Friends, family, and sorority sisters from Kappa Psi Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc all came together to celebrate trailblazing activist, leader, and nurse Canary Savage Girardeau and the announcement of the Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Inntowner in downtown Madison on Oct. 24.
During the event, Girardeau spoke about her experiences as a nursing and college student, living on campus on Langdon St. and in the dorms, and her grassroots work in public health in Milwaukee.
Girardeau also talked about joining and maintaining her over 60-year-long membership within the AKA organization. She answered questions about her challenges and what sustained her throughout the limitations and restrictions she faced being a Black woman, mother of four, and wife working in the ’50s and ’60s and beyond.
Sisters of the AKA sorority also shared original photos and stories, with Girardeau interjecting jokingly saying, “See if you can find me” while reflecting on being the only Black student in UW-Madison’s 1953 nursing program.
Many of Wisconsin’s leaders were in attendance, as sorority members, like Frances Huntley-Cooper, Wisconsin’s first African American mayor, and Corinda Rainey-Moore, a long-time community organizer specializing in mental health, crisis management, and various other methods of civic engagement in Madison. While Girardeau is the inspiration behind the award, Barbara Nichols, the inaugural recipient of the 2023 Canary Savage Girardeau Award for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion award, shares many of the same leadership, activist, and community stories as she has journeyed through her own experiences in a nursing career that started in 1959, during a period in which many hospitals still followed segregation.
Nichols, the first African American president of both the Wisconsin Nursing Association and the American Nursing Association, accepted her award on Tuesday night in Cooper Hall from the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing.
Canary Savage Girardeau’s story also reflects aspects of African American history that are erased or lost as time goes on. Like many other Black women, her contributions to developing inclusive healthcare systems have gone largely unnoticed, even as she is currently working in new positions to better national healthcare practices. Girardeau’s younger (biological) sister, Cecilia Dade-Windfield, states, “At this stage in Canary’s life, she is still in the field of nursing, in a sense, as a project manager in Ward 8 in Washington D.C. She’s working with people who have deficiencies in health, high blood pressure, diabetes, and she is constantly writing reports.”
When speaking directly to Girardeau about her developing research from grassroots organizing, sorority sister and daughter, Gigi Girardeau, adds, “It’s important because you take your talents and you take what you know to a different level and you’re involved in a lot of grassroots projects, things that people wouldn’t touch.”
The work Girardeau continues to do was the ultimate theme of the event. When asked if she remembers the feelings of what motivated her to persevere throughout her career Girardeau states, “The feeling was the same feeling I had all my life … I want to be a nurse.”