One month ago today, on September 24, 2018, I was honoured with an Alumni Horizon Award from the University of Alberta. The prestigious award was a surprise as I was nominated by the Dean of Arts and is a once-in-a-lifetime award meant to provide recognition for outstanding community work and positive contributions to society.
While I am on a research and writing sabbatical in Morocco, I requested that my family, friends and colleagues still attend the ceremony as my mother would be accepting the award on my behalf – and they did. Some of my closest family members, friends and people I am blessed to work with spent the day just thinking about me and loving me. For someone with a history of mental illness and negative self-talk, it is unbelievable to me that folks would do that while I was 10,000km away – some even taking the day off work! It was an incredible day of jubilant celebration and support from people of all walks of life who I am blessed to know. And that could be felt all the way in a little village north of Marrakech where I am currently staying.
I have been humbled by the award and want to reflect on it a bit. I genuinely feel that I share it with every amazing person I have been blessed to do community work with: from my committee with Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council to the advisory crew with the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life, from the amazing fundraising team with the Young Indigenous Circle of Leadership Cree Women’s Camp to every interfaith leader and community organizer I have been blessed to meet. My colleagues in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta, along with fellow researchers at the Tessellate Institute and the Institute for Religious and Socio-Political Studies all share this honour with me.
I know that these awards are not always what they seem and I was (and remain) hesitant about accepting it from an institution I have benefited from but am ultimately concerned about in terms of its exploitation of folks with excessive tuition rates and underpaid intellectual labour, and especially for its often tokenistic/abusive treatment of Indigenous and Black folks I know directly. I always hesitate when a large neoliberal institution values what I am doing because it might mean that I am fitting a convenient narrative about brokering social change in ways that are merely superficial and don’t get at the deep structural violence implicit in the system itself. I am terrified of the implications of that and of being complicit in the systems that benefit me above others for no other reason than the social positionings I was born into. I am mindful of my privilege as a white convert to Islam in being recognized and amplified when so many of my merited siblings and kin of colour are not.
Ultimately, this award has never been about me. It is about the work and about the people I am privileged to share dignified spaces with as a result of that work. I can’t think of many people I have met and worked with who haven’t influenced me or taught me wisdoms beyond even what they imagine they do. This is our award and I pray that it serves to remind other people about the types of work we can do when we come together. Above all, I wish that it will inspire other people to build more spaces of social change and justice – ones that are unapologetically critical in all the right ways. And for the person who feels like they want to suck back the very last dregs of despair before seeking oblivion, it is my desire that this kind of recognition makes its way to you and serves as a source of hope – as those I have served are a continuous source of hope for me.
Read Nakita’s award feature in New Trail Alumni Magazine or an article profiling her work from the Faculty of Arts.