This fall, American University’s Black Alumni Alliance (BAA) selected three undergraduate students to receive the 2021 BAA Book Award, a scholarship that recognizes recipients for their accomplishments by helping them purchase books for their classes throughout the academic year. With coordination from the AU Center for Diversity and Inclusion, recipients are eligible to continue to receive the awards each year until graduation.
“It’s a great opportunity for our alumni to be directly connected with our students,” said Qui-Juan Jones, Kogod/BSBA '09, vice chair of the BAA. “It shows that we are able to really give back and support in ways that may not seem like much but are very meaningful for the students. That is what the BAA is here to do.”
And the scholarship has served this purpose, according to its recipients. Johneé Wilson, SIS/BA '24, said that the award is “monumental in opening the tapestry of opportunities for students who identify as a part of some marginalized group.”
Hailing from a high school in Virginia that was once a prison, located on the same grounds Susan B. Anthony once marched for women’s suffrage, Wilson has a knack for activism. They started a charity organization in 2019 called Million Mats DC, which donates yoga mats to schools to encourage mindfulness programs. As a Black and queer-identifying first generation student, Wilson said that they find it interesting that the BAA award is based on textbooks and literature.
“Historically, during the transatlantic slave trade, when Black people were transported from West Africa to the United States and crossed these borders, we weren’t allowed to read,” Wilson said. “We were foreclosed the opportunity to engage with books and literature. And so, to receive this award is so important to me, thinking about it in a historical framework, because it ultimately edifies and fosters learning through literacy.”
The $500 book award is an endowed scholarship, and recipients are chosen by BAA members based on applicant essays.
“The three candidates that were selected were just above and beyond in terms of their involvement on campus and what their plans are at AU and post-AU,” Jones said.
For instance, book award recipient Kayla Kelly, SPA/BA '23, started a mutual aid organization called Heal Da Homies, which aims to distribute food and other resources to marginalized groups.
“Doing this community work takes labor out of you,” Kelly said. “It also takes finances. Most of the mutual aid work that I have done has been either fundraised or out of my own pocket, which made it a little bit tougher to balance being a student and being a community worker. This award has made it very accessible to get my books and fund my own education.”
Kelly, a political science major, said that they were inspired to start their organization by their grandparents who immigrated to Harford, Connecticut from Jamaica. Raised in a predominantly Black neighborhood, Kelly said that their grandparents helped start a community garden.
“That’s where I got my ideas of mutual aid, based on those experiences growing,” Kelly said, referring to raising crops in their shared garden. “Age for me isn’t a barrier. I don’t have to wait until I’m 30 to make changes in my own community. That work can start right now, and it actually makes a difference.”
The third recipient of the book award, Imani Vice, SPA/BA '21, said that she is grateful to have the BAA as a resource, especially having served as chair of the Black Caucus for the last two years.
“They are hugely successful, and they're just so willing to give back,” Vice said. “It really inspires me, honestly, to not only be successful, but hopefully when I do become successful, to give back in a sense to those who are in a similar position as me when they get to AU.”
All three of the BAA book award recipients plan to attend law school upon graduation from AU in pursuit of careers as attorneys.
“I think I have a lot of potential to not only give back to BAA, but DC in general,” said Vice, who wants to study juvenile law. “I really see the Black community within DC that definitely is being ostracized, and we're seeing gentrification just being pushed aside and forgotten in many ways.”
Vice said that attending American University has allowed her to “create, sustain, and value” her voice, and those of her Black peers.
“I’ve definitely enjoyed going into spaces where I feel celebrated,” Vice said, “and that is within the Black community, within places that have been fostered by BAA.”
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