“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

Picture of Alexander Flint Mitchell

When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Further Information

 

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What are the origins of the Pride March?

Although this year’s Pride March has been cancelled, we wish to highlight and celebrate the history of the annual celebration. In this blog, Rebekah Bonaparte, Communications Officer at Birkbeck, explores the radical roots of the annual Pride March.

June usually marks Pride Month. The streets of London and many UK towns and cities are adorned with the infamous Pride rainbow, as thousands would usually turn out in celebration of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community.

Many will now be familiar with the rainbow flag that has become increasingly visible throughout the month of June. The Pride logo can be seen on the websites of corporations and organisations as the internationally recognised event has become increasingly mainstream. But what are the origins of the Pride march?

The Stonewall Inn

Although there had been groups campaigning for the rights of the LGBTQ community to be recognised before the 1960s, the Stonewall Uprising is thought of as an important moment in the fight for gay rights in the US and beyond.

The uprising began when New York police officers raided the Stonewall Inn bar on 28 June 1969. Police raids of gay and lesbian bars were commonplace at this time and this instance proved to be the catalyst for an outpouring of fury amongst the LGBTQ+ community who were continually targeted by the police. A lesbian woman, Stormé DeLarverie, who is thought to be one of the first to fight back at Stonewall insisted that the often labelled ‘riots’ was “a rebellion.”

Six days of protests followed the raid on the Stonewall Inn and figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera emerged as leaders of the revitalised movement.

The following year, Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee held its first march, initially called ‘The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee’ to commemorate the Stonewall uprisings and promote cohesion amongst the LGBTQ community. Today, the Stonewall Inn is considered a national landmark and the LGTBQ+ Pride March is held across the world in June.

Pride in London

In 1970 two British activists, Aubrey Walter and Bob Mellor, founded the Gay Liberation Front in a basement of the London School of Economics. Walter and Mellor were said to have been inspired by the Black Panthers as that year they attended the Black Panther’s Revolutionary Peoples’ Convention, but also the various liberation movements that were taking place all over the world. At the time in the UK homosexuality had been partially decriminalised and homophobia was largely accepted.

The Gay Liberation Front in London held its first Pride rally in 1972 on 2 July (the closest Saturday to the Stonewall anniversary) and continued to host annual rallies until it became more of a carnival event in the 1990s. In 1996 it was renamed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride. The march was thought of as a display of solidarity and self-acceptance, but also a vehicle to drive social change and challenge injustice.

The Pride March has been held in London and across the UK since. It is characterised by its carnival spirit, and a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community to assert their identities and achievements. In recent years it has become increasingly mainstream, with corporations and organisations capitalising on the annual celebration and some believe it is has become far removed from its radical roots.

#YouMeUsWe

The organisation Pride in London was set up in 2004, and has been arranging the march since. Unfortunately, this month’s Pride event had to be cancelled but the organisation has announced its virtual campaign, #YouMeUsWe which calls on members of the community to practice allyship and challenge instances of discrimination and marginalisation.

Pride remains a visual reminder for the continued struggle for LGBTQ+ rights across the world, a source of hope and jubilation for many.

Further information:

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Making Monuments Matter

As the debate about the removal of historical statues rages on, Professor Annie E Coombes reflects on the significance of statues in the discussion and commemoration of history. 

Sethembile Msezane performs 'Chapungu - The Day Rhodes Fell', April 2015.

Sethembile Msezane performs ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’, April 2015.

Since the 2015 call to arms of the #Rhodes Must Fall and #Fees Must Fall campaigns started on South African University campuses in a drive to get universities to finally address the legacy of racial inequalities produced by colonialism and apartheid, the baton has been taken up by other students worldwide. They have demanded that educational institutions address colonial amnesia and actively decolonize the curriculum. Birkbeck and other colleges of the University of London have slowly begun to put some energy behind addressing these demands closer to home, although some of us have always had this at the heart of our research and teaching agendas. The recent protests initiated by Black Lives Matter have reignited awareness of the deep structural legacy of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. The ripple effect around the globe has strengthened the long-repeated calls for legislated action to ensure equal rights and their implementation.

