DePaul University Newsline > Sections > Blue Demon Spotlight > Ava Francis builds community, connection for Black students

Ava Francis builds community, connection for Black students

Program manager brings vitality, expanded programming to Black Cultural Center

Ava Francis sits in the Black Cultural Center at DePaul University
Ava Francis, program manager of the Black Cultural Center, has cultivated a space for Black students at DePaul to "come together, be themselves and know that they are safe." (DePaul University/Alex Soares)
Since joining DePaul in 2022, Ava Francis has used her role as program manager of the university’s Black Cultural Center to build community and connection for Black students. Eighteen months after Francis first stepped foot in the door, the Black Cultural Center is lively, with colorful art, posters and flags adorning the walls, and snacks, music and a TV at the ready for students looking to relax outside of classes or find some time to chat with Francis.

“When I arrived, I was really focused on figuring out what does community look like for Black students at DePaul and how I could develop it further. I wanted to let our Black students know that they had their own space where they could come together, be themselves and know that they were safe. That was really important to me,” Francis says.

In year one, Francis hosted faculty and staff chats, so students would learn more about resources or mentors on DePaul’s campus. She created Halloween events, held Black History Month celebrations and ran open houses. Commuter students began popping in to hang out. She drew on her prior experience in the Texas A&M University Office for Diversity but was particularly excited to have a physical center to run at DePaul — and more opportunities to engage with students one-on-one.

Francis’ hard work paid off, says Jené Ashley Colvin, DePaul Ministry Coordinator for Christian and Interfaith Engagement.

“Ava’s energy and passion are followed up by brilliant execution. She’s also willing to learn, meet people where they are and say what needs to be said to advocate for students,” Colvin says.

Building on a foundation of community

Francis has added additional educational programs and planned even bigger center activities. These have included a Meet Black DePaul series of events to foster belonging among Black students, faculty and staff. She’s also hosted DePaul’s first Black Hair Expo. The event provides Black DePaul students with the opportunity to receive hair styling, haircare tips and Black haircare products free of charge from local, Black-owned haircare brands, businesses and professionals.

Similarly to Men of Color hosted by the Office of Multicultural Student Success​, Francis started Aya United, a peer support group for individuals to share their experiences of Black womanhood. And, in partnership with the Office of Religious Diversity and Pastoral Care, the Sankofa Black Student Formation Program dives into the diverse aspects of Black identity, empowers Black students to lead and live well and provides skills for the development of spiritual and holistic wellness.

Junior Leeann Gladney is a community engagement assistant in the Black Cultural Center and works closely with Francis.

“Ava is someone who is dedicated to the Black students here at DePaul,” says Gladney, a psychology major with a concentration in industrial-organizational psychology. “Outside of the BCC, she works alongside Sankofa​ and the Black Student Union. She has been a safe space for many students. We can go to her for advice, questions, letter of recommendations or just to talk and giggle. The Black Cultural Center feels like the epicenter for the Black community on campus.”

Joining the Black Equity Initiative Committee

This academic year, Francis has brought her passion for supporting DePaul’s Black students to Designing DePaul’s Black Equity Initiative committee. The group is committed to transforming the experiences of Black students, faculty and staff on campus. Francis believes Designing DePaul’s BEI is a strong starting point to formalize equity efforts at the university, from funding to building multicultural spaces.

“It’s our committee’s goal to make changes that will benefit this demographic of people at DePaul,” she says. “And when I say ‘starting point’, this doesn’t mean people weren’t making progress before. Most committee members have been at DePaul much longer than I have, making big changes and doing incredible things to help our Black students, staff and faculty. Designing DePaul asks, ‘What other steps can we take?’”

The BEI committee is working on their Phase One Action Plan. The current objective is to address the immediate needs of Black students, faculty and staff through exploratory research, stakeholder engagement and the establishment of a data-driven framework for sustained improvement.

DePaul’s retention efforts are top of mind, too. “If you want to retain Black students and want to have a percentage of Black students that is even close to comparable to what the city or nation has, then you have to invest in staff and faculty who will make the students feel comfortable,” she emphasizes. “There will always be changes, whether in the world or at the institution, which affect the way we operate. But many initiatives we're thinking of — ways we want to support our community — will benefit and help DePaul represent the ideal in a couple years. We’re taking steps in the right direction.”

The BEI is an important part of Designing DePaul​, a collaborative effort that includes all university partners and communities working together to plan DePaul’s future. Learn more by visiting the Designing DePaul Black Equity Initiative page.