Laila Ward, a freshman studying human biology at USC Dornsife, recently took home the crown at the Miss Black Pasadena pageant, which honors local talented teens.
Laila Ward graduated from the Pasadena Rosebud Academy, a charter school for kindergarten through eighth grade in Pasadena, California, at the top of her class, earning a near full scholarship to Pasadena’s prestigious Polytechnic High School.
She was in for a bit of culture shock, however: While her middle school had been majority Black, there were only three other Black students in Ward’s entire grade at Polytechnic.
Laila Ward hopes to win another crown at the upcoming Pasadena Tournament of Roses Royal Court pageant.
Finding peers that shared her cultural values became a key part of Ward’s high school experience, capped off with her win in the local Miss Black Pasadena contest. Although snagging the crown was a thrill, meeting kindred spirits was the most valuable part for Ward.
“I loved the empowerment aspect of it. I think all Black girls need to feel empowered and to be around other girls who are just like them,” says Ward. “I got a crown and the sash but, to me, we were all queens and we all won.”
Her decision to attend the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences continues her journey to find community. Although she’d also gotten into University of California, Berkeley, her father’s alma mater, she opted for USC due to its more diverse student body.
Ward was born and raised in Pasadena and became an active member of the Los Angeles suburb that hugs the San Gabriel Mountains.
She was a member of the Pasadena Youth Council and served as a Youth Ambassador for the City of Pasadena, providing hot meals to the homeless. As part of her work on the council, she’s helped provide advice on where to place benches or improve lighting around town. She also worked on a project aimed at reducing teen vaping.
“I think, a lot of times, kids are just bored. If they have activities to attend and more access to opportunities, they’re less likely to vape or drink,” says Ward.
It’s unlikely Ward has suffered from boredom much herself. In addition to her community service, Ward played volleyball, ran track and led her school’s Black Student Union. Ward also participated in Polytechnic’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which advocated for more diverse representation in school curriculum.
It wasn’t always easy being one of the only Black students on campus.
“I often felt alone and it wasn’t a good feeling. Socially, economically, there’s just so many different things that divide me from my classmates,” says Ward. “However, I always tried to find something in common with them because I know I have something in common with everyone.”
Voice of a generation
Like lots of girls growing up in Pasadena, Ward was enthralled by the annual Rose Parade’s Rose Court Pageant. She planned to enter herself once she became eligible, but her aspirations were delayed when COVID-19 canceled the parade during her senior year of high school. Luckily, Ward discovered that the Miss Black Pasadena pageant was continuing on virtually.
Tamieko Foster launched Miss Black Pasadena in 2018 to help teen girls who felt overlooked or pigeonholed by mainstream pageants and media. “The media will often portray only one type of Black girl. We are here to shed light on the many faces of Black and all of the magic that we encompass,” says Foster.
Ward and seven other competitors participated in weeks of workshops that focused on public speaking skills, career building and healthy relationships. At the end of the competition, the group gathered at a local restaurant for the crowning of the winner.
Ward stood out from day one, says Foster. “Laila is well-spoken, sincere, and has such a powerful perspective. She is definitely a change agent in the community and a voice that can advocate for her generation.”
Once and future queen
Now as a freshman human biology major at USC Dornsife, Ward has her eye on becoming a dermatologist. She’s struggled with several skin conditions, including eczema, which makes the field of particular interest to her.
Ward also plans to study Spanish and international relations. “I’m passionate about law and I’ve always been into social justice causes. I really like to travel. Learning about international relations combines all of that for me,” says Ward. “I’m excited to explore, learn and just grow and be on my own.”
Her pageant ambitions continue, as well. She’s finally getting a chance at entering the Rose Court this year. She already has a leg up over most of her competitors — she’s now an expert at wearing a crown.
By Margaret Crable