“To Understand Cornel West, then, is to understand the fact that he is rooted in Black life.” These words were part of George Yankee’s eloquent introduction of Dr. Cornel West, the Current Class of 1943 Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University, on the occasion of Duquesne University’s Office of Multicultural Affairs’ Fourth Annual Unity Banquet and Scholarship Benefit.
The banquet is held annually in celebration and recognition of six students who have achieved excellence in academics, have been exemplary members of the Duquesne University community, and have given of their time, talent and energies as participants in their surrounding communities. West was the keynote speaker for this year’s event.
Yancy, professor of philosophy at Duquesne University and friend of West’s, in his intro continues to describe West as “…rooted in Black life; not transcendent…but profoundly engaged in the social, immersed in the concrete, embedded in the mundane, and inextricably linked to the mix of it all.” His rootedness in Black life, along with his clear love of his race, and desire to see Blacks as a people elevated; was made profoundly apparent as he utilized the first 12 minutes of his time acknowledging notable African-American academic leaders in the audience; and extending his heartfelt thanks to every individual who was involved in bringing him in for this occasion.
Kathy Mayle, RN, MNEd, MBA, director of Health Care Diversity and assistant professor, School of Nursing served as the program’s mistress of ceremonies.
The program was held April 16, in the Duquesne University Power Center Ballroom, overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline.
West did not disappoint the capacity house of 350 as well as the 100 who were watching via simulcast satellite, in his oratory as he addressed the topic of, ‘The importance of Courageous Leadership.”
In his own inimitable fashion, he was boldly passionate, engaging and captivating. His charge to the students in their quest to become courageous leaders was to first and foremost begin by asking themselves, “who am I?
He stated “It takes courage to ask that question and be open for the answer, to be brave enough to look at your own humanism with a naked eye.” He went on to essentially offer that “if you do not have the courage to deal with yourself, to look into the eye of your own personal demons, to ward them off and understand that in living you must face dying as daily reality; you will not be able to step up courageously enough to lead the masses.” He continued his instruction to the students with these recommendations. He told them, “Keep in contact with your integrity, understand that as cracked vessels we should love our crooked neighbors with our own crooked heart and by all means be the fruit you want to generate.”
The six students honored were Lauree Akinola, a senior from Warwick, Rhode Island, graduating in May with a degree in sociology and criminal justice; Yamilette S. Ayala, a freshman, international relations major from Bethlehem, Pa; Emily Karas, a graduate student from Imperial, Pa. She graduated magna cum laude with an undergraduate degree in elementary and early childhood education; Katherine Nguyen, a fourth year pharmacy major from Charleston, S.C.; Demetri Odom a sophomore from Ambridge, Pa., majoring in marketing and information systems management; and Imani Stutely from College Park, Md, graduating in May from the A. J. Palumbo School of Business, majoring in marketing.
The audience viewed a video montage of each student who shared information on their goals and aspirations; and their view on what it is to exercise courageous leadership.
Some of their definitions were “Courageous leadership is having the strength to do something that you know is right, when there may not be any support,” “Staying true to your commitment and to your dream,” and “Courageous leadership is being willing to move past barriers, and moving forward till the job is done.”
Rahman Hart, Ph.D., director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said the goal of the event was to honor the students for all they’ve done; and to combine the work of the students, with the message of Dr. West, in hopes that it would be a catalyst for change.
“We would hope that there would be resounding motivation for folks and that they respond to what they’ve seen and heard by figuring out how they can make a greater contribution to wherever they are in order to make it better,” he said.
“It is in the performance of the students whom we honor that helps make Duquesne a more inclusive environment. It is, however, a task of the faculty and staff as well to work to make Duquesne an even more welcoming environment for students and surrounding community—it is not enough to have an affinity for diversity and inclusion, said Hart, but we all must be ‘intentional’ in carrying through the spirit of the core message of this event.”