How can we be accommodating of neurodiversity in dance?

This is an interview with Professor of Organisational Psychology, Almuth McDowall, that appeared in One Dance Magazine UK.  

Jessica Lowe spoke to former classical ballet dancer, Almuth McDowall, Professor of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck. Almuth specialises in diversity and inclusion, occupational health psychology and professional competence at work. 

In your experience and work, how might a neurodiverse dancer be experiencing dance differently to someone who is ‘neurotypical’?  

Can I start by clarifying what we mean by ‘neurodiversity’? The term originates from the work of hugely influential sociologist Judy Singer. Her writing argued to frame all human functioning as biodiversity, including how we think, feel and act. There are conditions (or neurominorities, or neurotypes) that make people different, such as autism, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or mental health issues. Judy’s work encouraged everyone to look at strengths, not just deficits. I suspect that many dancers are ADHD-ers – hands up who was sent to dance school because they would not sit still? A dancer who has a different neurotype might be particularly good at experiencing the world in a sensory way – hearing music differently or more poignantly, having a real need to express through movement and not through words. 

From your own work, can you give some examples of how the dance sector can be thinking about, and accommodating neurodiversity? 

A good place to start is your own observations – how do you observe that dancers are doing their best work? What are good practices that help everyone? One of the features of a neurodivergent mind (although I don’t like this word too much!) is great sensory sensitivity. A cluttered, noisy studio where music mixes with voices can be distracting. A calm environment with good lighting benefits everyone. Regular breaks are important, too, as is giving people the opportunity to take solitary time out – their social batteries might be empty.  

Our research shows that there is a big gap between what people think neurodiversity is, and what it means in practice. Take the example of dyslexia. Most think that it’s about reading and writing difficulties. We find common challenges are forgetting things, self-organisation and managing stress levels. So, a holistic approach to dance and education is vital. We should ensure that dance educators and leaders have some knowledge and know when to consult professionals as appropriate. 

What advice would you give to those seeking to make their dance business, school, or organisation more inclusive and accessible for neurodiverse dance students or professionals? Where might somebody start? 

  • Engage a specialist for introductory training.  
  • Don’t make assumptions about why someone is not performing – forgetting a rehearsal time might not mean they don’t want to do it; perhaps their mind finds it hard to remember. 
  • Put genuine inclusion at the heart of your practice. What benefits neurodiverse dancers benefits everyone. 
  • Ensure that you canvass what people’s needs are and listen attentively. Commit to action plans and put these into practice. 
  • Remember your legal obligations – the Equality Act 2010 says that when someone reports a protected characteristic (and several neurodiverse conditions are recognized disabilities) then the environment must adapt to the individual. Not the other way around. 

In your experience, what might be some simple approaches that we as a sector could adopt to better accommodate people’s individual differences?  

Greater schedule flexibility, both formally and informally, paired with clear communication and considered scheduling of work. Often, rehearsal times are changed at short notice, and casting decisions announced with little lead time. Our research has shown that this needs careful consideration to make the sector more inclusive. 

What kinds of support are available for dancers who suspect they might be neurodiverse? 

It can be difficult as an adult to get a diagnosis, as waiting lists on the NHS are long. Think about a private diagnosis – might your employer or school even pay for this? An alternative consideration could be a cognitive assessment to profile your strengths and weaknesses. This is done by a psychologist. They can recommend onward referrals, and specialist providers will link in with government schemes such as ‘Access to Work’ (see link below). A few sessions with a specialist workplace strategy coach can be beneficial.  

I am less keen on some of the self-diagnostic tools out there (although we are developing a better one!) and please all be cautious with non-professional mental health advice on TikTok! 

Further information 

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Wonder inside and outside the classroom: an international student’s first month in London

Emi Nguyen came to the UK from Vietnam to study a Master’s in Culinary Innovation Management at Birkbeck. Here she talks about her discoveries during her first month in the capital 

The beginning of something new
It’s my fourth week living and studying in London and sometimes it still feels a bit surreal. I have visited London dozens of times before but it’s completely different to live here and be a part of the innovative current flowing through this multicultural city. I’m truly grateful for choosing this journey, especially when I have supportive staff and friends at Birkbeck going through this with me. 

A welcoming orientation
I must be honest, though I have been regularly travelling abroad from my home country of Vietnam since the age of 16, this time I felt quite anxious leaving my nest. A million questions popped up in my head during the twelve hour flight. Will I fit in? What’s it like being a student in the UK? Is being a Master’s student different to being an undergraduate student? But all of those worries were eased on the orientation day. Yes: orientation is important! I got to meet all my course mates who share a passion for culinary innovation with me. The staff at Birkbeck were dedicated, kind and helpful throughout the orientation and since then too. Before orientation I didn’t know how best to construct an academic paragraph, or how to make the most of the library. The whole event was not just useful, but also heartwarming and reassuring; Birkbeck gave us the kindest welcome. 

