Concordia hosts a celebration of Black student achievement, determination and grit
June 19, 2021, marked a historic first in the United States. While celebrated since 1865, this year Juneteenth became an American federal holiday — marking the freeing of enslaved Black people in Texas. While the end of slavery was decreed in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Proclamation, Texas was the last remaining state in the Confederacy to abolish institutional slavery.
At Concordia, the date marked another festivity this year — its first annual Black Graduation Celebration. The university recognized students for their excellence, and attendees shared tears of joy, relief and some mixed emotions.
The online event kicked off with an introduction by the Black Perspectives Office (BPO) founding coordinator and manager, Annick Maugile Flavien, who diligently organized the celebration with the support of her team and a small army of contributors.
‘It reflects an opportunity for a young Black man like me to be seen and heard’
David Durham was named one of the Black Graduation Award recipients. “Receiving the Black Graduation Award is a special mark of my academic achievement,” says Durham, who completed a BFA in studio arts film animation.
“The celebration is the debut of an extremely significant recognition of Black excellence and academic achievement. It reflects an opportunity for a young Black man like me to be seen and heard. And it is an extraordinary honour for future Black scholars to be finally acknowledged for our academic efforts, contributions and leadership.”
The event was also an occasion for Durham to take stock of his journey, which at times was both blissful and heartbreaking. It was most of all a reminder for him to keep going. In many ways, Durham earned a second degree — in seeing beyond, manoeuvring and thriving in institutions that may selectively choose to shine the light on others.
“During my five years at Concordia, I have encountered many challenges and traumatic events, including the loss of my mother. To be awarded this recognition is a salient reminder that, despite the challenges faced, it is the hard work, persistence and support of the community that remain key to one’s success. I am truly grateful.”
Durham offers the following advice to the next generation of Black graduates: “Always empower and embolden our voices among those who intend to silence us. It is imperative that we continue to speak up and speak out against institutions that infringe on our values and cultures. Most importantly, always live and be unapologetically Black.”
He intends to pursue a career in the animation industry, both as a studio and independent filmmaker, where he will continue to create more works that aim to expand diversity and embolden Black voices.
It’s about community building
“Being Black in an institutional setting shouldn’t just be about countering anti-Black systemic racism,” says Maugile Flavien.
For too long Black students, faculty and staff and have been pushed to the sidelines of the university without a sense of community, she adds.
With the founding of the Black Perspectives Office, the President’s Task Force on Anti-Black Racism and the Black Caucus of Concordia, Maugile Flavien says she has seen common experiences emerge. She’s witnessed the coming together of Black community to openly share and candidly discuss their experiences, concerns, tactics and strategies to flourish and champion one another.
“For far too long, we’ve survived in silos and lived exclusionary experiences. It’s about congregating, thriving and building together. It’s about recognizing the work of the ancestors and generations before us, and it’s about deconstructing our limiting beliefs and aiming for a future beyond our wildest dreams,” she says.
“The beauty about change is that it is constant and inevitable but also malleable. We can change apart, we can change without direction or we can choose to change together. Changing together takes effort, time, vision, understanding and trust, but its impact is like no other. That’s the change I’m building towards, that’s the community we’re shaping at the Black Perspectives Office — one that works and celebrates together.”
‘Our students have demonstrated an incredible amount of grit and determination’
“I am thrilled to see Concordia host its first Black Graduation Celebration. Our students have demonstrated an incredible amount of grit and determination over the past 16 months and they deserve to celebrate their achievements in style,” says Anne Whitelaw, provost and vice-president, academic, to whom Maugile Flavien’s office reports.
“These accomplished graduates are a credit to the university, and I am confident that what they learned at Concordia, as well as the friendships and community connections they established, will serve them well in the future. My sincerest congratulations to every one of them!”
A celebration of achievement and excellence
The Black Graduation Awards celebrate individuals’ graduation and accomplishments both as Concordia grads and as members of the university’s Black community. This year’s awards were presented to Djenny Beh Bonekeh, Fiona Cousineau and David Durham.
The Awards of Excellence celebrate graduating students for their impactful and transformative contributions at Concordia and the uplifting pathways they’ve created for the Black community.
Sarah Mazhero received the Award of Excellence in Advocacy; Isaiah Joyner received the Award of Excellence in Leadership; and Celeste-Melize Ferrus received the Award of Excellence in Innovation.
‘Diversity makes Concordia such a vibrant institution’
Temi Akin-Aina is associate director of alumni relations for University Advancement and founder of Concordia’s Black Alumni Network, which co-hosted the Black Graduates Celebration. She says convocation is a special time for the alumni office to recognize the hard work and achievements of students and welcome them into the Concordia alumni family, which now is more than 230,000 strong.
“The network’s guiding principle is to foster deep relationships and offer valuable programming, and for members to connect after graduation — whether it’s in a different city or in another country — while maintaining solidarity with other Black Concordians,” she says.
Akin-Aina looks forward to seeing new graduates stay in touch. “We are fond of saying that Concordia is a network of communities, and it is therefore important that we celebrate the diversity that makes Concordia such a vibrant institution,” she adds.
“I welcome members of the class of 2021, as well as all Black alumni, to join us in our private LinkedIn group and attend our reunion at Homecoming and other programming throughout the year.”
A very personal celebration for Christine White
For Christine White, office assistant with the BPO, the Black Graduation Celebration was part work, part pride in her community — and it had a family connection.
“Not only is it a celebration of Black excellence but it also serves a purpose to recognize the students in our community and make sure that they know that they are heard, seen and celebrated — it’s intimate and it brings a much-needed feeling of belonging,” she notes.
“This year is extra special because it means that I get to congratulate my sister for graduating with a Bachelor of Commerce in accounting from the John Molson School of Business.”
Criss-crossing the city to deliver in-person congratulations
The day before the event, Maugile Flavien and her team travelled to more than 30 student homes across the city to deliver their heartfelt congratulations along with gift bags containing chocolate truffles, hand-crafted soaps, gift certificates for meditation sessions and certificates of achievement signed by Maugile Flavien and Andrew Woodall, dean of students.
During the celebration, Woodall’s reading of an original poem, which included lyrics from the RUN DMC song “It’s Tricky,” was received with loud applause.
Angélique Willkie, associate professor of contemporary dance and co-chair of the President’s Task Force, delivered the closing remarks, which both inspired and brought many to tears.
Over one hundred guests attended the celebration, equally split between students and their family, friends, alumni, supporters and members of Concordia’s administration, faculty and staff. Maugile Flavien expects to see the number of attendees continue to grow every year.
Find out more about Concordia’s Black Perspectives Office.
Apply to join the Concordia Black Alumni LinkedIn Group.