By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — For three decades, Lisa Ruffin has made it her mission to educate little Black girls in an entertaining way while simultaneously instilling in them a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.
Ruffin’s work continues this year with the 29th Little Miss African American Scholarship Pageant set to take place Aug. 6 in the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre at Barnsdall Art Park in Hollywood.
Little Miss African American is first and foremost an educational program cleverly disguised in a pageant format whose mission is “dedicated to the intellectual success of young African-American girls,” said Ruffin, the founder, producer and choreographer of the event.
According to Ruffin, the pageant is the longest-running scholarship pageant for girls between the ages of 6 and 12, provides an early introduction to the arts and training in public speaking while promoting individual creativity and stimulating a heightened cultural understanding.
Participants are tasked with a number of objectives including a ‘Me and My Heritage’ speech.
“We have a couple of categories,” said Ruffin, who emphasizes this is not a talent show. “We take about 30 to 50 girls each year. For the 6 year olds, we talk about poetry and English. They learn how to pronounce words. We switch up the subjects every year.
“The 12 year olds do social issues like voters’ rights. Each age group does a different category. We have show and tell where the girls step into the future and think about what they want to do when they grow up. Only 16 of them advance and get to do their show and tell,” Ruffin added.
“We also talk about history and the people who should be in our history books— who aren’t. Each participant also has to do a book report.”
Ruffin said the winner of the book report, who wins the Academics Excellence Award, gets to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a great trip,” she said.
This year’s celebrity judges include Carlacia Grant (Netflix’s “The Outer Banks”), talent manager Christopher Giovanni (founder of Hollywood Entertainment Management Company), former Mattel Black Barbie doll designer Stacey McBride-Irby, Gene Hale (CEO of G&C Equipment Corporation), Grammy Award-nominee Matt B, Ingrid Hadley (founder of ILH Possibilities) and award-winning actress and director Saundra McClain (“Seven Guitars,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar”).
Ruffin said this year’s event will include a group of “smart and talented” girls from diverse economic backgrounds, some of whom had never experienced being a “princess” or have even owned a dress before, and who were most in need of the the pageant’s core guideline of “confidence, awareness and pride.”
The pageant hopes to help create some incredible lasting memories for these young ladies, Ruffin said.
“Pageants have a bad rap. A pageant can give you a sense of pride and help you stand up straight. This year [we] will award over $10,000 in scholarships and prizes.”
More than 1,200 girls have participated in the pageant over the years. The majority of them come from under-served, single-family homes.
Ruffin said a number of the girls go on to do “great things.”
“Some of the girls who participated in the past are actually 40 now,” she said. “Some have their own daughters in the pageant now. Some are now doctors. Some are in government in Washington, D.C., and a couple of them are lawyers. It just blows me away.”
The pageant is hosted this year by actress Erica Gimpel, (“Fame,” “Sylvie’s Love,” “Mayfair Witches,” “The Night Agent” and “God Friended Me”).
“This event is honoring the potential and the beauty of young up-and-coming African American beautiful princesses and celebrating their lives,” Gimpel said. “It’s important that these princesses know there is a community rooting them on. I think where we are in our society and world, it’s time to celebrate and honor our young people and let them know how treasured they are.”
Gimpel said she loves to mentor children.
“It’s a mutual giving back and receiving,” she said. “Kids come with a message too. Whenever there is an opportunity to help lift each other up, it’s worth supporting.”
It was three decades ago that Ruffin, a multi-talented performer and award-winning choreographer, decided that she wanted to do something positive and memorable for little Black girls.
“I’ve always had a heart for young girls,” the mother of an adult son said. “I love kids. I wanted to start something that had an educational component. I wanted to pass on jewels and tools to these girls.”
Ruffin said her original scholarship pageant idea wasn’t met with enthusiasm initially.
“I had to revamp my idea,” Ruffin said. “I started it as a straight education pageant. The parents loved it. The girls not so much. They said, ‘I already go to school.’
“I had to figure out what would get them excited about us being kings and queens. So I pulled out a crown and I told them they would get a trophy. They said. ‘OK.’ That’s what was missing. All of the girls get a crown.”
Ruffin, who has performed and choreographed in more than 20 countries and worked with Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and the late Tina Turner and James Brown, said she came up with the idea for the scholarship pageant during one of the busiest times in her career.
“I had finished Juilliard, had a Broadway show, was on “All My Children” and had a pilot to come to LA,” said Ruffin, a Pittsburgh native whose choreography credits include “Moesha” and “The Steve Harvey Show. “I was doing a lot of dancing, but that’s when I realized I couldn’t dance all my life. With acting, I realized all I had to do was speak. I wanted to give little girls the skills to speak publicly.”
Ruffin, who choreographed “Seize The King” earlier this year at USC, is producing this year’s event with no corporate sponsorship.
“Let’s just say I have great friends that I’m able to call,” she said.
Ruffin said that before his death, singer Michael Jackson sponsored the event for a number of years. She noted that this year City Councilwoman Heather Hutt “is helping us.”
Throughout the years, actor Richard Lawson has donated a performing arts scholarship and Lula Washington has donated a dancing scholarship.
Next year the Little Miss African American Scholarship Pageant will turn 30.
“I’m inviting everyone to come back,” Ruffin said.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.