Flourishing through diplomacy and creativity

Waterloo PhD candidate, Aaron Francis, soars to new heights with Vintage Black Canada project

By Valerie Vaz University Relations

With an interest in academia and activism, Aaron Francis, a PhD candidate in the Global Governance program at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, stands out as an example of flourishing in every chapter of his life.

The inspiration behind Francis’s academic journey can be traced back to a pivotal moment when he seized the opportunity to teach English in Taiwan - a decision that shaped his research interests. Keen on expanding his knowledge, he pursued Mandarin studies at East China Normal University in Shanghai, weaving a narrative that intertwines personal experiences with academic passion.

Today, Francis’s research seeks to understand the factors guiding the diplomatic decisions of nations in Latin America and the Caribbean regarding the recognition of Taiwanese sovereignty over that of the People’s Republic of China. 

Before stepping into his PhD research, Francis nurtured his interests and developed his leadership abilities through a career in political relations at the University of Waterloo. He also served as the s takeholder r elations m’anager for the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association and c’hair of the City of Kitchener’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee.

However, it’s his Vintage Black Canada initiative - that uses photos to document the transnational modern history of the African diaspora in Canada - that stands out. Vintage Black Canada was founded five years ago and has become a powerful force, not just in art but also in reshaping the narrative of Black Canadian history.

"When I first embarked on this journey with Vintage Black Canada five years ago, it was Black folks that spirited me along: Black media publications, Black gallerists, Black curators and Black creatives," he says. 

From notable venues like the Art Gallery of Ontario to television productions with the CBC and CityTV, Francis’s photos have reached large audiences across the nation.
"When it came to media outlets outside of my community, I certainly believe that my academic affiliation with Waterloo made a difference and helped reduce barriers to an extent. 

Looking back on his experience, Francis has advice for fellow students, "It is important to pace oneself particularly as a first-year student. Find your footing... find your passions and find ways to lean into them. One should seek to nourish their soul as much if not more than their intellect."

Francis’s career highlight includes teaching the Pan African Global Politics course at Waterloo, marking a milestone in his academic journey. Beyond the classroom, the Vintage Black Canada project reached new heights in 2023, with a photo-essay in Maclean’s and a short documentary produced with Digital Sabbath called Temple of Love, set to premiere in 2024. The documentary explores the story of Erroll Starr, an often forgotten but pioneering Black Canadian musician from the early 1980s.

Looking ahead, Francis envisions a future where he continues to teach at Waterloo, contributing to the flourishing of Black narratives in academic spaces. With a photobook in the works, his story continues to flourish in the UWaterloo community.

The University of Waterloo will co-host the 2024 Scarborough Charter Inter-Institutional Forum on May 9 and 10 in partnership with Wilfrid Laurier University. This national symposium brings together senior administration, faculty, staff, students and members of the Black community. The forum’s theme, Bridging Black: Building Connections for Black Flourishing, aims to bridge the gaps in learning and action and build stronger connections between the different stakeholders in higher education.