When learning feels magical
What’s better than a warm welcome? Two warm welcomes! As a Master’s student in Culinary Management, I have contact with both Birkbeck academics and teachers from Le Cordon Bleu. If Birkbeck staff support me to aim for and achieve a high academic standard, the chefs and lecturers at Le Cordon Bleu open the door for me to explore the colourful culinary world. It feels like a dream come true to explore my passion for food in this way. Walking into Le Cordon Bleu for the first time, I felt like a child visiting Disneyland. Everything is so dynamic, lively and full of wonders, and my lessons continue to feel this way. What a magical place! 

The surprises of the capital
I knew that London offered a lot to do outside of classes. For an art enthusiast like me, there are plenty of artistic activities and exhibitions to dive into outside of my studies. I had the opportunity to look at Cezanne’s paintings at Tate Modern and it was an extremely emotional experience for me. All that I have watched and learned from books about this legendary artist and his work… was suddenly there in front of me! And I was looking at his brush strokes and vivid colours in a crowded room, with others also sharing the experience! What a time to be in London.  

Final words for the first month
Change can be scary. Moving to a new city, starting a new course, and following your passion are not always easy things to do. But learning to embrace fear and diving in can lead to a world of wonders. 

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An international student’s life changing experience of living, studying and interning in a law firm in London

Eucharia Chikodi Egemole came to the UK from Nigeria to study LLM General Law at Birkbeck. Here she shares her experience so far, including highlights, tips and things she wished she knew before coming to the UK.  

Eucharia looks into the camera. Behind her the Thames is visible and in the distance, Tower Bridge.

Exploring London

When I decided to do a Master’s in Law, I chose to do so in the UK because of the quality of education and also because the legal system of my home country, Nigeria, was largely developed from the English legal system. What better way than learning the law directly from the source? 

I applied to Birkbeck because, amongst other qualities, it was an evening university that allowed me the freedom to intern at a law firm during the days to gain legal experience. After being offered a place, I was swiftly issued with my Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS). Compared to the experiences my friends had when they applied to other universities, getting my CAS from Birkbeck was a very smooth experience.  Below is my account of how it’s all gone so far – hopefully it can be helpful for any other international students!  

The visa process
For international students wishing to study in the UK and in need of a visa to do so, time is of the essence. It is advisable to apply for a visa at least three months before the course commencement date. This allows enough time for you to get the visa, plan for any delays and prepare for travel. It’s also essential to submit all required documents as not doing so could lead to visa delay or denial.  

Moving to London
I arrived in London on 6th October 2022, excited to be in the great city and ready for new experiences. It was my first time in the city and I’d never left my country before. My accommodation is in Chiswick, an area of West London, and I found it with the help of a fellow student who I met in a Facebook page created for Birkbeck international students called the ’Pre-departure Lounge for BBK 2022 International’. The page was very helpful as it gave information on how to collect the Biometric Residence Permit (BRP), open a bank account, the times and dates of study events, and a lot of other helpful information for international students.  

Living in London
Living in London so far has been quite amazing. I thought I would feel homesick, but that is far from the case. London is so multicultural that even though it is miles away from your country, the chances are that you could meet someone from your background on the street or even bump into someone that speaks your language while strolling in the park. It is a home away from home.

Eucharia stood on the concourse of a station with a sign reading St Pancras behind her.

About to ride the tube for the first time at London St Pancras

Here are some highlights for me:  

  • Sightseeing: there are so many famous landmarks and places to visit, like London Bridge, Tower Bridge, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace or any of the museums and galleries.  
  • Food: London has an exceptional offering of different cuisines from all over the world including African, Chinese, Italian, and not forgetting English dishes too! I love good food and any time I am about to have a good multicultural food experience, I borrow the biblical verse and tell my soul to “eat and be merry”.  
  • Transport: the public transport system of tubes and buses is commendable. The network is designed so that a person can connect to anywhere across the city quickly and with ease.  

While there are opinions that London is quite an expensive city to live in, I have found a way to manage my expenses and still have a good time. I have Railcard and an Oyster card that offer me discounts on transport; I try to do my shopping in stores that are having clearance sales; and I also prepare many meals at home. I am having an amazing time in London on a minimal budget.  

Things I wish I knew before I travelled
If I were to prepare to travel all over again, I would not have packed and paid for extra luggage of foodstuffs. I could have got the same items in any African shop in London (there are many!) and at affordable rates too, saving myself the trouble, time, and money.  

The native clothes and attire I brought with me also ended up as decoration in my suitcase, because I don’t wear them. If I knew, I wouldn’t have packed them as they mostly don’t suit any occasion here in London.  

Eucharia looking into the camera with the London Eye visible just behind her

At the London Eye

Another big thing is timekeeping. For an African like me, an hour or two past the agreed time is still within time. But that is not so in London. An appointment fixed for a particular time starts at that time and not a minute later.  

And finally, in the UK, people queue up for services. In my home country, there are hardly any queues as a person takes their turn depending on how sharp or smart they are, or if they can pay their way.  

My experience at Birkbeck so far
The learning experience at Birkbeck has been a highlight. Courses are taught by class discussions and lectures, and I have found this to be a great way for me to assimilate and retain information. It has also honed my communication skills.  

The staff have been amazing, especially those working for the Student Advice Service. They are always available to listen to students, decipher their problems, and offer lasting solutions, which I have benefitted from. 

Another highlight has been interacting with my fellow students. Chatting with them and hearing about their diverse cultures and backgrounds is fascinating and adds to the whole experience.   

Conclusion
Living in London for me has been a life-changing experience. Meeting and interacting with people from diverse cultures has contributed to my personal growth and development – I now understand more about the world and myself. I had the challenge of coming to a new country and meeting new people, and I rebuilt myself to do this. Now, I am all I was before, but I have also acquired the confidence of a Londoner. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.  

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How studying in my 40s gave me much more than new knowledge and skills

Fabien Littel did an MSc in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck. Here, in a blog post that originally appeared on his personal site in October, he talks about his experience studying whilst in his forties. 

Fabien sitting in front of an open laptop looking at the screen with a dog sitting on his lap.

It’s only been two weeks since I handed in my dissertation, the final step in completing my MSc in Organisational Psychology, at the end of a life-changing 2-year adventure. It’s only been two weeks, and it will be another good few weeks before I get my final results and know if I’ve been awarded the Masters. Still, I already know just how much I have learned and how I developed a new perspective on work, and life in general, which no grade won’t take away. I have often used the term “life-changing” to refer to this experience, very mindful of how cliché and over-hyped it may come across. It is however merely a fact: through these studies, my life has changed. I am now embarking on an academic path I would have only dreamt of a few years ago, and most importantly have developed the courage and confidence to understand, accept and express my individual beliefs and views on the world around me, and to move away from the comfort and convenience of general blind acceptance.

From jigsaw puzzles to research journals
Looking back at September 2020, why did I suddenly decide to get back to university? My light-hearted answer to this question is usually that, during the first few months of covid-19 lockdowns, I had developed a dangerous addiction to jigsaw puzzles, and needed to find something else to occupy my free time. This was only partly a joke; I had genuinely built a large collection of jigsaw puzzles, was on them before, after – and sometimes during – work

(I’d argue that it helped me focus my mind…), and they frequently invited themselves in my dreams too. Aside from that, I was increasingly interested in what motivates people to work, what makes them feel good about their job, and what might they feel more conflicted about. The pandemic played a part in this too, as companies had to take responsibility for their employees in a way they never had before, and many employees had opportunities to contribute, in one way or another, to the response to this crisis, and gain a new sense of purpose in the work they were doing. I started reading on the topic, and gradually felt that I wanted to develop some more in-depth foundational knowledge to shape my own thinking. From there on, it became a relatively quick process, and probably just a matter of days until I enrolled onto my MSc. Organisational Psychology quickly appeared like the most appropriate choice for my area of interest, and to build on my first Masters in HR by approaching work from a different angle. And the choice of university was quite straightforward too, once I had narrowed down the options for part time online learning. Birkbeck, which I ended up joining, stood out with its mission of supporting lifelong learning, designing classes for people who study alongside work, and for its longstanding expertise in organisational psychology – a choice I never regretted, quite the opposite.

Learning about yourself while learning about others
The nature of the course and what we were studying meant that it enabled us not only to learn about careers and organisational behaviours of others, but also to reflect on our own. And this started quite early on, as we looked at career development, or employee motivation. A large part of the learning was about reading required lists of weekly research journals and additional material in support of essays and other work. And we weren’t short of additional recommendations from lecturers.

