Turning Life Into An Art Gallery with Grace Darko

Hearing about all of the different groups and activities in which Grace Darko is involved in is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Also known as Akua, the current senior has adopted many titles on campus — she is the social chair of the African Student Union, co-president of Melanated and president of Afrobeat. She balances these titles in addition to involvement with Sisters of the Round Table, Thought Into Action (TIA), the ALANA Cultural Center and a West African dance group she practices with every Saturday in Syracuse. On top of all of that, she paints, designs clothing and crochets.

Darko is concentrating in Africana and Latin American studies and minoring in global public health. Holistic wellness is incredibly important to her, and Darko centers her studies and career plans around the belief that one’s health and wellbeing extends beyond one’s physical condition. 

“My intention is to come to the industry with the context that I have. So with different kinds of cultural studies and then also with public health. I have a huge emphasis in holistic health, which includes stuff like being financially secure or stuff like having safe housing, you know … and it’s from the perspective of, ‘Yeah, this is part of somebody’s whole health, being able to be economically stable’ and stuff like that,” she said.

From a young age, Darko felt that it was her personal responsibility to educate her peers about diversity and social justice. 

“I went to a boarding school in Massachusetts, and they were very unprepared for this kind of stuff. … I was basically doing the job of a DEI coordinator while also having to go to class and play sports and stuff. … I felt like I owed it to somebody. I don’t know if it was that I owed it to myself or that I owed it to the kind of community that I was in to basically tell people why their thoughts impact the world or how their thoughts impact the world. I think part of it was me trying to come to terms with my identity as a Black person in America who also has heritage outside of America.”

While her efforts to educate her peers were not always received well, Darko says that, since graduating, many students from her former high school have reached out to her and apologized for the way they reacted to the topics she tried to broach. 

“I intellectualized a lot of my life, and then that ended up coming out of like, ‘Oh, well, now that I have all this information, I might as well share it with other people and hope that they receive that as well.’ Most of them didn’t receive it [well]. … But I also did get a lot of texts, after graduation for the most part … like, ‘Oh my gosh, I remember you always used to speak about this thing and we hated you for it. And now I understand what you’re talking about.” 

When Darko first arrived at Colgate, she was burned out from trying to educate peers and focused on her involvement in groups like the Black Student Union and African Student Union. After a while, however, she felt like she was ignoring other issues. 

“And then at Colgate … it was interesting because I was more focused on making advancements within my communities that I identified with directly … and I kind of ignored everything else … until people were reminding me of stuff that happened in high school and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I used to be like a force.’ … [It was like] the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man where at one point his uncle dies and he basically stops caring about people. And everybody’s dying around him and he’s just like, ‘Well, none of my business’ — that was the beginning of my Colgate experience. Until all of a sudden, I was like, ‘I still care about this. Let me do something about it.’ And that was kind of just what happened from there,” she said.

Darko was involved in multiple aspects of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Week celebration. She performed a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem, at the opening ceremony and attended multiple student leader dinners with speakers like Diane Ciccone and Eddie Moore Jr. 

Darko’s conversations with Moore, who organized the White Privilege Conference she attended in her senior year of high school, hinged on her struggles to be compensated fairly for her intellectual and emotional labor. 

“I talked to him about [the conference], but also basically what it’s like being a student leader at a very young age … like how do you balance that as a student who’s taking on all of this work? Literally work that you could be getting paid for, but for whatever reason are not, and now you have to graduate and be an adult full time. And it’s like, what do you do with that? … It was definitely insightful.” 

While Darko is sure of her commitment to social justice and equity, it is still a difficult path to take. 

“It’s a constant balance of like, this thing that is essential to my being is also so burdening, like me feeling like I owe it to myself to create a space, at the very least if not for me than for someone who comes after me. … And so it can be very frustrating, but it’s also very rewarding at the same time.” 

Darko has been very involved in events hosted by the ALANA Cultural Center throughout her time at Colgate and has become very close with Director Esther Rosbrook. Darko displayed multiple pieces in the ALANA Multicultural Fashion Show last year after Rosbrook’s encouragement (and sewing lessons) and has since launched a design brand. 

“I’ve worked with Esther in a billion different ways. … And so she knew about my designs … and so then she was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you should totally put your pieces in the show.’ … Yeah, and that was also still really early into me starting to design because I started in like 2020. … And it was an amazing thing to have, especially because everybody was so supportive, like everyone hypes you up and Esther is always dancing and cheering people up.”

Currently, Darko runs a business under the brand Sankofa Akua. Her products can be found on Instagram at @akua_designs.sa and @sankofa_beauty.sa. 

“[It is] a wellness brand for clean and afrocentric beauty, fashion and lifestyle products to increase accessibility and connections for the modern African Diaspora,”  she explains.

Artistic expression is incredibly important to Darko, and she tries to incorporate this into her everyday life. 

“I realized that I turn the spaces that I’m in into an art gallery. … And I like to think that I sometimes allow for spaces to feel like that, even when it’s not my physical room. Like I walk into a room as if it was my art gallery.”