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Sydni Dion Bennett was instilled with a natural gift of ambition and self-awareness from an early age, which has served her well in her new role. The 16-year-old dance instructor became the first African-American winner of the Miss Illinois Teen USA in September and is fully embracing her shift into becoming a role model for Black girls across the nation.

Bennett entered the Miss Illinois Teen USA pageant with it being just the second such event she’s participated in. For the past 10 years, Bennett has trained as a ballerina and dancer and is currently a coach at the Perfection Dance Artistry and Company studio in Palo Heights, Illinois which is south of Chicago. A junior studying dance at the Chicago Academy For The Arts, Bennett travels 90 minutes each way from her home in Algonquin.

Just before winning the contest, Bennett was informed of the potential history-making moment should she or one of the other Black contestants won the pageant. Using the news as motivation to win and as a rallying cry for others who look like her, Bennett was crowned and has the right attitude going forward. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Bennett has a firm grasp of what her win represents.

“I found out the night before the final show, actually. It made me want to fight harder and to win for all the black girls around, not just for myself,” she said. “I didn’t feel less about my ability to win because no black girl had done it; it put a drive in me rather than a doubt.”

Bennett will be part of the larger Miss Teen USA competition to represent the state.

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