In Conversation with Leeds University Union’s Liberation Coordinators
By Lily Gordon Brown
The past fortnight has witnessed civilian protests proliferate across the globe. The demonstrations, led largely by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, are a reprisal to the unlawful police murder of George Floyd in the US state of Minnesota, on 25 May 2020. Transcending far beyond the US, the movement is calling for an immediate end to relentless police brutality, a subversion of the state-led socioeconomic limits placed on Black communities, and to create a world free of anti-Blackness: ‘where every Black person has the social, economic and political power to thrive.’ (https://blacklivesmatter.com/what-we-believe/)
Since the unlawful police killing of Trayvon Martin and acquittal of officer George Zimmerman in 2012, the BLM movement, which now has 30 global chapters, has been actively endeavouring to dismantle systemic racism across the globe. In recent years, the campaign has grown in swathes, in tandem with the newest iteration of state-led racism: mass incarceration. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/opinion/sunday/michelle-alexander-new-jim-crow.html)
As the movement occupies the streets, the headlines and social media platforms, it is imperative that we scrutinise where British institutions are abjectly failing to induce the change the movement demands. In this process of self-reflection, our educational spaces frequently emerge as hotbeds of systemic racism; as spaces which fail to provide equality of life and opportunity, whilst upholding discriminatory structures that actively work against Black communities.
Looking specifically at the University of Leeds, I had the opportunity to speak with the Union’s Liberation Coordinators (LibCos): Safyan Rahman, Hannah Copsey, Laila Fletcher and Ana-Sofia Velasco. LibCo Leo Adams has also played a significant role in the groundwork of their campaign, though was unavailable for direct comments.
Despite the increasingly global nature of BLM movement, Leeds University and Union (LUU) have respectively failed to publish a direct response or portrayal of solidarity with the university’s Black community, aside from a couple of Instagram posts, which Ana-Sofia defined as merely an act of ‘performative allyship’. As Hannah later outlined, the university’s lack of response is particularly disappointing when situated alongside other Higher Education (HE) institutions, who have shown support in a number of ways.
As a result of this deafening silence, the LibCos have worked tirelessly to publish an extensive call for action, which details a number of demands on how the university can create conditions whereby Black students don’t just survive, but thrive.
The campaign pledges by the LibCos is centred around the university’s student-executive structure: Equality & Diversity, Welfare, Activities, Community, Education, Union Affairs and International. This provides a sensible and transparent framework for the university to work from, some of which I will detail in the following paragraphs. As well as reading this extensive interview, I encourage you to visit the detailed pledges, cited at the end of the article.
Equality & Diversity
Can you provide a bit of background on your proposition for the University to sign up to and abide by the Race Equality Charter (REC)?
Ana-Sofia: The REC provides a framework for direct action when it comes to progressing on the matters of race within Higher Education. Once a university signs up, they have to strive toward a Bronze award within 3 years: entailing a certain level of commitment to tackling racial inequality within the institution. 62 universities are currently signed up, whilst 14 have achieved a bronze award. Leeds is currently signed up to the Race at Work scheme, but we feel this is inadequate in the sense that it fails to address issues which are unique in the realms of academia.
Could you delve deeper into the notion of culturally competent welfare services? And where is the University currently falling short when it comes to student welfare, particularly for Black student communities?
Hannah: Culturally competent services takes into account the varying stigmas which exist in different communities. When we were looking into support for Black students, there is a lot of therapy systems available which directly deal with the trauma of racial abuse against Black students, a system which Leeds university fails to confront. Currently, if a student suffers a hate crime, their first port of call is their personal tutor. This has entailed a number of issues, particularly with regard to consistency. If a tutor has never been exposed to the issues their student might be detailing, the student will struggle to fully express their situation, and trust the system they have been placed into. We need to look for inspiration from organisations such as the Black Health Initiative, which is Leeds-based, whilst ensuring more Black practitioners are in place.
We also believe that a helpline for those dealing with racial abuse needs to be introduced, such as the Black Thrive and Switchboard (LGBTQIA+ helpline). This needs an active presence in university, advertisement is currently non-existent. It is imperative that students have immediate access to these frameworks.
In discussing the notions and necessities of diversifying the student body in university course, you mention ‘tokenism’, could you detail this sentiment, and how the university perpetuate it.
Laila: What you would hear from Black students on campus is that they are the only, or one of 2-3, students on their course. It feels as if you are there to tick a box, to question whether you got into university on your own merits. This is extremely confidence-lowering. As far as tokenism, it begs the question ‘why are these things in place’, ‘I am not the only Black person who applied for this course’. We need to eliminate these feelings of alienation. The power dynamics of the room are hugely affected by this, one student is absorbing everything on behalf of their community, engendering an uneven distribution of communication. Universities need to incite integration and connection.
Your pledge notes that the EHRC 2019 report illustrated that students are the most common perpetrators of racially motivated harassments, but that university intervention is limited by the Equality Act of 2010, how should this be tackled?
Laila: The LUU needs to be at the centre of this. Though they currently have a zero-tolerance to hate crimes on campus, racial abuse and microaggressions can be a daily occurrence for students. The university should work with the Union to strive for intolerance, repercussions and mediation. It cannot be on the student to find that support system for themselves.
This pledge focuses on the university’s rapport with the West Yorkshire Police (WYP) when it comes to dealing with violent perpetrators of racism. Could you detail the current relationship, and how this necessitates modification?
Safyan: Often times when there is an instance of a racial hate crime or sexual harassment, the university refer you to the WYP. Research has shown that historically and statistically, this can initiate a process of re-traumatisation. This pledge is three-fold: to acknowledge the complicity of the WYP in institutional racism (pertain to the idea that police brutality is also real in Britain). It also attempts to encourage the LUU to work upon its own support strategy, to tackle hate crimes on campus and take responsibility for keep students safe. Centring the safety of Black students adequately and robustly.
The pledge also focuses on reviewing monuments across campus and in the city, which are associated with Britain’s violent past?
Safyan: The statue of Sir Robert Peel in Woodhouse More has been central to the conversation around BLM discourse in Leeds. We need to assess how we are reproducing the history of slavery and racism into the daily lived experiences of black students, which act as a daily reminder of Britain’s racist history. The point of this pledge is that Leeds is just as big a part of that self-reflection as any other city in the UK.
Ana-Sofia: A statue is a status symbol. There are other ways we can remember history without glorifying someone on a raised platform, or on the name of a building. We ask that the senior staff conduct an extensive review of the university’s complicity in this, whilst lobbying the council to do the same across the city.
Could you detail the relationship and distinctions between the BAME Awarding Gap and the Black Awarding Gap?
Safyan: The BAME Attainment Gap explores the disparities between the final degree of attainment between white students and students of colour. But it often homogenises all students of colour into one group. When you look at the nuances between different ethnic groups, Black students face more extreme disparities: less likely to attain a First degree, and more likely to leave university before completion.
We have thus asked the university to use the NUS guidelines for tackling the Black Attainment Gap, which involves publicly assessing the university’s approach through 7 questions. This is about exploring how the Black Attainment Gap has widened over the past few years. By assessing this publicly, the university can be held more accountable. Processes are currently inaccessible to students, how can we expect Black students to be reassured they are being listened to, when the processes take place behind closed doors.
Since the ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’ campaign was launched a couple of years back, has the university made any headway or progression?
Safyan: Decolonisation is much bigger than the curriculum. We need to look at the university’s approach to external companies, mental health and dealing with hate crimes. Decolonisation is at the heart of all these pledges. Liberation isn’t liberation without decolonisation. A colonised university system upholds the racial hierarchy between students.
The Union currently puts on a lot of events. Student execs and volunteer officers are great, and have been wide-ranging, but they do not imbue institutional change. The senior leadership have done very little itself, instead using these student-led initiatives to act as a smokescreen. They have some ‘access programmes’ which bring in more BAME and Black students into the university fold but fails to alter the conditions the students are entering.
Hannah: In looking at decolonising the curriculum, I can draw upon a particular experience in the School of English. Post-colonial modules are not fully accessible until the end of third year (when they are still optional). I made efforts to bring this module forward to first year. Though this has been achieved, it took two years of persistent campaigning. The senior leadership of the university put up various barriers. We stand in solidarity with student voices who are already campaigning for change, but we call on the university to stop censoring and limiting student voices.
What about STEM subjects? How do we decolonise beyond humanities and social sciences?
Safyan: This requires looking at the ethnic make-up of staff, lecturers and seminar groups themselves. It also requires looking into the contributions to STEM subjects, contributions of Black and BAME academics. STEM subjects often tend to reproduce the narrative that people of colour haven’t played a role in shaping the world.
Although the university have stated their commitment to the importance of staff and student diversity, has this materialised into a reality?
Safyan: In the year 2018-19, Black staff made up a mere 2.5% of governing bodies in HE throughout England. Our university is complicit in that. Ultimately, the decisions are in the hands of this small few. Decisions that are meant to be made in the spirit of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ and many of the buzzwords the university likes to use; they are not being processed with the perspectives of Black voices. The institution is thus not conditioned to do well by Black students. It is just as much a matter of trust as efficiency and effectiveness.
You discuss the imperative for the university to require anti-racism in the universities it is partnered with. Could you highlight some of the specificities of this?
Ana: Tackling university partnerships with institutions in the US, and their rapport with the police, is imperative. We need to review how far these sister institutions go in protecting their students from the racist institutions of the police. This is also the case with the partnership with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for example, who send their students to stay on land which is defined as under illegal occupation by international law. In building relationships with these partner universities, we must review and see in which ways it reflects upon Leeds university itself.
How do you think students can help beyond signing your petition and open letter?
Hannah: From a personal perspective, I understand that looking at the institution as a whole can be overwhelming. Rather, students should look at their school, their course, to look back on what you have learnt and where there are gaps. Your voice as a student is really important: if your course asks for module feedback, this is an opportunity to critically review how you have been taught. This provides tangible evidence of dissatisfaction for the university to work from, whether that be a limited curriculum or racism within your school. This makes the process of passing policy far easier.
Laila: Keep reading, keep sharing knowledge. Hold the LUU and the university accountable. We also need to look into student survey’s themselves, which often fail to ask students the right questions. If a restaurant brought you bad main, but gave you a really good dessert, they then ask you if you enjoyed your dessert, you can never tell them ‘the main was shit.’ Try to create change, speak up, do not let this die- that is a tool that institutions rely on. They make a minor change to placate you, then hope that you forget about it.
Is there an issue of apathy and dormancy on the part of the student body?
Safyan: The Union thrives off student apathy. Because the average student tends to be so apathetic toward the union, they can’t be held accountable in a widespread way. What I would say: get political. Do the work. Make your work public. To be blunt, the only way you can be anti-racist is to put yourself on the line in the defence of your Black peers and peers of colour. Ultimately, people are most powerful in collective numbers, that is a force the Union cannot reckon with.
Ana: This moves beyond political issues. There is a tendency for students to see this as a Black issue, or an issue for students of colour. It is key that instead of just empathising with these people but realising we too have an emotional stake in furthering the cause of anti-racism. It is also a personal change. Look into yourselves. We all have a role in this.
Hannah: The student execs cannot be scapegoats for this. This campaign is not criticising what they haven’t done, but what the institution has failed to do in hearing their voices, and their relentless campaigns.
Open Letter to Vice Chancellor and CEO: https://docs.google.com/document/d/16i6EmHtavGxly8A92sR96iWsWdO2ZFdtfshAuqvfkC4/edit?fbclid=IwAR2h5tqc2mJHAG1_yiACPmYIUDgXGuvMxbWIR_D_BMwKX4C41w8BZi8KlC8
Open Letter for students to sign