Here in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has lent support to the voices of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and David Lammy MP in their insistence on the necessity of implementing, rather than ignoring (again) the recommendations made in the numerous reports and reviews on racial inequality in Britain (including the 1997 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, Lammy’s own 2017 review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the justice system and Wendy Williams’ review into the lessons learnt from the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation (2018 & 2020).

Municipal statuary has often been the visual centrepiece of these protests. For the past twenty years, I have been fascinated by monuments and their afterlives. The love, hate and ridicule they inspire, and the ways in which even those originally standing for the very worst aspects of human endeavour can become reanimated to generate a rallying cry for the most progressive solidarity. The recent toppling of the much-maligned statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest is a case in point. That activism and energy were able to accomplish in one fell swoop, something that campaigners and academics in Bristol had been working towards for many years – a greater recognition of the ways in which the history of slavery has shaped the city of Bristol and the removal of celebratory monuments (including Colston’s) to the glory of that hideous trade.

Those who criticise the action as the erasure of history, fail to understand that the gesture has actually reignited an awareness of the importance of an understanding of how history shapes our experience of city spaces and either reinforces or excludes a sense of belonging in swathes of the population. In Bristol it has foregrounded the work of Madge Dresser, David Olusoga and others who have produced deep research on the often hidden histories of slavery and colonialism lurking in street names and municipal landmarks. (Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of an English Provincial Port c. 1698 – 1833, 2001) Perhaps iconoclasm and the deeper histories it draws attention to, can also enable a greater public recognition of the lives and deeds of men and women from BAME and other underrepresented communities. Or as Jared Brock says, writing on the hidden history of the ‘real’ Uncle Tom of the eponymous book – Joseph Henson, an unsung champion of the Underground Railway – “As monuments topple around the globe they leave space for worthier replacements’.

Research I conducted in Kenya at a moment when a new national history was being written in the wake of the unbanning in 2003 of the guerrilla organisation (Mau Mau) that had fought for the creation of an independent Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s, reinforced the potential power of monuments, but also their complicated valencies. In a quest for representativeness and a bid for national unity, following a wave of post-election violence that had rocked the country, local constituencies nationwide were asked to nominate heroes and heroines for national commemoration. While having many beneficial outcomes for some disenfranchised Kenyans, the nationwide competitiveness occasioned by the government ‘Taskforce for National Heroes and Heroines’. ended up reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the perceived and historic ethnic differences that had led to some of the worst post-election violence in Kenya’s history in 2009. ( Coombes, “Monumental Histories: Commemorating Mau Mau with the Statue of Dedan Kimathi”, 2011) But it is also true that the inauguration of these monuments (for example, to the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi in the heart of downtown Nairobi) provided the occasion for one of the few acknowledgements by the State, of the role of Mau Mau veterans in the creation of an independent Kenya.

On the other hand, perhaps it is worth considering that sometimes ‘disinterest’, can be as powerful a means of countering the hegemonic presumptions of any monument.  In 1994, in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa, I began research on the ways in which histories were being re-thought and re-written in the public sphere in relation to different kinds of visual commemorative practice (monuments, memorials and museums). I took a photograph, later used on the cover of my book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003). It shows the gigantesque bust of J.G. Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 -58 and member of the white supremacist wing of the ruling National Party which established formal apartheid.

At the time the picture was important to me because it showed Black South Africans walking through the square, oblivious to its original significance, to the extent of using the space as an expansion of the entrepreneurial informal economy and setting up market stalls in the shade of Strijdom’s bust. It seemed to encapsulate a complete lack of interest in the overbearing sculpture commemorating a brutal figure in the apartheid regime. I wondered if the act of ignoring the violent history embodied in the monument and the square’s name, could be seen as constituting in and of itself, a form of resistance. In a neat and entirely appropriate twist to this tale, the monument (the head and the surrounding arch) subsequently collapsed, apparently of its own accord ! It has now been renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square after a member of the multi-ethnic crowd of 20,000 women activists, who marched on J.G. Strijdom in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to present petitions against the extension of the hated Pass Laws to black women in August 1956 – which finally in 2000, gained its own monument commemorating the bravery of the womens’ action, “The Monument to the Women of South Africa”.

