Halifax West High School student Habiba Cooper-Diallo is the recipient of the inaugural Bernice Carnegie Award.
The accolade, instituted to honour the Herb Carnegie Future Aces Foundation co-founder, was presented last week at the annual scholarship and citizenship awards ceremony.
Carnegie, who stepped down last year as the foundation’s executive director, was replaced by Queen’s University graduate, Tka Pinnock.
“Our board of directors created the award to honour Bernice’s lifelong commitment to supporting the foundation,” said Pinnock. “When we looked at Habiba’s body of work, there was no doubt that she stood out as the deserving candidate for this award.”
Cooper-Diallo, who graduates from high school in June, graciously accepted the honour.
“It tells me that the work I’m doing in the Canadian community is having a positive impact, and as someone who values community building through education and outreach, such an indication is really important to me,” she said. “The award also ties me to the legacy of Canadian greats like Herbert H. Carnegie himself who paved the way for young Blacks like myself. He faced an undue amount of racism as a Black hockey player in the 40s and 50s, and although racism thwarted his NHL prospects, his legacy flourishes in the Future Aces Award winners like myself.”
Named one of Canada’s “Top 20 Under 20” two years ago, the teenager raised eyebrows in 2010 when she stood up at a crowded education forum and asked former Toronto District School Board director of education, Dr. Chris Spence, if he had a plan to engage Black boys in her Grade Eight class at Arlington Middle School in the one month before school closed for the summer.
At her 16th birthday celebration in April 2012, the only gifts she requested were small donations for Women’s Health Organization International (WHOI) which she launched at her party. She raised almost $1,500 for online education and awareness.
The organization was inspired by Cooper-Diallo’s passionate interest in obstetric fistula, which is a severe medical condition in which a hole develops between either the rectum and vagina or the bladder and vagina after severe or failed childbirth in instances where adequate medical care in unavailable.
The young girl became aware of obstetric fistula while reading the Wall Street Journal story of Anafghat Ayouba. Given into marriage at age 11, Ayouba suffered a severe fistula at childbirth. She died six years ago in her native Niger from complications of an infection.
It’s estimated there are close to one million young women with the debilitating condition in Africa. Because of their severe incontinence and smell, many have been ostracized by their families and villages and live by themselves or with fellow fistula sufferers.
In 2012, Cooper-Diallo visited Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Fistula hospital, which was established in 1974. It’s the only medical institution of its kind in the world dedicated to females with obstetric fistula. The hospital provides free surgery to almost 2,500 girls and women each year.
After the visit with her mother and older sister, she decided she wanted to pursue obstetrics and gynaecology instead of law.
Cooper-Diallo is the daughter of historian and poet, Dr. Afua Cooper, who moved with her family to Nova Scotia two years ago to assume the role of James R. Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University.
The Herb Carnegie Foundation has given out $620,000 in scholarships since the national project was established 27 years ago. There were 290 scholarship applicants this year.