Student anti-racism: A case study

Of the successes of Decolonial Higher Education efforts, much is owed to BAME student activists. The #WhyIsMyCurriculumWhite, #RhodesMustFall and #WhyIsntMyProfessorBlack movements were initiated by students (and our project here was directly inspired by former Leeds University Union Education officer (2015 – 2017) Melz Owusu).

In addition, as the recipients of higher education, and as those with lived experience of racism, BAME students are uniquely placed to input into these efforts. As Michelle Fine (2014) notes:

“the people who have experienced injustice have brilliant insight into injustices, the nature of injustices, the origins of injustice and the capillaries of injustice and possible solutions to injustices”

Fine. M. (2014). Youth Participatory Action Research. CUNY Graduate Centre, USA. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuXoKKXp6QM

It is important than to recognize the efforts of Sherry Iqbal here. Sherry is a long term student activist and former student of Leeds Beckett University. She has previously served as the SU’s BAME rep and is currently it’s Education Officer for 2018/19.

She has many notable achievements. These include the following:

  • Her and her comarade’s #MyRacistCampus campaign which garnered a big response around campus (some very critical). This has been singled out in NSS qualitative data as significantly increasing student satisfaction scores (by around 20%) however.
  • Initiating reading audited lists that staff or students can contribute to by naming their courses’ reading lists, online and anonymously. See here.
  • Developing an Ally Toolkit for staff and students to combat racism
  • Assessing and raising awareness of the implications of Prevent for student experiences, freedom of speech and belonging

Sherry’s other msot significant achievement relevant to higher education efforts might be the establishment of the BAME Ambassador network. The network consists of around 40 self-identifying BAME students and lists its current manifesto here. It strives for an intersectional understanding of injustices, aims to be mindful of students’ other commitments including reminding members not to participate if this conflicts with part-time work since currently positions are unpaid and in holding meetings remotely.

In a short space of time, the network has achieved significant anti-racist successes across the campus including:

  • Gaining representation at all academic and school committee levels for BAME students
  • Mandating that all admissions and recruitment staff go through unconscious bias training

Ongoing efforts include:

  • Pushing for changes to hardship, bursary and scholarship funds so that they are more accessible to BAME students (when current evidence suggests they are not),
  • Planning some fantastic workshops in 2020 including ones on colourism, colonialism’s impact today, on the hijab and intersectionality.
  • Pushing for cultural competency around campus – this is defined broadly to include calling for more culturally diverse foods, to havign culturally competent and BAME mental health support staff in the Student Wellbeing hub.
  • Pushing for funding to pay for campaign resources – and importantly – the time of these BAME students to do this work. It is worth noting the SU did previously fund on a part time basis a small wage for students working on liberation issues back in 2014. although this was controversially cut – a campaign some of us ran to stop this funding cut can be found here. What this shows, at least, is that there is precedent to fund this.

The challenges to our project at the university include that this the project has a very local remit (limited to our department and – at a push through this website – the discipline of psychology only), has made some changes that are arguably minor and has not had the extensive student involvement we would have liked (although student participation in our focus groups was instrumental to our efforts).

Sherry’s work is thus directly beneficial to our project but also to wider decolonial efforts in higher education as a model for how students and students unions can contribute and achieve a more anti-racist environment. In a short amont of time Sherry has achieved significant gains across the university, that are frankly larger and more impactful than ours. It seems befitting to consider how staff – ourselves included – can support and further these impressive efforts. One of the more immediate actions we will take is to support the Sherry’s funding bid for her BAME ambassador network.

~Glen Jankowski

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