Looking back at a moment twenty years ago when monuments were similarly the visual flashpoints at the centre of protest in the UK, what struck me then seems as pertinent in the current statue debate: “… monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance and … performances or rituals focused around a monument are conjunctural. The visibility of a monument is in fact entirely contingent upon the debates concerning the reinterpretation of history that take place at moments of social and political transition. Their significance is consequently constantly being reinvented but always and necessarily in dialogue with their past”. (History After Apartheid, p.12) Thus the knowledge provided by the historian and art historian is absolutely crucial to a more complex understanding of that past and the lived experiences that contribute to its various and often competing interpretations in the present.

If living in Covid times has taught us anything, it is the value of social connectedness, of ‘community’ sought and found in unusual places, of the street as a valuable locus of social interaction. With this in mind, monuments and public memorials could play a critical role in reclaiming those streets and making many who have been disenfranchised and dislocated from British society feel more ‘at home’.

Annie Coombes is Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the Department of Art History and Founding Director of the Peltz Gallery. In Summer term 2021, she will be teaching the MA seminar option ‘Curating Difficult Histories’ as part of the MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art.

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“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

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Dear White People

In the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matters protests Jessica Brooke, Social Media Officer at Birkbeck, offers a view on how White people can begin being anti-racist. 

In light of the recent murder of George Floyd by federal police in Minneapolis and subsequent rioting across the globe, you might find that you are asking yourself some new questions. If you’re White like me, here are some things that we can consider.

Firstly, racism is everywhere and that is a fact. Some of the most harmful racism is the most transparent. I use the word transparent because although it might not be directly visible, (particularly to a White person), such as a murder filmed on video camera, it is always there. And it is there deep in the bones of the structures and institutions within our society.

Here are some statistics that illuminate how racism is functioning in British society today:

  • Job applications in British cities from people with White-sounding names were 74% more likely to receive a positive response than applications from people with an ethnic minority name.1
  • Black British women are five times more likely to die in childbirth compared to White women.2
  • In January 2020, exclusions for racism in primary schools were up by more than 40%.3

These British statistics show areas of British life that are affected daily by racism, and that restrict and disempower Black people from living the same quality of life as White people.

This is why claiming to ‘not see colour’ is racist. To not acknowledge a person’s identity, their history, and the ways in which they are treated in society means not acknowledging that person at all. The first step to overcoming racism is to fully acknowledge and identify it within the structures around us and especially within ourselves.

None of us will get it right every time, and overcoming racism is continuous work. We have to constantly check ourselves and others around us to ensure we’re considering our race and the race of others, and the impact that has on situations. Sometimes, our racism is unconscious. But applying ourselves to make these considerations is the first thing we can do to working towards eliminating it.

And this means acknowledging our privilege as White people. I’m going to say this again because I feel this often gets misconstrued:

Being White is being privileged.

This does not mean that being White means we’re richer, healthier, more supported or successful than every Black person.

What it does mean is that we are free to exist peacefully with no negative consequence of the colour of our skin. We do not fear unemployment, arrest, or deprivation of access to basic needs because of the colour of our skin.

To expand:

  • We do not need to change our names to be invited to a job interview.
  • We are not demanded an explanation of our nationality, our ethnicity, or our religion, due to the colour of our skin.
  • When we go on holiday or move to a new house, we do not need to check whether certain areas are racist towards people of our skin colour.
  • Throughout our lives, we have opened books and turned on the television and always seen people that look like us.
  • When we look to those in power, we will see people with the same colour skin as us.
  • We are able to recognise our identity as accepted and celebrated around us.

If you’re Black, you often do not have these privileges.

If you’ve never had to question whether you’ve been held back by the colour of your skin, then you are privileged.

The first thing we can do as White people is educate ourselves on the privilege that we enjoy, and the struggles of those Black members of our society. To do this, we must reach to existing resources. Black people have struggled physically, mentally and emotionally for long enough. It is now time for us, as White people, to understand this struggle without burdening them even more with the task of educating us.

Here is a list of resources that I have found helpful:

Books:

  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge: this book was the first book I read about race, and it blew my mind. Includes a great chapter about Black Feminism which I thought was useful in ways we think about ‘intersectionality’, as well as a brief but informative chapter on British history.
  • Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri, discusses the cultural relevance of Black hair and how it symbolises the subjugation of Black bodies.
  • I’m Not Your Baby Mother by Candice Brathwaite discusses being a Black British mother – from the treatment of Black women in healthcare, to knife crime in London, to moving to rural areas of Britain and the experience of that as a Black family. A humorous and fun read that also educates.
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo is a brilliant work of fiction that plunges you into the lives of 12 different Black women and their experiences in Britain all through the 20th and into the 21st Funny too.
  • Black and British by David Olusoga provides more of an insight into Black British history, helping to understand racism in our country.
  • I listened to Becoming by Michelle Obama on audiobook and would highly recommend consuming it in the same way. She speaks calmly, articulately and firmly about her experiences with racism as a child and then as an adult. Aside from the attention she gives to issues around race, she is just an amazing and inspiring human being and I would recommend this book on that basis too.

Articles/Social Media:

TV:

  • 13th: a documentary on the U.S. prison system, looking at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America.
  • When They See Us shows the story of five young men who were unjustifiably charged and sentenced of the crime of assaulting and raping a jogger in Central Park.

References

  1. 2009 research from NatCen Social Research, commissioned by the government.
  2. 2018, MBRRACE-UK, https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/downloads/files/mbrrace-uk/reports/MBRRACE-UK%20Maternal%20Report%202018%20-%20Lay%20Summary%20v1.0.pdf
  3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-50331687
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The Family Learning Series

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement team and Brittney Chere and Jessica Massonnié from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development, have launched a virtual Family Learning Series for parents and children. The series of videos, ‘The Brain Explained’, are short lessons accompanied by fun activities for impactful family learning.

In February, the Access and Engagement Team along with Jessica Massonnié and Brittney Chere from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development delivered a workshop for children and parents at Stratford library. Over 10 families joined us for an hour of activities which included making your own neurons and building a brain hat.

With more family workshops planned for the Easter holidays and as Covid-19 shut all public venues, we began thinking about how we could bring our family learning programme online – and this is the result!

Below you’ll find four videos led by Brittney Chere focusing on the brain and including activities that you and your child/children can do at home. These activities are best suited for primary school aged children (Year’s 4-6) and we hope that they can play a role in any home schooling you are doing with your children right now.

The Brain, Explained: Part 1

Now you’re ready to get going- watch this video to start learning about the brain!

Activity 1 resource: Trace the Brain (1)

The Brain, Explained: Part 2

 

Activity 2 resource: Brain Hats

The Brain, Explained: Part 3

Activity 3 resource: ChatterBox instructions and activity ChatterBox.

 

The Brain Explained: Part 4

Activity 4 resource: Brain Game Instructions, Brain Game Board, Brain Game Neurons.

Where can I find other learning resources?

If this has sparked your interest as a parent in psychology or the brain, why not take a look at the Centre for the Brain’s virtual coffee mornings where you can hear from researchers about their research. Other Birkbeck events can be found on our events page.

If your child wants to find out more about the brain or how the body works; check out this University of Washington resource which has lots of great activities including these fun experiments you can do at home! This website also has some great science resources.

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The importance of frequent handwashing to tackle transmission of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases

As government’s across the world announce the easing of lockdown measures it is understandable to feel that the threat of COVID-19 has subsided for now. However, it is more important than ever to exercise caution. In this blog, Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry at Birkbeck reiterates and breaks down the importance of hand washing in the prevention of the spread of the virus.

 

We have been consistently reminded to wash our hands several times a day, but do we legitimately understand why? I am here to explain to why the Government is urging us to wash our hands with the intent to intrinsically stop the spread of COVID-19 and other, similar infectious diseases.

The novel infective Coronavirus causes a respiratory illness which implies that it is circulated through the virus-laden air-borne particles from sneezes and coughs, if we fail to catch sneezes/coughs in a tissue and carefully discard of it, the virus consequently ends up on surfaces where they can survive. Generally, we may fail to do this due to inconvenience and our predispositions; however, if somebody else touches that contaminated surface, the virus is able to transfer onto their hand and eventually can cause new infection to a susceptible host.

A recent study indicated that people touch their face 23 times an hour on average, the virus on your hands subsequently infects our eyes, mouth or nose when we touch it. Hence, the significance of washing your hands; not only to decrease the chances of you contracting the virus, but to prevent the spread on a global scale. When we come to talk about preventative measures, to decrease the chances of it spreading further, the public have a huge role to play.

