Activists and architects of change

Ana Maria Portugal, final year PhD student at the Birkbeck Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) and its affiliated TABLET Project, writes about the Bloomsbury Festival workshop she developed with the Birkbeck Public Engagement Team to get families thinking about screen time. 

On Sunday 21 October 2018 I was, together with the rest of the TABLET Team from Birkbeck CBCD, at the Brunswick Square taking part at the Family Hub of the Bloomsbury Festival. Together with the Public Engagement Team I liaised with the Festival, applied for funding, and designed a workshop where families had to back-stitch a join the dots emoji pattern. Written on the postcards were questions that prompted several important discussion strands about screen time – such as online safety and type of content.

We created a space for the whole family to promote gentle discussions about how screens are potentially changing our life. Inspired by facts and conversations, families sewed their own emoji response on screen templates and took them away as souvenirs.

The TABLET Team has been active in science dissemination and public engagement, working with the BBC, Guardian, and the Polka Theatre. But this time, I wanted to facilitate discussions on the topic of screen time in a gentle way, inspired by the work on craftivism and gentle protest by Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective. After attending the ‘Developing Interactive Activities: Planning Workshop’ and hearing about the Bloomsbury Festival, I felt that its theme ‘Activists and Architects of Change’ fitted really well with what I wanted to do!

We had a big range of families participating (families with very young children, grandparents with older kids, groups of teenagers) and actively engaging with the activity, learning how to back-stitch and having conversations about screen time and use. Visitors could choose from four designs which had different levels of difficulty – the easiest one could be done by a four-year-old but the most difficult design was also the one that represented a more complex topic of discussion (so it required more time to craft and deliberate).

One year after I joined the Public Engagement Team’s workshop I came back again to share my experience. Looking back, I realised how putting together the workshop by myself, from developing the idea to organising its logistics, was very empowering, but also brought some specific challenges. Will I find the funding? What is the right balance between promoting scientific discussion and entertaining? How can I make sure the activity requires enough time to enable conversations while not compromising the time people have available?

So, for those interested in engaging the public with their work, here are my thoughts:

  • In general people like to chat and are very interested in understanding what academic people and scientists do. So if you are also keen in sharing your work, just go for it.
  • However, if you do have something physical that people can engage with or take home (even if it is not working exactly as it should!), that will attract more people and will make them stay longer too.
  • Be enthusiastic and kind when engaging with the public, and try not to presume how much they know or judge their views. Remember that public engagement is about a positive impact and that that will come from a two-way interaction!
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Youth crime and violence: who hears the voices of black women?

Black women activists in education came together for International Women’s Day to address the growing numbers of young lives lost through knife and gun crime. Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in Social Policy and Education, discusses the event and the pressing need for a collective response from black women educators and mothers to this deepening crisis.

Michele Beute, lecturer, lawyer and performance poet

One year on from the Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education conference held at Birkbeck, black women activists in education came together to discuss a pilot research study aimed at responding to the growing numbers of young lives lost in UK towns and cities through knife and gun crime. A pressing concern for members of the Womanism, Activism, Higher Education, Research Network (#BlackWomenHE) was the absence of a collective response from black women educators and mothers to a deepening crisis, predominantly involving black youth.

The event brought together black women academics; activists in education, youth work and the voluntary sector to structure key objectives of a pilot study seeking to consider womanist educational strategies for building stronger communities. One major question under consideration at the Black Youth, crime and Violence – A Womanist perspective’ event was the nature of education at the centre of black women’s activism. A further question focussed on the intergenerational, educational strategies likely to affect change among black youth.

Professor Uvanney Maylor spoke of her own research, the value of black women’s voices and the significance of listening to the voices of young people, particularly across the primary and secondary school sector. She argued that it was now clear that many young black people did not often hear positive stories about their futures. At school, some are told they will not succeed. However, boys speak to their mother’s, their sisters, their aunts and as black women, and we can play a crucial role in nurturing these voices, enabling them to come forward and be heard.

Patsy Cummings, a local Councillor and member of Croydon’s Children and Young people sub committee spoke about knife crime in her area, the local strategy to reduce violent crimes and the importance of building relationships with young people. She pointed out that we do not have to be educators to agree that every child deserves a chance.  We need to work together and find ways to make our contribution and take responsibility for young people’s education – or the lack of it.

Lecturer, Lawyer and Spoken Word poet, Michele Beute, reflected on some of her own previous experiences pursuing a law degree and gave a staunch message to participant on ways to succeed. In a ‘Tanty Mauvais’ performance entitled: ‘Yuh see me face, but yuh doh see meh mind!’ (You see my face but you don’t see my mind), she stressed, the colour of your face is what is seen first, but do not be deterred, there are ways to rise up and pursue your dreams.The Womanism, Activism, Higher Education Research Network links the lives of black women in Higher Education with those of black women actively working in community settings.

The network explores intergenerational learning and the significance of learning in later years  and in particular, the value of volunteering in the lives of older and younger black women. The network brings together black women in Higher Education, including students, academics participating in social science research – sociology, psychosocial studies, politics and other areas; black women community activists’ and practitioner’s working in education, community, health, social work and related areas; groups focused on intersectionality, inclusion, social justice and addressing issues such as constructions of motherhood, youth and voluntary, community studies, faith, disability, sexuality, ‘race’, ethnicity, and culture as they impact on educational policy and practice in higher education.

To find out more about the work of the research network, contact:  Dr Jan Etienne, j.etienne@bbk.ac.uk. Etienne’s forthcoming book, ‘Crisis, Education and Community: Black Women, Higher Education and the Challenge of Activism’, will be published by IOE Press.

The event was sponsored by the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities.