One of the first ones I took up was to read Herminia Ibarra’s book Working Identity. It provides a perspective on the sense of identity attached to people’s careers, and importantly how a change of direction and transition in one’s career can help reinvent this identity, or how Ibarra calls it, “becoming yourself”. She describes a process consisting of experimentations and sensemaking to define your new self, and a long process of transition made up of small steps, taking place through the course of several years. The book is illustrated with examples which bring to life these experiments, and steps people have taken to lay the foundations of a new career, and indeed reinvent themselves. It was a fascinating read, which I did just as I was beginning to envisage what a different second half of my career might look like, therefore couldn’t help seeing it both as a complement to the course, and a self-development book for myself. From that perspective, it made a great difference to read it when I did; while I was at first concerned about this perspective on career transition as taking years, requiring deep-level self-reflection and experimentation (especially when feeling a certain sense of urgency for change), it helped me take a more measured and long term view on a process which I am still only just probably half way through, and helped me come to terms with the fact that you shouldn’t just expect to wake up one day with a clear view of where your career, and life more broadly, should go, but that it requires time and effort.

“Resistance is fertile”
From the very start of the MSc, we were told that one the main skills we should develop was our critical thinking, and that we needed to find our voice. At first, this might have seemed like a contradiction as we were also told to base our writing and arguments on existing research and scholar literature – so how can we be critical, and find our own voice, if we can only repeat what has been said before? It turns out we were vastly underestimating the spectrum of ideas and perspectives already out there, and still learning the art of taking existing views, organising them and building on them in a way that becomes deeply personal to you (an art I am still working on…). The most energising and stimulating side of the reading we were doing was to read papers with opposing views and paradigms, particularly those highlighting the shortcomings and challenges with what had been seen and applied as most mainstream theories for decades. This came through particularly in a couple of modules, including one looking at selection and assessment, led by an inspiring lecturer who was committed to providing insights on not only the widely accepted theories and processes, but also the challenges of racism and social injustice which came with them, including issues such as racial bias in cognitive ability testing, and perpetuation of social inequalities via practices mostly developed through the lens of white western men.

Her teaching took inspiration from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, particularly in rejecting the “banking” view of education, whereby someone in position of power imparts the knowledge they are the custodian of, to others in a position of inferiority who are expected to receive and accumulate this knowledge. Instead, it advocates for co-creation of knowledge, which is something we experienced through this teaching. Of course, some concepts and ideas were presented and shared with us, however through discussions opened up by the lecturer, there was a clear acknowledgement and respect of everybody’s individual experiences, and how much these experiences contributed towards everyone’s learning, and provided much richer perspectives.

I was fortunate to also get the opportunity to join this lecturer, together with a couple of other students, in a collective writing project, which I hope to share more about in due course, and was for us an amazing way to bring co-creation to life, and constructively share and bring together our lived experiences and beliefs, in an environment of solidarity and support.

Becoming a truer version of myself
University, and studying in general, is a time for exploring, exchanging, and experimenting with ideas, developing your own thoughts and beliefs, your hopes for the world. Too often, for young people, this risks getting quashed when confronted with the reality of the corporate world. One of the benefits of experiencing this after twenty or so years working, observing the dynamics of corporations, getting satisfaction from achieving things and bearing the scars of burnout, is that it enables you to pause and revisit those twenty years with a little bit of distance, and some new perspectives. What it did for me, was to bring out views on the world of work, and systemic injustice or harmful phenomena, as well as hope for meaningful and fundamental change, which I would have briefly thought about and kept well hidden in the past. It gave me permission to think these ideas through, resist the sense of inevitability I had felt up until that point. Learning, reading and discussing new concepts such as neoliberalism, social constructionism, social Darwinism, moral disengagement, and many more, which wouldn’t have meant much two years ago, put names on what had only been until then passing thoughts, and opened up the door for even greater exploration, and knowledge that not only did others share similar thoughts, some had actually spent much of their careers defining and studying them.

Practically, unearthing and embracing these views throughout the MSc, together with conducting my research project on matters related to moral reasoning at work, contributed to me questioning in more depth my own contribution to the world through my work. This led to my decision to leave the defence industry (which I have talked about in an earlier article), and to find a way to continue on this academic path. “Following your dreams / passions” is an easy piece of advice often given, however remains a very privileged thing to do, when the reality of daily life and cost of living hits, and prevents many from exploring a path of their choosing. And so I do feel privileged that I was able to find arrangements I could put in place to enable me to follow this path further through starting a full-time PhD.

I am only a couple of weeks into my PhD with the University of Southampton, grateful, energised and excited about what the next three years will enable me to learn and do. And I remain very mindful that I wouldn’t have reached this point if it hadn’t been for the opportunity to conduct part-time studies online while working. Both the practicality of what Birkbeck had to offer, and the commitment and dedication of its staff to deliver a truly transformative learning experience, despite some of the challenges they may have faced in trying to safeguard this level of quality and acceptable conditions for themselves, is to be applauded. At times when careers are stretching longer and many people will look to transition part-way, enabling access to higher education to the working population should be seen for the powerful and genuinely life-changing impact it can have.

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Ten traditional Diwali dishes to celebrate the festival of lights

Aditya Mukherjee, BA Global Politics and International Relations student, shares his recommendations for what to eat during the Diwali celebrations this week. 

One of the most popular festivals in India, celebrated all over the world, Diwali, or Deepavali as it is known, is a festival of light that brings family and friends together. Taking place in November (based on the lunar calendar so dates change every year), it is the time of the year that many look forward to, as it brings families together. It is the time when households are lit with ‘diyas’ (traditional Indian lamps) in the evening to mark the victory of good over evil, and to welcome the Gods home. 

In addition, it is also the time when people purchase new clothes, home items, electronics, and cars. More importantly, gifts are given to loved ones.  

Food is an important aspect of the celebration, and many types of delicious dishes are made to celebrate every evening. Let’s discover some of the well-known foods that are almost always prepared during this festival (caution – most of them are desserts and deep fried, so if you have a sweet tooth, you are in for some cravings!) 

1. Jalebi  

“If you haven’t tried jalebi, you have not lived.” (Quote by an ancient Indian scholar) Deep fried spiral shaped batter covered in sugar syrup. This is not for the faint hearted. 

Jalebi

2. Gagar-ka-Halwa (carrot halwa) 

A delicious pudding made form slow cooked carrots simmered in milk along with a lot of jaggery (organic sweetener from sugarcane) and sugar. It usually has cardamom, cashews and raisins for aroma and flavour. 

Gagar-ka-Halwa

3. Gulab jamun (rose water berry) 

Another sweet confectionary and a must have in any Indian celebration. Milk and cheese solids dough heated over a long time, later fried and soaked in sugar syrup. 

Gulab Jamun

4. Kheer (rice pudding) 

Rice slowly cooked with milk, sugar, saffron and cardamom, creates the classic Indian pudding known as kheer. Cooked only on special occasions, it is a must have at a Diwali party. Nuts and dried fruit are also added for stimulating the palate. 

Kheer

5. Burfi (fudge)  

Burfi’s are fudge, that can come in various textures and consistencies depending on the ingredients and spices used. Naturally, Indian burfis come in a pantheon of colors and flavors so there is always something for everyone when it comes to this desert. My all-time favourite is mango burfi and the regular or natural flavor (doodh) milk burfi. 

Mango barfi

Moving on to the savories, the contenders are: – 

6. Samosas  

A staple that is synonymous with Indian identity, samosas are triangular savoury pastries that are irresistible because they are crispy, yummy, spicy and, naturally a must have during celebratory events. Quite literally, a fried or baked pastry with a savoury filling such as a spiced potato mash with onions, lentils and peas. They are often eaten with condiments like mint and tamarind chutney (usually a choice of one sweet and once spicy chutney) for those who aspire to have the authentic experience. 

Samo

Samosa

7. Chakli (spirals) 

A very popular Indian savory, these are made of rice and/or gram flower, that is of course deep fried along with spices and lentils, thus available in many different variations and flavours. Although commonly available and eaten, this is one of those snacks that is a favourite and finds its way onto menus for parties and celebrations very easily. 

Chakli

8. Pakora (spiced fritter) 

Having several variations , pakoras are quintessential, easy to make and, have a lot of variety in flavours depending on the vegetables used that are coated in a gram flour batter, and totally deep-fried to the heart’s content. A mix of vegetables and spices may be added to diversify the palate but the most common are pieces of cauliflower, eggplant (aubergine), potatoes, and mixed vegetables. To enjoy, these are eaten with condiments, such as a mint or mango chutney on the side to fire up your taste buds. 

Pakora

9. Puri – bhaji 

A traditional Indian dish, puri meaning deep fried rounds of flour, and bhaji meaning a potato vegetable, eaten together is an enjoyable and recognizable dish eaten during celebrations and auspicious occasions. Also known as a comfort food, the spices used in the bhaji vary from mustard seeds, onions, turmeric, coriander leaves, salt and pepper, which all  blend to create the perfect mouthwatering vegetable dish. 

Puri – bhaji

10. Papdi chat  

Papdi (deep fried dough) along with potato mash, chickpeas, onions, chutneys, tomatoes and spices, served with spices covered in yoghurt is known as papdi chat. As vibrant in its colour, as it is in its flavour, it is an enjoyable combination of sweet, savory, spices, crunchy and smooth textures to be enjoyed during the festive season. 

Papdi-chaat

Now don’t get me wrong, not everything is about eating!  

Diwali is also an occasion where the art of ‘rangoli’ is made, usually in front of the main door of a house, or perhaps in a prominent place (can be indoors and outdoors as well) in order to welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth. ‘Rangoli’ are traditional Indian designs made by using coloured powders, that are attentively applied on the surface using all but 3 fingers to moderate the flow and fall of the colored powder to create exquisite designs, and are often accompanied with flowers and diyas. Some designs are passed down from generation to generation and it is definitely one of the most unique aspects of Diwali. 