Washing your hands on a regular basis ensures a decreased risk of contaminating surfaces and spreading infection. So, we have the basis of the importance of ‘washing’ your hands, but it is paramount that you wash your hands in an accurate manner for optimal efficiency in controlling the spread. Any Coronavirus is contained within a lipid envelope – essentially, a layer of fat. Soap has the ability to break this fat apart. As a result, the virus is unable to infect you and others. Moreover, using the correct handwashing technique mechanically pries off the germs and rinses them away.

Watch a video demonstrating the best way to wash your hands.

This video courtesy to Sreyashi Basu: While the video is demonstrating a good hand washing protocol, in order to save water, you should consider using taps with auto-off sensor or with elbow levers where available.

References:

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New (and not so new) perspectives about humour and management

Juan Dávila, BA Global Politics and International Relations alumnus (returning to Birkbeck to undertake an LLM in the next academic year), discusses resilience, virtual socialisation and productivity in these challenging times.

In the last decades much had been written about the relationship between humour and good management. Still, considering the current global pandemic crisis originated with COVID-19, it is necessary to revisit a few key concepts that help us to contribute to the preservation of the right spirit and motivation in our organisations. After all, institutions, either seeking profit or not, are human constructions, and human nature is and has always been resilient.

Having said this, hundreds of thousands of original videos were produced in the last months, proving that self-isolation can be positively a time of self-discovery, where humour is a crucial element to enhance mental health and to deal with constant mediatic bombarding. Like Roberto Benigni in ‘La vita è bella’, people use their creativity and imagination under the worse circumstances.

Furthermore, a beneficial link between laughter and the boost of the immunological system had been traced as a result in scientific studies, since when we laugh our body produces substances like endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine that helps to relax our muscles and potentiate a feeling on mindfulness.

Once again, institutions, profit and non-profit, have in the last months made radical efforts to adapt their operations to the new circumstances affecting all type of practices and routines. Stress and anxiety are common symptoms that can later change the core of the organisation if they are not dealt with collectively. The challenges are indeed enormous, but also opportunities to be embraced.

But how can we apply humour to motivate our work environment? Like in any human interaction, speakers and listeners produce and exchange verbal and non-verbal communication. The effectiveness of communication is the base to reach mutual understanding. In that context, humour is an exciting tool to be used organically. Our difference with previous generations is that in times of social distance, much of our daily interaction is done online through devices that can, fortunately, allow us to retransmit image and voice in real-time.

In terms of effective communication, being funny is always about taking risks, considering the timing and other people points of view—also, project confidence and intellectual agility. Co-workers can eventually feel stimulated to work with someone that knows how de-dramatise the complexity of some operations. But, inappropriate jokes and remarks can undoubtedly cause the contrary effect and can eventually evidence incompetency. In any case, teamwork and good peer feedback are encouraged to safeguard fluent and effective communication, that at the end impact on the work environment.

When the dog is barking, or a child is crying in the middle of an urgent conference call, some things are indeed beyond our control. We have all been in similar situations. In these circumstances, a laugh can help to humanise these kinds of situations. It is essential to always take into consideration that the best humour is still coming from laughing about ourselves. In this context, leaders with a sense of humour are more approachable, helping to build up trust and boost the morale of the team.

Simple team building dynamics can also motivate people and encourage productivity. Here some tips and ideas:

  • If you want to keep your privacy at home, make sure that you use a professional virtual background. You can have a few of them to change accordingly to the situation.
  • You can all agree to wear a particular colour or dress code to attend a meeting. For example: ‘Red on Tuesday, and Green on Fridays’
  • Celebrate small steps or achievements is also a way to show appreciation to your colleagues.
  • Sharing ideas about what to do during social distance can also help to motivate people.
  • When working with colleagues in different time zones, it is vital to empathise. It could be the beginning or the end of the day for them
  • Also, working with people using different languages, it is crucial to formulate ideas and questions using simple vocabulary to facilitate understanding.

Moreover, being positive will not guarantee to succeed, but being negative will ensure that you will not. So, let us be the reason why someone smiles today.

