‘DePaul has made me who I am today’: Award ceremony focuses on Black excellence


Cordell Bradley

Cory Barnes, coordinator of the Black Cultural Center, and Min. Jené Ashley Colvin, Sankofa advisor and ministry coordinator for Christian and Interfaith Engagement embrace each other.

The inaugural Black Excellence Awards were held at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 12, at the Cortelyou Commons, where students, staff and faculty received awards for their outstanding commitment to bettering the climate of the university through service, activism and innovation.

The Sankofa Black Student Formation Program hosted a black-tie celebration featuring commemorative speeches, Afrocentric themed décor and hors d’oeuvres in a buffet style amongst a room of glitz and glam. This was not just any award ceremony; this event was a celebration of the wealth of Black excellence, the first ever at DePaul to recognize the academic and personal accomplishments of students, faculty and alumni. 

The event opened with words from Audre Lorde’s poem “Coal,” affirming Black pride with, “I am Black because I come from the earth’s inside/Take my word for jewel in your open light.”

Sankofa student leader and senior Bakange Ajak’s opening remarks explained why students should celebrate Black joy and excellence. 

“As Lorde says in her poem, we come from the earth’s inside,” Ajak said. “We have been rumbling at the core of this university and in this world, and now is the time to celebrate our accomplishments.”  

 “We asked the question of what dreams we haven’t realized yet and wanted to happen. This event was one of those key priorities,” said staff leader Min. Jene Ashley Colvin. Colvin conceived the event with Darryl Arrington, collaborator of the Office of Multicultural Student Success and Cory Barnes, staff leader of the Sankofa Black Student Formation Program. 

“When we were developing the event, I knew it was important to invite our community to celebrate people in ways we might not think of ourselves,” Colvin said.

The goal for the event was not to narrow down the field of awardees, but expand the love and visibility for people in and connected to the Black community. The nomination form was an open category stating “Excellence in…” where the DePaul community filled in the blank. At the ceremony, there were sixteen different categories of excellence created.

Each award recipient received a Sankofa-themed certificate and pendant. Recipients of the Community Angel, Community Heartbeat and the Community Drumbeat awards received a special engraved glass plaque for their achievements in extraordinary service within the community.

Sankofa gave the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program special recognition for training DePaul faculty and students to learn with students inside Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, and Cook County Jail on Chicago’s Southwest Side. 

There are more than 2.19 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, according to World Population Review. This program increases the opportunities for men and women, inviting them to take leadership in addressing crime, justice and other issues of social concern.

Political science professor Christina Rivers’ Inside-Out class received the Excellence in Scholarship, Perseverance and Solidarity award.

Sankofa is about connecting people that have no idea that each other exists. 

“People who are incarcerated are invisible so much of the time,” Colvin said. “They needed to know we celebrate them as part of our community, even if they aren’t physically on campus.”

The Inaugural Black Excellence Awards was not only about the celebration of Blackness, but also a reminder of the importance of intercommunal solidarity. Sankofa presented the Excellence in Solidarity award for consistent and measurable solidarity with the Black community at DePaul to non-Black awardees: Tepeyac, an organization, providing a safe space for Latinx students, Ann Russo, Courtney James and Peter Wild Crea, with special acknowledgement to Georgianna Torres Reyes, associate vice president of Mission and Ministry, who has a deep commitment to the success of Sankofa.

Passion and commitment are necessary values when seeking to serve Black people. The Sankofa team paid tribute to staff leader Barnes, stating that his passion for elevating Black voices has helped so many people in the room find strength. Barnes started at DePaul in 2017 and will be moving on to another university. 

An overcast of emotions and tears came over Colvin as she read words of encouragement and well wishes.

“Thank you for being our friend, colleague, teacher, mentor, cheerleader and ride or die,” she said. “We send you with love. We send you with gratitude. We send you with reflection to you, which you have helped us build here. We send you with confidence in what you will continue to build.” 

Ending the speech with a promise to take care of the legacy he is leaving behind. A teary-eyed Barnes embraced the entire Sankofa team as he received a standing ovation.

“DePaul has made me who I am today,” Barnes said in his acceptance speech. “Coming from the city colleges of Chicago as an academic advisor, I didn’t have the opportunity or know what it meant to work at a mission-driven institution. Being here for five years at DePaul, I know what it means to say Take Care DePaul.”

DePaul is guided by the Vincentian mission, upholding the dignity of all members of its diverse, multi-faith and inclusive community. The inaugural Black Excellence Awards are a testament to that mission and the relentless pursuit of innovation and creative thinking that embodies its students, staff, faculty and alumni of African descent. 

Sankofa started as a leadership retreat and has expanded to a full year of programming on its 10th anniversary in 2023.