Celebrating Strong Black Canadian Women: Viola Desmond Day at Ryerson University

by julia.hanigsberg | March 10th, 2014

On March 3, 2014 Ryerson University held its sixth annual Viola Desmond Day Celebration and Awards Night, an event beautifully organized by the Ryerson Black History Awareness Committee. I was honoured to be invited to speak at the reception preceding the awards celebration.

Viola Desmond is a remarkable Nova Scotian woman who defended human dignity and rights against racial segregation. We often refer to her as our Rosa Parks. Ryerson celebrates Viola Desmond’s legacy with a suite of awards instituted to celebrate strong Black Canadian women who are members of the Ryerson community: students, faculty and staff. These awards help us celebrate and remember the contributions of the women for whom these awards are named: Anne Greenup, Andrea Lawrence, and Zanana Akande.

We, as the Ryerson community, are honoured to celebrate and recognize the contributions of this year’s award and bursary winners: Dr Nicole Neverson, Faculty member, Department of Sociology; Ms Keitha Prospere, Staff member in the Department of International Student Services; Ms. Anisa Hassan, Student in the Department of Criminology; Ms Hoda Abdel, High School Student; Ms Omnia Abdorbo; Student, School of Social Work.

They, like Viola Desmond:

  • forged their own path when they had few role models
  • pursued their belief in the promise of an equitable society
  • worked tirelessly in their communities to help alleviate poverty and need
  • believed in equal access to education and opportunity for all
  • put service before self

They are an example to younger generations of women and men that it is possible to overcome barriers.

I read a blog recently by Dr. Mae Jemison, the American NASA Scientist and the first African American woman in space. In her blog Dr Jemison says that everyone has something in them to contribute. She tells us of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela…no one told them that it was okay for them to do what they did. Instead, they realized that

  • they should make a contribution,
  • they had something to contribute, and
  • they took the risks making that contribution

Mae Jemison has herself launched an ambitious program called the 100 Year Starship project that will push the boundaries of what we know about space travel today. As she says: “It is my dream that in aiming for the distant stars, striving for the seemingly insurmountable, as we begin the first of many steps of this inclusive, audacious journey, we will transform life for the better on Earth all along the way.”

Many of us were moved at this year’s Oscar’s when Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actor and first Black African woman to win an Oscar (best supporting actress) concluded her speech by saying that the Academy Award would, “remind me and every little child that, no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

Why is it important to celebrate strong Black women? Often we think of leadership in terms of the titles bestowed on us in our jobs or the boxes we “inhabit” in an organizational chart. But women like Viola Davis, Dr Mae Jemison, and the winners of Ryerson’s Viola Desmond Day awards show what real leadership is.

On Viola Desmond Day we at Ryerson celebrate the catalyzing efforts made by Viola Desmond in achieving human rights for Black Canadians. I hope you draw inspiration from her work. I look forward to honouring more stars from the Ryerson community as staff, faculty and students work towards blazing yet more trails of equality, diversity and inclusion.

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