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Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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How long do we need to wait to acknowledge that black people are no longer our slaves?

Following the death of George Floyd in America on 25 May 2020, Dr Carmen Fracchia, Reader in Hispanic Art History, talks about art, slavery and what it means for modern society.

Isidro de Villoldo, The Miracle of the Black Leg, 1547: © Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain.

The deliberate public torture and murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a former police officer in Minneapolis, on 25 May 2020 and the indifference to the black man’s pain shown by his killer and three police officers, Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, immediately brought to my mind the most violent image of The Miracle of the Black Leg, made by the sculptor Isidro de Villoldo, in 1547 in Valladolid (Spain), then the royal seat of the most powerful Iberian empire in the Western world. In this small wooden panel, a mutilated African man lies on the floor while screaming with pain, following the removal of his left leg to have it grafted onto the patient by St Damian, while his brother St Cosmas is taking the sick man’s pulse and examining his urine in a vessel. This horrific scene takes place in a sumptuous setting, where there is a lavish application of the New World gold that was still readily available. The wealth that is exuded here is in stark contrast to the violence of the African amputee lying, in agony, on the ground. The ensuing horror of this image is amplified by the indifference shown by the white figures in the room towards the amputee’s excruciating sacrifice. Medieval legends of saintly healers, who perform miracles of body reparation, were written to counteract the revulsion felt at the fragmentation or dismemberment of bodies for political or scientific purposes that had become common in Western Europe at the end of the thirteenth century with the legalization of dissection practices in European centres and the public exhibition of body parts from criminals, associated with the practice of judicial punishments.

The narrative of the Valladolid image deviates from the three known legends (Greek, Latin, and Catalan) that inform the visual representation of this miracle enacted by SS. Cosmas and Damian, although the Latin legend is closest to it:

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. Then let us pray unto these holy martyrs to be our succour and help in all our hurts, blechures and sores, and that by their merits after this life we may come to everlasting bliss in heaven. Amen.

Jacobus of Voragine collected the Latin legend of the miraculous transplantation of the black leg in ‘The Lives of Saint Cosmas and Damian’ in his book The Golden Legend or Lives of Saints (1275), the most widely circulated stories of saints in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. In this Valladolid image, the first obvious departure from this legend is that the mutilated ‘Ethiopian’ is not a corpse from a cemetery, but an in vivo Afro-Hispanic man whose leg has been amputated whilst he is alive. It is impossible to grasp this violent image if we do not take into account the backdrop of the abolition of ‘Indian’ slavery in the New World in 1542 and the emergence there of a new system of slavery with the enslavement, capture, and export to the Americas of Africans, a trade that was directly promoted by the Crown and the Cardinal Inquisitor Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, but also by Bartolomé de Las Casas. The latter expresses pastoral concern only about Native Americans and actively contributes to the export of black slaves to New Spain in the years between 1516 and 1543, an action that he came to regret (1545–7), some time before the end of the famous Valladolid debate with Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda about the soul of the Native Americans (1550–1). This horrific imagery is symbolic of not only the process of colonization in the Spanish empire, but above all the appropriation of the black body and the violence of slavery, the paradoxical emergence of the commodified domestic Christian Afro-Hispanic slave, and the encounter with free Christian European subjects. The shocking thing is that the worth of the black mutilated man is defined vis-à-vis his total subordination to his white master. To be a black person in imperial Spain, between the last quarter of the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century meant to be a chattel, a piece of property, to be hired, bought and sold as a precious commodity at auctions; to become objects of material exchange: traded to save the donor’s soul, gifts, dowry, and, heritage; money to pay debts, to settle accounts in lieu of mortgages, and rents. To be a black person meant to be owned by a slave master and to suffer punishment at any sign of rebellion against this complete dehumanization in a society where the word ‘black’ and the physical appearance of blackness were signifiers of the specific social condition of slavery. Besides, to be a black person also meant to become a strategic resource for the colonization of the New World.

Africans and their descendants anywhere in the globe do not need to learn from us that the institution of slavery is a crime against humanity. They had experienced the dehumanisation process inherent in the workings of slavery every day, every hour, every minute, every second of their lives for the last five centuries. The killing of Mr Floyd shows that we are still stuck in the effects of the transatlantic slavery, originally institutionalized by the Iberian empire that was partly responsible for the presence of approximately two million slaves living in the Iberian Peninsula and islands during the early modern period.

