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Celebrating Black excellence in honour of Viola Desmond

The Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary program recognizes outstanding achievements of Black women leaders
By: Surbhi Bir
April 01, 2021
Juanita Stephen, Sharmaine McKenzie, Pauline Mwangi, Marci Ien, Hannah Flores, Nephertari Marshall, Nigeleen Nwakobi, Sojourner San Vicente

Recipients of the 2021 Viola Desmond Awards and Student Bursaries (from left): Juanita Stephen, Sharmaine McKenzie, Pauline Mwangi, Marci Ien, Hannah Flores, Nephertari Marshall, Nigeleen Nwakobi and Sojourner San Vicente.

The overarching theme of the 13th annual and first virtual Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary Ceremony can be best described in two words: resistance and resilience. 

Held on March 22, a day after the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the event celebrated 12 Black women trailblazers and honoured the legacy of Viola Desmond – the Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial discrimination and segregation in 1946.

“It is through supporting the work and potential of Black women that we uplift those who face the double-edged sword of racism and sexism in a society originally designed to exclude women and all racialized people,” said Denise O’Neil Green, vice-president, equity and community inclusion at Ryerson, in her opening remarks. 

The event was hosted by Stephanie Henry, on-air host and traffic reporter for Citytv’s Breakfast Television, and featured powerful performances by artists such as Quisha Wint, Lisa Michelle and Gina P.

Another memorable part of the ceremony was hearing about Viola Desmond’s life and story from her sister, Wanda Robson. 

“Just thinking that you’re on the threshold of your own personal life, you can do anything you want to do because you’ve got a great beginning at Ryerson,” Robson said in her message to Ryerson students. 

We spoke to the three Ryerson students who were honoured at the ceremony to learn more about their goals and what inspires them. For more information on this year’s six award recipients and two student bursary recipients, visit the Viola Desmond Awards and Bursary Program website.

Ryerson student award in honour of Hon. Marlene Jennings

Pauline Mwangi

Pauline Mwangi, recipient of the Ryerson student award in honour of Marlene Jennings.

Pauline Mwangi is a student in the disability studies program in the Faculty of Community Services at Ryerson. She received the Ryerson student award in honour of Marlene Jennings – a retired lawyer and the first Black woman from Quebec to be elected into Parliament.

“My work in the community mostly supports people with disabilities,” Mwangi said. “I’m also passionate about women’s issues and the different challenges we may go through – that’s something I do from my heart.”

As one of the directors of Hope Community Development International Toronto, Mwangi spearheaded a food bank dedicated to eliminating hunger in Toronto. She is also the founder and president of the Kenyan Women Association in Canada, as well as the co-founder of the Hope and Vision School in Kenya, located in her hometown of Kasarani. 

In the Ryerson community, she sits on the Human Rights Committee Review board and is a council member for the Student Alumni Advisory Committee (SAAC). 

“This award really means a lot to me. Coming from Kenya, a lot of people tell me they get inspired by my story, my resilience and struggles. But as Black women, sometimes our voices are deliberately not heard and we have to keep knocking on doors,” Mwangi said.

After graduating from Ryerson, Mwangi wants to continue working in the community and advocating for people whose voices are silenced. She’s also the author of an upcoming book, Clarity: Ignite the Power Within You, about her experience as an immigrant from Kenya that highlights the importance of embracing your personal story and social location.

Ryerson student bursary in honour of Ms. Viola Desmond

Sojourner San Vicente

Sojourner San Vicente, recipient of the Ryerson student bursary in honour of Ms. Viola Desmond.

Each year, the Viola Desmond bursary awards $1,000 to a student who exemplifies leadership and excellence. But this year, two students were honoured for their contribution to the community during these extraordinary times.

Sojourner San Vicente is a third-year student in the midwifery education program in the Faculty of Community Services and has worked on many volunteer projects within Black communities in Toronto and across Canada. She’s been a translator with the Haitian Consulate in Toronto, led the youth agricultural program at Lawrence Heights Community Centre and served as an ambassador for Toronto’s steelpan community. 

“I’m honoured to be awarded in the legacy of Viola Desmond. She’s an example of what you’ll find in many Black communities where people witness and experience injustice, and stand up against that in the spirit of resistance and resilience,” San Vicente said.  

“But it also represents love – love for community, love for future generations and love for self. For a bursary to exist in honour of those principles is encouraging because it means that students are expected to have those same principles and that the institution is asserting its responsibility to being held accountable,” she added. 

San Vicente helped establish Ryerson midwifery’s BIPOC Collective and also leads the Learn More: Ontario Midwifery project that aims to increase awareness for midwifery care in Ontario and the visibility of Black midwives, students and clients in the midwifery community.

Nigeleen Nwakobi

Nigeleen Nwakobi, recipient of the Ryerson student bursary in honour of Ms. Viola Desmond.

Nigeleen Nwakobi is a fourth-year student in the industrial engineering program in the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science and she’s passionate about addressing the lack of female and Black representation within engineering.

“I came from an all-girls high school so the transition was a lot,” Nwakobi said. “I’d never seen so many boys in one space. There were 200 people in one auditorium and they’re practically all guys, and nobody looked at me, I didn’t know where to sit. It was such a different experience.”

As an advocate for creating inclusive projects and safe spaces for women and BIPOC students, Nwakobi joined the National Society of Black Engineers this year. She is also part of the Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee, where she hopes to increase the sense of belonging, representation and community for Black students at Ryerson.

“I want to target the feeling of isolation a lot of Black students feel, within engineering and at Ryerson as a whole. Similar to how Viola Desmond fought for justice, I hope my work for the community can cure imposter syndrome, overcome intersectionality and empower Black students to be unapologetically themselves,” Nwakobi said.

Going forward, Nwakobi hopes to continue to break the glass ceiling for the next generation of engineers and inspire others to approach engineering with an intersectional lens. 

“Something I’d really like to do is be a mentor and not necessarily leave the Ryerson community just because I’ve graduated. I would love to help and support other Black girls,” Nwakobi said.

Ryerson students who identify as Black women are encouraged to apply to the Viola Desmond Student Bursary at the end of summer. Award nominations for the 14th annual Viola Desmond Awards will open in the fall. For more details, visit the Office of the Vice-President, Equity and Community Inclusion website.

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