A Vol Who Made History

by Alyssa Seisser
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by Lindsey Owen Mcbee

As the announcer named the runner-up of Miss Tennessee 2019, Brianna Mason Broady (’17, ’18) folded over in excitement and tears. Her competitor’s name had been called, leaving Broady to become the first Black woman to win the title in the Miss Tennessee America pageant’s nearly 100-year history.

“I’m so lucky to be the girl who made history,” said Broady. Upon her first entry into the pageant four years earlier, Broady had toured the Miss Tennessee room with portraits of all the past winners and saw that none of them looked like her. It was the inspiration that drove her through four trips to the state pageant.

While a student at UT, Broady used that competitive drive to help others by establishing a student organization that benefits students, children, and families affected by autism, eventually expanding it across the state.

The Road to the Crown

Broady began her pageant journey in 2013, participating in the Mr. and Miss Freshman contest sponsored by UT’s Office of Multicultural Student Life. She convinced Terrell “TJ” Broady Jr.— who is now her husband—to compete alongside her to get involved in Homecoming activities. Although neither was crowned, the pageant bug bit Broady.

She entered the Miss America circuit because of its emphasis on personal style, knowledge, and talent. Broady chose autism awareness for her platform—a cause close to her heart as she’d grown up with her husband’s younger sister, Bethany, who has mild autism and Down syndrome.

As a junior psychology major with an early education minor, Broady had encountered students with a variety of special needs while interning at several Knox County schools.

“I was able to see how different schools were making sure that they were inclusive to those with special needs. It made TJ and I think about his little sister. What would it be like for her? What can we do to make a place like UT welcoming for her if she were to come here?” Broady says.

So at the beginning of their senior year at UT, the pair founded Advocates for Autism, which focuses on offering an inclusive environment for college students on the spectrum. Its members serve as allies, raise awareness, and educate the campus about autism and individuals on the spectrum.

The organization, which still exists on campus, continues the work through events and education such as the annual Autism Family Day at the Ripley’s Aquarium in the spring and autism inclusion panels.

In 2019, before winning Miss Tennessee and while working as a first-grade teacher at Hobgood Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Broady along with her husband established AFA as a nonprofit organization.

Throughout her reign as Miss Tennessee, Broady was able to work with a variety of autism nonprofits, including AFA, to raise money and donate items such as sensory toys, pianos for music therapy, and iPads to be used for verbal communication.

“It was really cool to be able to be in those spaces and talk a little bit about Advocates for Autism but also learn so much more about these other organizations that are doing great things for the community,” she says.

Broady took a leave absence from teaching to fulfill her duties as Miss Tennessee but still maintained a focus on education during her reign by working with the Tennessee Department of Education as a spokesperson for reading literacy and the Whole Child Initiative. When COVID closed schools, Broady established an Instagram series encouraging students to continue working on their math, reading, and science skills.

Over the course of a year, she traveled more than 30,000 miles across the state and went into communities that previous winners had never been to.

“Being the first Miss Tennessee who was Black was something that really molded my year,” she says. “I was able to go to lots of different schools and events that had never booked or seen Miss Tennessee.”

She attended chapter meetings of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Black history programs—areas where young Black children, girls especially, might see a Miss Tennessee who looked like them.

The Miss Tennessee crown also advanced Broady to the 2020 Miss America pageant. That year, the organization introduced a new scholarship opportunity for contestants to share work they have done to promote equity, diversity, and justice. Broady presented about her work with Advocates for Autism, which had been thriving and expanding with new collegiate chapters at UT Chattanooga, the University of Memphis, and Austin Peay State University.

She was a finalist in the scholarship award category, and the placement capped Broady’s total pageant scholarship earnings at $30,000.

Looking Forward

Now working as a teacher at Bellshire Design Center Elementary School in Nashville, Broady continues to make an impact in the autism community. She has served as the state ambassador for Autism Tennessee and partnered with the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder and other agencies to provide resources and sensory-friendly spaces. She and her husband remain devoted to Advocates for Autism and recently named the organization’s first Laurette Scholarship recipient.

Named for Broady’s sister, the scholarship provides funds toward any college or university, vocational, or postsecondary program to a high school student diagnosed with autism. Scholarship recipient Weston Trent is a first-year student from Morristown, Tennessee, who chose UT’s FUTURE program, which helps young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities make a successful transition from high school to adult life.

“Being able to give students the opportunity to go to a postsecondary institution and participate in college activities means so much to TJ and me,” says Broady. “It was really cool to be able to give our first scholarship to a UT student.”

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