Rangoli

Evenings are marked with ‘pooja’ (prayers offered to the Gods), and thanks are given for all the good fortunes in the past and wishes made for the future. Later the night sky is lit up with firecrackers. So, out with the old and in with the new. This is a festival of lights, joy and togetherness. Wishing everyone a very Happy Diwali. 

 

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Black History Month and beyond: in conversation with Dr William Ackah

Senior Lecturer in Black and Community Geographies in the Department of Geography, Dr William Ackah’s academic specialism is around issues of religion and politics across the African diaspora. Here, we find out more about his work.  

Where did your interest in Black diaspora and community development start?
My family came from Ghana to Britain in the 1960’s, and I was born in Walthamstow, East London – so my childhood took place in fairly multicultural setting. I went to Liverpool for university, and after that, went to live in Haiti for a year, to teach English. It was what I experienced there that had a profound impact on the shaping of my political and academic interests.  

Haiti was the first independent Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere, the place where African descendents had thrown off the shackles of white supremacy. It was a place of inspiration but also a place of pain and suffering. I witnessed oppression and poverty based on years of corrupt governance, international neglect and the crazed absurdity that Haiti was paying France reparations.  Seeing what was happening to my fellow African brothers and sisters made me recognise that when I came back to the UK I would want to undertake work to assist in restoring the legacies and improving the lived experiences of people of the African diaspora.  

How did you begin to do that?  
Back in the UK, I initially pursued a more academic vocation, studying for a Master’s in Pan-Africanism, which was all about linking the experiences of Black communities across the globe and looking at their relationships, their common points and differences. And that was the kind of work I then pursued in some shape or another, whilst living in the North West of England for several years.  

I worked in a Black Community College, teaching students largely from Black communities in Liverpool, who had been failed by the school system and lacked confidence in their academic ability. It was really rewarding work. I taught them Black history and Black studies and saw how it helped build their self-esteem and confidence. I saw how in turn, that enabled many of them to get into Higher Education spaces – something that up until that point, many of them had felt wasn’t accessible to them. 

After several years doing this, I moved into higher education, teaching Race Equality Studies at what’s now known as Edge Hill University. All the while, I was doing my PhD doctoral work in Government. Once that was complete, I came to Birkbeck, teaching about Community Development. It was similar work to what I’d always done: all about uplifting marginalised communities, encouraging thought about people whose stories and experiences get ignored and how they can be empowered to improve their own lives, to challenge unfair systems, and fight for equality and justice. That’s at the heart of what I do for Birkbeck, as the programme director for Community Development and Public Policy.  

What else has influenced your work?  
While in the USA in 2009, on a sabbatical, I interacted with some African American Scholars, including Drew Smith, a Professor of Urban Politics, looking at the impact of religion and politics on Black communities. We became good friends and found our interests overlapped and fed each other in very interesting ways. So, we formed, along with Rothney Tshaka from South Africa, the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. This initiative brings together scholars of African descent with faith-based leaders, to think about how spiritual and religious connections can enable people to make a difference to improve the lives of people of African descent.  

Then in 2016/17, I was a Fulbright Research Scholar, again in the US. I was looking at the city of Pittsburgh, urban revistalisation, and the impact that gentrification has on African American congregations and communities there. I’m currently writing that research up, then working on a broader book project that explores the idea of Black space. I make the argument that Black space matters, and that African descended people need our own geographical, cultural and spiritual spaces to resist patterns of erasure, of racism, of gentrification; patterns that have denied us space and in doing so, denied us the opportunity to be who we want to be. 

What are you doing to help create Black space? 
A lot of my work for both Birkbeck and the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (TRRR) involves community building. With the TRRR, we hold international conferences, two of which have been hosted by Birkbeck, exploring African diaspora and faith. We also produce academic texts on various themes such as culture and spirituality across Africa and the African diaspora, Black churches and contesting multiculturalism, and most recently racialised healthcare in the context of Covid-19. 

Community building is an important aspect of my academic and personal practice. During Covid, working with a group of Black Christians, we started an online space called ‘BlakPak’. It’s a two-pronged initiative. First, we interview prominent people in the Black community in Britain who have something to share with the wider community. It’s called BlakPak as a play on the word, backpack: what’s in your BlakPak? What’s your historical experience and understanding of life? What is it that you’ve drawn on and learnt that you can share with the wider community? We’ve had speakers like Margaret Busby, one of the first Black publishers in Britain, and Gus John, a leading Black academic and activist.  

