Soon after arriving at Dalhousie in August 2011, Professor Afua Cooper established a lecture series and invited local lawyer and human rights advocate Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones to be the first speaker.
Now, four years later Dr. Cooper is being recognized for her own leadership and advocacy work with an award named after the late Dr. Jones, who passed away in 2013.
Dr. Cooper received the Dr. Burnley Allan ‘Rocky’ Jones award from the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission last Thursday at Government House. The award recognizes her work on cultural diversity and inclusion as a community leader, advocate, academic and author.
“Jones was an important leader in Nova Scotia, so this was a really happy event for me,” says Dr. Cooper, who holds the James Robinson Johnston (JRJ) Chair in Black Canadian Studies — the only one of its kind in Canada. “To be recognized in this manner for my work felt really good.”
A big part of Dr. Cooper’s mandate as the JRJ Chair is to ensure the black history of Canada is brought to the forefront and that black Canadians and others across the country have access to these components of their identity.
“For me as an educator, the right for people to know their history and their culture and to be able to embrace all aspects of their identity is critical,” she says, noting that the United Nations Human Rights Commission has identified culture, history, heritage and education as important elements of human rights. “We don’t want to say education is a privilege because it isn’t: it’s a right and should be a right.”
Dr. Cooper has made several inroads on this front since arriving at Dal, most recently receiving final approval for a new interdisciplinary Black Canadian and African Diaspora Studies minor that will start being offered next September. Fittingly, she received word of the approval last Wednesday, a day ahead of the award ceremony.
Building a closer community bond
Bringing the academy and community closer together has been a big priority for Dr. Cooper. In addition to establishing the James R. Johnston Chair Lecture Series, Dr. Cooper hosted the second biennial Black Canadian Studies Association Conference this past May at Dal, which drew nearly 300 participants from across Canada, Germany, the U.S., Brazil, Jamaica and other countries. Scholars, activists and others from the community gathered to discuss black leadership in Canada.
Dr. Cooper also partnered with local community groups and individuals on Black Halifax, an interactive web project that takes visitors on a virtual journey through the lives of notable African Nova Scotians over the past 300 years of the city’s history. As co-producer, Dr. Cooper helped raise close to $50,000 from the likes of Toronto-Dominon Bank, Eastlink, and the Delmore ‘Buddy’ Daye Learning Institute, which hosts the Black Halifax website.
She also helped recruit actors, poets and others to act as storytellers in a series of video segments and even narrated a short story herself on the departure of 15 ships of Black Loyalists from Halifax to Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“I think it’s just phenomenal: telling the story of a city through these different media,” says Dr. Cooper, who originally arrived in Canada from Jamaica in 1980 to study at the University of Toronto, where she also went on to do her PhD.
Dr. Cooper says her work takes her out into the community on a regular basis, whether it’s showing up at people’s doors or going to meet leaders at local churches. She says being the JRJ Chair at Dal has given her the opportunity to create a more direct link between her work in the academy and her role in the community, something that fits her vision that knowledge is something to be shared widely.
“I’m researching 18th century history, the Black Loyalists, slavery. Okay, so that happened 200 or 300 years ago, but the descendants of those people are still here. They’re still walking down Spring Garden Road and across Halifax,” she says. “It’s not a dead kind of activity; it’s a living history, and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
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