Making their way inside the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia in Cherry Brook, 130 African Nova Scotian/Black students pass under an archway of purple balloons on the morning of Friday, Sept. 22. Nia Summit youth ambassadors clad in black shirts and purple lanyards pass out swag bags to each participant. Round tables across the room begin filling up. At one end, purple balloon pillars rise at the edges of a stage that neighbours a drum circle. The names of the 50-plus historic African Nova Scotian communities are painted on the wall behind the podium—communities like Africville, Shelburne, East Preston, Annapolis Royal, Cherry Brook, Halifax, Kentville, Springhill, North Preston and Maroon Hill.
The youth-led Nia Summit is named after the fifth principle—purpose—of the Nguzo Saba (Swahili for Seven Principles), a system of values created to support Africans from the Diaspora in connecting with traditional African worldviews that strengthen family, community and cultural heritage.
African Nova Scotian and Black students in grades 9 to 12 from across the province are here for Nia. What’s in the name? According to the summit program’s booklet, Nia “refers to the collective purpose of the Black community to uplift one another, and to build toward a future that benefits all Black people. For our Summit, Nia refers to the purpose of building that future by uplifting the voices of Black youth.”
This principle is further fleshed out in the summit’s theme: “For us by us for our peers: ‘Equal in dignity and rights: Anti-Black Racism from a youth perspective’”, and refers to the importance of youth sharing their experiences within the work of achieving an anti-racist, equitable and just society.
Organized in partnership with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, the Delmore Buddy Daye Learning Institute and the Black Cultural Centre, the Nia Summit is for youth, by youth.
Their voices are centred. They’re first on the stage.
Praise Babalola, 17, and Moriah Aladejebi, 14, emcee the day’s programming. Aladejebi says she got involved to see “all of the Black youth across Nova Scotia in one room together… to connect on our differences and our similarities [because] everyone has different experiences of being a Black youth in Nova Scotia.” Her goal for the day is to listen to everyone’s stories to “find out how negative stereotypes have affected Black youth in Nova Scotia and to show that we are an intelligent group of kids who have purpose in everything we do.”
Babalola recalls when he first arrived in Nova Scotia from Australia. His classmates made fun of him as the new kid in town. “My skin colour became something to look at,” Babalola says. “My friend took a picture of me because I was behind a black curtain and started the phrase, ‘Can you see Praise in the dark?’ [which] became really popular. Being so young, it really affected me.” Babalola says reflecting on these experiences has helped him refine a strong mentality that helps him challenge racism today.
A third youth ambassador, Nwadilioramma Azuka-Onwuka, 16, says the summit is an opportunity to see “how we as Black people can come together to make Nova Scotia a better place for ourselves, and [promote] the general well-being of Black youth. We as Black youth are the future of the Black community.”
The morning also includes an address from the NIA summit elder Louise Delisle on advocating against environmental racism in the Black community, and a screening of the 1992 Gemini-winning film, Speak it! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia, researched and directed by Nova Scotian filmmaker Sylvia D. Hamilton. The film centres on a group of Black students at a predominantly white Halifax high school, St. Pat’s, who established a cultural awareness youth group. The goal was to build pride and self-esteem using educational and cultural programs as a vehicle for combatting the racism they faced at school.
After the screening, there’s a panel discussion with members of the film’s original cast, including Shawn Grouse, Krista Brodie and Shingai Kyajeka. Cast members and two of the summit’s youth ambassadors field audience questions ranging from how to reclaim Caribbean-ism as a living heritage, how to handle internal discrimination in the Black community and what to do when experiencing direct racism while acknowledging the harmful stereotype of the “angry Black woman,” that can be internalized, preventing women from holding others accountable.
In the afternoon, Ibrahim Yaffa, 17, and Damini Awoyiga, 16, co-facilitate the IMANI: Protest Poetry workshop for all 130 students. Yaffa has been performing poetry since age 11. The workshop, Yaffa says, is “focused on influencing youth and getting them more integrated into poetry. We believe poetry is an amazing way for expression. It's an amazing outlet, and it's a way to show strength that's not utilized in the world.”
Yaffa defines protest poetry as a way to show strength in yourself and pour strength into your words. “We think that through protest poetry we can bring influence into the poetry scene and have more people involved.”
Both Yaffa and Awoyiga read their own work to ease students into the workshop. Yaffa says the more opportunities he has to perform his work, the more he embodies it. “It’s something I can share now,” he says, in order to show “the youth that are here that no matter our age and no matter the colour of our skin, there’s power in our words and the strength that we all hold.”
The afternoon is rounded out with two other breakout sessions: A dance workshop called Joy Through Movement, led by a collective of artists and educators called Roots of Creation; and a workshop on self-expression called Statements of Identity, with the group iMOVe.
Following these, Eve Wedderburn, 17, gives the summit’s keynote address. Wedderburn starts by acknowledging the news about the recent removal of the novel The Hate U Give from the approved school reading curriculum in Nova Scotia.The award-winning young adult novel centres on a Black teenager who struggles with trauma and identity after witnessing the police shoot and kill her friend. Though it has been a resource for Grade 8 students since 2018, the book has received complaints because it contains the N-word.
Wedderburn says the Nia Summit “is the perfect place to talk about the removal of a book that empowers, teaches and generates important discussions about issues like racial identity, anti-Black racism, police violence and so much more.”
Her keynote address also touches on the importance of youth putting themselves out there and getting involved.
“It's OK to be vulnerable, it's OK to talk about things that make you uncomfortable,” Wedderburn says. Every single person in this room has the intellectuality, the potential to make life-changing impacts on not just their own lives, but their communities and the world. And it's all about taking that first step.”
Now in her first year of medical sciences at Dalhousie University, Wedderburn was in the same classrooms as these students just six months ago. She tells the room about the importance of getting involved at school through student council groups, as she and many of the other youth ambassadors did.
Wedderburn suggests the audience watch films that discuss difficult topics like race, listen to protest poets like Damini Awoyiga and read books like The Hate U Give. “Regardless of how you inform yourself, I encourage you to challenge yourself, too, in your everyday lives—it doesn't have to be anything monumental—find a way to make those inequitable things in your life equitable. It's OK to be selfish and to see yourself succeed and to praise the things you do. I really do believe that knowledge is power… I look at everyone around me—you guys all have potential and the possibility to contribute to this world in this significant way… You’re already doing this by just being here today.
“Don't be afraid to use your voice, speak up, question things and to hold other people accountable because you guys have the power to actively seek change because you have a story to tell, a voice to be heard and a difference to make.”
To wrap up the day, Nia Summit youth ambassador Nathan Tesfazion takes the stage and explains the importance of ending the summit with a call to action: “It provides us youth with a sense of inspiration and also courage… bringing action… instead of waiting on others to act.”
Jayreece Whiley then performs a spoken-word poem, which includes the lines: