The sounds of singing, music, laughter and joy echoed through the hallways of the Education Centre as Black students and staff from across the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) came together for Boldly Belonging: the Black Brilliance Student Conference on Wednesday, November 30.

Antonio Michael Downing speaks to students at the Black Brilliance Conference in front of a banner that reads "Black Brilliance".

Antonio Michael Downing, WRDSB’s Black Artist-in-Residence, opened the event with a keynote address, focused on a Black Brilliance Toolkit. Downing explained this toolkit, made up of values, skills and knowledge, includes:

  • Self-Esteem
  • Knowing Yourself, Your Story and Black History
  • Excellence
  • Cultivating a Sense of Joy, of Beauty and of Justice

“I want you to carry that and cultivate that, and add things to it, because you’re going to be in situations I’m not in,” said Downing. “The work of being Black and powerful is never done, so make sure you’ve got your toolkit on you.”

Khalil Derman poses outside the Education Centre wearing a plaid jacket, smiling towards the camera.

For Khalil Derman, a student in his fifth year at Glenview Park Secondary School (GPSS), Downing’s words landed with special meaning. Having read Downing’s book, Saga Boy, he had an extra layer of knowledge about the author and musical artist as he listened to his words of wisdom on building a Black Brilliance toolkit.

“I actually wrote an essay on it for English class. I compared it to the movie Moonlight, and the struggles with identity,” said Derman. “Today was really good.”

This marks the second time that Derman has attended a Black Brilliance Conference, with the last in-person event being in 2019. His perspective has shifted from that of a Grade 9 to a fifth year student, but he still took away helpful lessons and made joyful memories.

“I love coming back here,” said Derman. “Each time I’ve had a little bit of a different experience, but it’s always been good.”

Following lunch, students broke off into more focused sessions on a range of topics offered in response to what students asked for, from Bold Black Boys to Black Girl Magic. Derman took part in the Black and On a Team breakout room, where he was able to talk freely with those who have similar lived experiences of being Black and on a sports team. For him, it was a rare chance to be able to gather together with other Black students and staff to learn and share.

“It’s just something I don’t get to see very often ,” said Derman.

Jehan Cameron stands in the middle of the hallway at the Education Centre smiling towards the camera, wearing a light grey jacket.

Jehan Cameron, a Grade 11 student at Huron Heights Secondary School (HHSS) echoed similar feelings about the opportunity to gather together with so many other Black students and staff from across the WRDSB.

“It was really inspiring,” said Cameron. “I’ve never really been in a room with that many people like me.”

Cameron explained that the open, welcoming and supportive energy in the room made her feel at ease as soon as she arrived.

“It was nice to see a big community of people,” said Cameron. “It made me feel better about being here, too.”

One aspect of Downing’s Black Brilliance Toolkit stood out the most for Cameron: Self-Esteem.

“I found that really powerful,” said Cameron. “I think I’ll carry that with me, to be more secure in myself.”

It was Cameron’s first time at the Black Brilliance Conference, and she got even more than she bargained for.

“I wanted to make more connections with Black people and learn more about my culture and my history and be proud of myself,” said Cameron. “I think everyone should come and experience this.”

Antonio Michael Downing plays guitar between two drummers who are both looking towards Antonio as they play together.

Chris Ashley is the head of the history department at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate and Vocational School (KCI) and highlighted the student-directed nature of the entire Black Brilliance Conference.

“There’s a thirst for knowledge,” said Ashley. “The students really brought forth a will to understand what’s going on around them.”

Ashley, who has attended Black Brilliance Conferences in the past, saw a number of returning students, demonstrating the value of what they receive by taking part. He explained that this offers a safe space for students to share about their experiences and how they impacted them with people who get it.

“Students have the freedom to say some of the things that they hold in,” said Ashley. “I wish I could have had this experience when I was in high school.”

Teneile Warren looks towards the camera and smiles as they stand in front of a banner that reads "Black Brilliance".

Teneile Warren, an Equity and Inclusion officer with the WRDSB, led the planning for this year’s Black Brilliance Conference. Warren shared how the event was intentionally designed with student needs in mind.

“We really curated the spaces based on what students shared with us about the ways in which they feel marginalized in school,” said Warren. “We really listened to what they wanted to talk about.”

As they reflected on what they hope students involved will take from this experience, Warren focused on the positive emotions.

“Honestly, just joy. The laughter, and the smiling, and the gathering and the being – that’s what I want them to take,” said Warren. “They built a community here, and all we had to do was create the space for them to connect with each other and they did the rest.”

Cameron summed up the day from her perspective as the event came to a close.

“It’s Black Brilliance and it’s good to see.”