The second prong is an international dimension that we call ‘Critical Conversations’, where we bring together people from Britain with people from the US, the Caribbean and from the continent to have conversations around issues that we think are impacting us as a community globally. These might be about health, criminal justice systems, the state of Black womanhood and so on. The whole thing is targeted at ordinary people, the idea is to create a repository of Black wisdom, in the hope it can contribute to uplifting communities.   

For me, it’s a win if people access this information, then go away and, in their sphere, think ‘let me go and make a difference’. Raising awareness and disseminating wisdom and conversations from community elders and experts is so important, because it can result in people taking tangible action.  

 More Information:

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Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students treated to a welcome reception

international students seated in a hall

Students from dozens of countries around the world were treated to a welcome reception at Birkbeck’s main campus earlier this month. The event offered the new students, who are part of Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students, an excellent opportunity to meet and interact with their peers and other members of the College community.

The reception also gave the students an opportunity to hear from the organising team for the College’s One World Festival- a programme of free events which celebrate Birkbeck’s diverse, international culture- and the programme of extracurricular activities planned for the 2022/23 academic year. Colleagues from Academic Schools and Central Services were also on hand to warmly welcome the new international students.

students in lecture theatre

Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Professor Kevin Ibeh said, “The reception offered an excellent informal occasion to welcome international students who have joined the College’s global family as we count down to the kick-off of our long-awaited bicentenary celebrations. I heartily congratulate these new students on their admission to Birkbeck and would like to assure them of our collective commitment to availing them of excellent learning experience and great memories.”

Another highlight of the Welcome reception was an informative presentation on culture shock led by Counselling Service Manager, Aura Rico. This session shared practical tips on how international students might best navigate cultural challenges and opportunities associated with their new international environment.

Many of the attendees commented on the “best part of the event”- an interactive networking session which closed the day.

A video of welcome remarks by Professor Ibeh and other Birkbeck staff can be viewed here.

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What is Diwali and how is it celebrated?

With Diwali 2022 taking place this week, from Monday 24 to Friday 28 October, Kshitij Sinha, Research Intern at Birkbeck’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratory, shares what Diwali means to him. 

Kshitij Sinha

Kshitij Sinha

Diwali is an eagerly anticipated and joyous festival in many Asian countries like India, Malaysia, Mauritius, Myanmar, and Nepal. Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit terms ‘dipa’, which means ‘light, candle, or that which burns, glows, and illuminates’, and ‘vali’, which means ‘an array, row, continuous line, series’.  

The festival of lights, as it is known, brings joy and illumination into the lives of Indian families. It commemorates Lord Rama, one of the Hindu Gods, returning to his kingdom of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. Diwali is a five-day festival that marks the beginning of the Hindu New Year. During this time, you will see the jubilant life of Indian families as you walk through houses decorated with diyas, beautiful rangolis at the doors, and children on the streets with crackers. You can also see balcony lights strung in flats from the road.  

I remember my first Diwali celebration in London two years ago. My entire family was dressed in brightly coloured clothing. We lit up diyas in every room and lit ‘phool-jharis’ (sparklers), a little firecracker that releases a shower of sparks from the balcony. On the auspicious day of Diwali, it is one of the most important rituals done in many Indian households. It is often done in the evening to welcome the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi into the home and bless the occupants.  

A combination of diyas and candles laid out for Diwali

A combination of diyas and candles laid out for Diwali

Finally, Diwali has a special significance this year. This celebration represents the triumph of good over evil and has provided a glimpse of hope in our fight against Covid-19 through the development of vaccinations and the improvement of health.   

With this, I wish all the staff and students at Birkbeck, University of London a safe and incredibly happy Diwali! 

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Student hacks for living in London

BA Global Politics and International Relations student, Aditya Mukherjee, shares his favourite tips for enjoying life as a Birkbeck student in London, on a budget.  

Living in London as a student can be quite a challenge, especially for mature students like me, who might find adjusting to a student budget tricky. However, as the saying goes: ‘where there is a will, there is a way’. It’s therefore my pleasure to share the following hacks to enjoy life in London on a budget and as a Birkbeck student. 

Lunch and dinner parties 
Getting together for lunch and dinner parties at home is a brilliant way to swap expensive meals in restaurants for a cozier, low-budget time together with friends and delicious food. It’s also a very good way to make friends and explore the different cuisines and cultures of your fellow students. When my friends and I host our meals, we either get groceries together or decide in advance what we can cook together and who brings what, which brings out the best of what each person has to offer. It’s a great way to build relationships while enjoying great food and drink from all over the world. 

