin L. Martinez
Today’s child “experts” and psychologists are very fond of handing out advice (much of it contrary and impractical) on how to raise a child. Parenting magazines print endless lists of skill-building activities and kid-friendly recipes to entice readers. But not many parents and guardians receive the essential lesson of how to raise a child rich in self-confidence. Many well meaning parents stumble over this building block of childhood and watch with bewilderment as their adventurous and audacious little one withers during her preteen and teen years. How do we prevent or reverse this? Darlene Aiken, founder of Inner Beauty Solutions and founder/director of the Miss Black Collegiate USA Scholarship Pageant™ has dedicated her professional career to answering this question.
Raised by two loving and encouraging parents, Ms. Aiken nevertheless fell victim to bullying as a child. Above average in height and overweight, she soon came to believe what her bullies said about her: that she was ugly and worthless. As an escape from this harrowing self-image, Aiken herself became a bully. She longed to be someone else, someone beautiful and successful and popular. Then, in middle school, she learned a very important lesson. A girl named Tanya, whom Aiken believed to have a charmed life, opened up to her and told her that she was in foster care and had been separated from her siblings. From this confession, Aiken learned that physical beauty told very little about a person or a person’s life. In fact, it often masked ugly realities. From that day on, Aiken never desired to be anyone but herself. As she moved through life, she took that vital message with her and made a mission of passing it on to others.
In 2001, she founded Inner Beauty Solutions, a revolutionary non-profit organization that provides training to young women and their parents on the attainment and nurturing of healthy self-esteem. Inner Beauty Solutions provides workshops that give young girls and women tools to change their worldview as well as the view they have of themselves. “Acceptance comes from self, first and foremost,” Aiken said. “I’m of the mindset that wherever I am, I belong, just by virtue of my being born. If I did not belong, God would not have made it possible for me to be here. In addition to belonging, I have value, talents, gifts, and ability and it is incumbent upon me to share these gifts, talents, and abilities or what is the purpose they serve[?]” This belief forms the foundation of Aiken’s entire mission and the lessons she hopes to impart to young girls and women across the country.
Inner Beauty Solutions also works with girls who have or are experiencing bullying. Aiken and her staff teach workshop participants techniques that will not only galvanize their self-esteem, but also help to neutralize bullies by making them pause and reevaluate their bullying behavior. Parent workshops dovetail into the girl-specific sessions by equipping parents and caregivers with strategies and advice that will enable them to facilitate and support their daughters’ empowerment and fight to be free of bullying.
The seeds for the Miss Black Collegiate USA Scholarship Pageant™ were planted in Inner Beauty Solutions. In 2011, the organization, along with their partners Felicity Hair Salon for Girls and New York TREND Newspaper, held a pageant that sought to celebrate the beauty in ALL young women and give one talented winner a boost towards a college education.
In 2012, the pageant became the Miss Black Collegiate USA Scholarship Pageant™ and, in that first year awarded over $10,000 in scholarship money and won the support of major sponsors including Macy’s Bridal Salon by Demetrios, R. J. Graziano, Curtis James, Style Evolutions, Palmer Event Strategist, The Event Strategist, and Iman Cosmetics. But the pageant’s birth was not without difficulties. “During the formative years… [of the pageant]… there were many many naysayers. People didn’t believe it could be done for many reasons,” Aiken said. But she and her dedicated staff proved all the critics wrong and are, even now, gearing up for the pageant’s second year.
The goal of the Miss Black Collegiate USA Scholarship Pageant™ is more than awarding scholarship money. In keeping with Inner Solutions’ organizational mission and Aiken’s personal values, the pageant fosters the belief that spirituality, academics, and community service coupled with a strong sense of self-value are key to having a rich and productive future. And, because “life is not always so serious,” the pageant incorporates the idea of wholesome fun and the building of strong friendships.
Ms. Aiken’s many accomplishments also include publishing. Her book, How to Be a Young Lady: Your Total Guide for Being the Best Possible You! was published in 2006 and furthered the philosophies and teachings of Inner Beauty Solutions. She also has a contribution in the upcoming Network to Increase Your Net Worth compiled by Toni Coleman-Brown. This volume focuses on business professionals and those hoping to enter the business world.
“Being a trailblazer is never easy, so I go into everything expecting favor from God and opposition from many.” Darlene Aiken has put that life philosophy to the test time and again with amazing success. Hinging her business and life decisions on her Christian ethics and the principles of self-sacrifice and hard work she learned from her father, Aiken has plowed through difficulties and disproved critics in order to build an organization that is making a fundamental difference in the world.