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Student Pioneers perfect their pitching skills

Aspiring entrepreneurs from across Birkbeck joined the latest Pioneer event to learn about developing confidence and performance in business pitches. 

Birkbeck’s Pioneer programme continued with a hands-on, practical session on Saturday 9 February, focused on developing enterprise students’ confidence and performance when pitching.

The session marked the halfway point of the programme, funded by Santander Universities, taking hundreds of Birkbeck students on a journey to develop their business ideas and entrepreneurial skills.

To start the day, students were given a task to pitch their idea to as many different people as possible during the regular morning coffee networking.

When the main workshop kicked off, the energy in the room was inspiring as Henry Blanchard, Speaker and Facilitator as well as Founder of Uganda International Marathon, welcomed the group of over 100 students. The initial session had everyone replicate a human yo-yo with students on their feet and back down again more times than we can remember.

Actor Jamie Satterthwaite provided a brilliant twist to the content, sharing valuable presenting tips from someone who has shared the stage with a range of impressive names. There was also an interesting warm up taking place so that students could prep their faces, voices and knees ready for a great pitch.

The activity continued with the group splitting into three smaller teams and taken through a series of mini training workshops to work in their delivery, imagination and content when pitching their business ideas.

Hugo Metcalfe, freelance speaker, writer and coach, co-ran the session with Henry and led one of the workshops while Birkbeck’s Bal Hothi and Jenna Davies joined in the action to complete the mini workshop series.

If that wasn’t enough activity, movement and energy for the morning, students were treated to more coaching to end the session with plenty of tips and advice to conquer their pitches and hone their presentation skills.

The session’s topic was particularly timely with applications now open for the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards, where students submit a two-minute video pitch about their business. It also coincides with the Pioneer competition, where students on the programme can put their skills into practice and enter their idea for the chance to pitch to a judging panel in June’s awards evening.

Pioneer continues next month and if you have any queries or would like to get in touch you can contact enterprise@bbk.ac.uk

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Decolonising the Curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in Social Policy and Education at Birkbeck, discusses the wave of initiatives to decolonise curriculums across Higher Education and how they can affect real change.

A packed meeting of seriously minded individuals from across Birkbeck and beyond met to debate the current wave of initiatives to decolonise the curriculum in Higher Education. Despite heavy snow falling over most parts of the UK, over 100 participants attended determined to hear what the speakers had to say and make their contributions in an important area of equalities policy at a time when issues such as the BME attainment gap is of major concern. For participants, this event was not about jumping on the bandwagon but there was a genuine desire to be fully part of the action for change.

The event entitled: ‘Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?’ (A title borrowed from a popular blog of the same name created by Dr Meera Sabaratnam) was held 1 February at Birkbeck and was supported by Professor Karen Wells, the Assistant Dean, Equalities.  The event was initiated and organised by the Decolonising the Curriculum working group, a group which emerged from the Black Women, Womanist, Learning and Higher Education conference held at Birkbeck last year.

At the start of the meeting, Dr Kerry Harman (Birkbeck’s Research Centre for Social Change and Transformation in Higher Education) declared that “student involvement was the crux of the work of the group” and the Birkbeck student’s union representative, Ezimma Chigbo, provided a sharp reminder of the nature of structural racism and how this can impact on students. She argued that students did not just want to hear buzzwords used across the sector, but wanted to see concrete action.

A panel of expert speakers were invited to help Birkbeck shape its role in moving this important issue forward.

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer and Programme Director for Community Development and Development and Globalisation and Chair of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race (Department of Geography, Birkbeck) and Co-editor of Religion, Culture and Spirituality in Africa and the African Diaspora (2017), delivered an inspiring speech entitled: ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’. He cautioned that we should not speak about the curriculum without speaking about the institution.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra, Professor of Colonial Studies in the Department of International Relations in the School of Global Studies (University of Sussex) and co-editor of ‘Decolonising the University’ (2018) gave a rousing speech where she spoke of the online resources available to assist us and stipulating the urgent need to refocus and change the dominant narratives.

Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London and author of Decolonising Intervention (2017) gave an uplifting but cautious address, reminding us of the nature of the many pedagogical challenges ahead and ways to move forward.

Some of the questions raised for discussion were:

  • How do we challenge something that has existed for hundreds of years?
  • What do we do about students not engaging with the curriculum? Should we all do a ‘cultural audit’ to ensure we understand one another?
  • More black professors are needed – How do we tackle this?
  • How do we address the question of the attainment gap- could it impact on recruitment and retaining middle-class white students?
  • We need to look at the difference between immigrant and expatriate – socially constructed symbols – wearing a headscarf leading to being characterised as ‘disadvantaged’.
  • We need to make the connection between racism, mental health and depression.
  • Despite ethnic minority staff and students – both home and international students can feel that they don’t belong and don’t finish degrees – a great motivation to look at this further

Responding to these questions and making recommendations, panel members noted that essential reading for lectures and seminars must be addressed (rather than just further reading); a need to take a pressing look at who is appointed, paid and retained across BME British and international staff; the need to ensure a shared understanding of what racism is, the impact of epistemological violence; and the importance of community. They spoke about the need for understanding how university structures work and how the university can be taken out of its ‘bubble’ to allow for real change.

The Decolonising the Curriculum working group is made up of Jan Etienne, William Ackah, Ezimma Chigbo, Elizabeth Charles, Patricia Gilbert and Kerry Harman. They are interested in contributing to scholarship on Decolonising Knowledges, more broadly, and see Decolonising the Curriculum as a key element of that work.

Thank you to SCUTREA (Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults) for their support in this event.

To find out more about the event, listen to the podcast.

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