George Birkbeck Bar 
If going out for a pint or glass of wine becomes inevitable, the George Birkbeck Bar, located on the 4th floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, is the perfect place. Open from 2-11pm, the George Birkbeck Bar offers spirits, drinks and snacks at very affordable prices compared to other pubs in Central London – you can get a pint for £3.50! Available to students right in the middle of campus, there is terrace seating overlooking Torrington Square, making it the perfect place for evening views of the city and lively pub conversations. Don’t miss out!  

Terrace 5 
Terrace 5 is Birkbeck’s canteen, located on the 5th floor of the Malet Street building. It offers a wide range of hot lunch selections every afternoon. For just £6, students can get a delicious and filling lunch that has a main, two sides and a salad. In addition to this, Terrace 5 is open until 6:30pm and there is always a selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches available to purchase even after lunch service has finished. This means a quick dinner before class can also be enjoyed. 

Bloomsbury Farmers Market
If you are ever in the mood for something exotic, the Bloomsbury Farmers Market in Torrington Square every Thursday is the place to be. Though on the pricy side for most students (£11- £15 for a meal), for those who would like to spice up their Thursdays, it offers a diverse selection of cuisines from all over the world right on Birkbeck’s doorstep. A good hack for getting around the slightly more expensive prices, is to go just at closing time at 2pm, when a lot of stalls are more than happy to sell their meals at half price. It may not work at every stall, but coming from experience, it is worth a try. 

Hare Krishna free lunches 
If you are in the mood for a healthy vegetarian meal, try the free lunch offered by Hare Krishna devotees of London’s Radha-Krishna Temple. The lunch is offered every day from 12-2pm just outside SOAS, which is very close to Birkbeck’s main buildings. It’s impossible to miss, as there are usually queues of students waiting to be served.  

Totum Student discount card and app
This is an absolute must-have, as you get discounts on a range of stores, restaurants and services, advertised on a weekly and monthly basis. The website updates the deals on offer regularly, and if used strategically, it can help save a lot of valuable pounds and pennies.   

Birkbeck student card
Did you know that your Birkbeck student card can also get you discounts while out and about? A vast array of retailers and restaurants offer student discounts if you flash your student card, including Honest Burgers, Yo Sushi, ASOS, Odeon cinemas and many more.  

Birkbeck Film Club 
For movie buffs, who want to keep their viewing up but can’t afford weekly cinema trips, consider joining the Birkbeck Film Club. A club for students to discover films, including those you may not encounter on big commercial screens, Birkbeck Film Club hosts regular film screenings for its members. Themed weeks showcase films from different categories, including French, Spanish, LGBT and more. It’s a great platform to discover arthouse, international, documentary and classic films right on Birkbeck’s campus – for free. Membership is open to current students and alumni, so it’s also a great way to make friends and have interesting conversations after screenings too.  

So, there we have it, those are some of my favourite hacks for living on a student budget in London. But for good measure, here are some final quick-fire hacks too:  

  • Save money on haircuts by joining Facebook groups of ‘@Hair Models in London’ 
  • Sign yourself up for a National Rail Card to get discounts on train travel around the UK   
  • For affordable clothing on a budget, Primark offers stylish options  
  • Get 30% off travel on the Transport for London network, by purchasing and registering a student Oyster card  
  • Fever: an app for various events in London, featuring discounts  
  • Unidays app: similar to Totum, this offers discounts for many retailers   
  • Poundland: get homewares, snacks, and miscellaneous items for just £1  
  • Savers: grab yourself toiletries, beauty products other personal care items for affordable prices  
  • Supermarkets: make use of Meal Deals for £3, which include a drink, a main, and a snack  
  • Too Good to Go: an app that lets you collect, for free or very cheap, perfectly good food from stores that would otherwise be thrown out at the end of each day   

 

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Remembering Professor Kathleen Booth, 1922-2022

The pioneering computer scientist was instrumental in founding Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and her legacy lives on in the College today.

Kathleen Booth

We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Kathleen Booth (née Britten) on Thursday 29 September 2022.

Kathleen was one of the founding members of Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science in 1946 and she is internationally recognised for her contribution to the field.

Together with her husband Andrew Booth, Kathleen designed and built the College’s first computer, which was followed by increasingly sophisticated models. Kathleen was a skilled software developer and published a book entitled ‘Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator’ in 1958.

The Booths left Birkbeck in 1962 to pursue academic careers in Canada and their legacy is remembered each year at the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture. In 2022, the lecture was an opportunity to celebrate Kathleen’s 100th birthday, and we were delighted to share a recorded message from Kathleen with the audience.

Kathleen’s legacy as a pioneering woman in computer science lives on through the Kathleen Booth Anniversary PhD Studentship, which aims to increase diversity in an industry that continues to be male-dominated.

We are grateful for Kathleen’s contribution to computing and to Birkbeck and our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.

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