The problem is not the African diaspora. The problem is our attitude toward the Other, in this case towards Africans and their descendants. We need to change our attitude and to become more aware of their history and of their secular sacrifice to their master. We never experienced the lack of total freedom, the nature of total subordination to a master. And we never allowed Africans to be totally free. They could become freed women and freed men which is not the same as free women and free men. The deliberate killings of black people systematically show that we still consider Africans and their descent as our slaves. We believe in their sense of inferiority and we still demand their unconditional services to us because thanks to us they became ‘human’ and ‘civilised’. We still demand their total sacrifice of their life, talents, and contributions to our societies as their obligations towards us, because they owe us their wellbeing, their freedom, education, and, careers. After all, they are now civilised because we rescued them from being wild, barbarians and pagans. We taught them how to become Christians. They should be thankful for these opportunities we gave them in life, so much so that if we need their leg to heal our body, we’ll take it with no consultation. If we need their life to achieve our aims, we take them. The evidence is the death of George Floyd. How long will it take for us to believe that the African diaspora in the Americas and in Europe are no longer our slaves?

Perhaps we could learn from another Spanish image: the portrait of the enslaved painter Juan de Pareja (c.1606, Antequera, Málaga–c.1670, Madrid), by his celebrated master, Diego Velázquez, court painter to Philip IV, King of Spain, which was made (1649) and exhibited to great acclaim in Rome during the Jubilee year of 1650, before Velázquez emancipated Pareja in Rome on 23 November 1650. In his half-length portrait, Velázquez’s slave is seen looking directly at the viewer, holding his right arm across his waist and standing against an undefined brown-and-black back- ground. Pareja is portrayed as a Spanish gentleman wearing a dark grey velvet doublet and coat with an exclusive white lace collar from Flanders, ‘forbidden in Spain to free men and shunned by Philip IV, who favoured austere dress’. In this extant portrait, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the sitter is the sole figure and his powerful gaze totally dominates the canvas and engages the viewer.

In his Juan de Pareja, Velázquez comes to elaborate the emergence of the slave subject in Hapsburg Spain. The court painter acknowledges and expresses the inner life of his slave by depicting his ‘thinking mind’ and the ‘perturbations of his soul’. Thus, Velázquez endows Pareja with his own humanity: his slave has an equal gaze to that of his viewers. The powerful sitter of this extraordinary portrait is not depicted as a subordinate subject as the sacrificial Ethiopian victim of the Miracle of the Black Leg. The slave Pareja is shown as a free subject even before his emancipation. Velázquez’s adoption and adaptation of the restrictive genre of portraiture to include his slave magnifies the effect of Pareja’s sense of humanity and worth. The depiction of a mestizo/mulato slave in a portrait defamiliarizes the essence of this genre and produces a dislocation in the viewer’s mind. Juan de Pareja transcends the hegemonic norm in imperial Spain and could only be regarded as oxymoronic. Velázquez’s powerful depiction of his slave provides the conceptual scaffolding and the form that Pareja uses in his own self-portrait as a freed slave and in the depiction of the emancipatory slave subject in his painting The Calling of Saint Matthew, produced for the Hapsburg court, one year after his master’s death in 1660, and now at the Museo del Prado (Madrid, only recently shown to the public).

The freedman Pareja managed to forge a career as a painter at the Spanish Court. The whereabouts of almost 20 out of the 30 paintings by the artist recently identified are still unknown, such as portraits of unidentified subjects and religious paintings. However, Pareja’s surviving works that are signed and dated are in the following museums: Museo del Prado and the Lázaro Galdiano Foundation, in Madrid; Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia; Museo de Bellas Artes de Valencia, Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

We urgently need to recover the often hidden, invisible histories of the African diaspora and of their cultural contributions made to European and American societies. We can celebrate blackness as in this extract from the extraordinary poem, The Song of a Freedman (1700) by an anonymous Afro-Hispanic freedman, discovered in 1993:

I am black
Guinea is my homeland Black my body
and black my soul,
and black too
all my lineage,
my glory is to be black,
and I make celebration of it.

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