International Women’s Day: womanism, activism and higher education

Dr Jan Etienne, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Geography, convened the recent Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education: the politics of representation and community activism conference – the first of its kind at Birkbeck.

Over 200 women attended Birkbeck’s first Black Women, Womanist Learning and Higher Education conference, which drew together black women activists and academics from various parts of the United Kingdom, across Europe, South Africa and the United States. A further 210 women, who were unable to be allocated tickets, were invited to watch the live stream of the keynote speeches.

At Birkbeck, we already know about the ‘feminist emergency,’ but our conference demonstrates a burning ‘womanist emergency’! The scale of interest in the black woman’s desire to take charge of a lost agenda cannot be underestimated. Such a desire has reached fever levels. Quite frankly, as black women, we are fed up with other’s speaking on our behalf. We are hungry for genuine representation. Finally, we are seeing black sisters speaking our language, standing up for us, taking charge and ownership of our agenda for change.

This conference of black women activists working alongside their black sisters in HE is long overdue and I am happy that Birkbeck is the first higher education establishment to allow this Womanist platform to emerge.  We have a lot to say and a great deal to achieve.

On the day of the conference, a clear message emerged for the urgent need for the black woman in HE to play her part in promoting collaborative, activists’ links in order to prioritise the movement for a free, decolonised education system. The lively, vociferous workshops revealed the reasons for such high levels of interest in the conference.

In a platform presentation entitled: ‘Young womanist voices: our mother’s legacy’, young black feminists: Nombuso Methibela, Dolly Ogunrinde and Jenna Davis spoke on ‘the silencing of black women’s activist’s voices; the power of language to promote activism and the significance of passing on experience steeped in activist’s struggle’.

Nombuso Methibela, an activist and educational researcher from South Africa, talked passionately on the silencing of the voices of black women activists, like African nationalist and grassroots political organiser Hannah Kudjoe, who played a formidable role in Ghana’s struggle for independence.  She stressed: “In the recollection of Ghana’s independence history we rarely hear of her contributions. Kudjoe’s disappearance from public memory and her un-naming have been a focal point of the anti-colonial movement.”

Through her South African experience, Nombuso suggested that: “Black women’s political representation has come out of the collective desire to recognise the experiences of Black women who fought against marginalisation in national liberation movements and black consciousness movements despite their collective disappearance from popular history”.

Dolly Ogunrinde, an outreach worker for an educational charity, highlighted the importance of language and how we share concepts and ideas across generations.

She said: “As an educator, I find my students are very much aware of issues surrounding race and the notion of an intersectional struggle that occurs between race and gender. However, what they don’t have is the language to express that. With the concept of womanism, I was able to finally find a word which encapsulates the ideas that my mother had passed down to me.

“‘Womanism’ is a concept that is now engaging young black women all over the country. And I don’t necessarily think the answer lies in teaching young people about womanism in the sphere of formal education. Instead, I think the answer lies in informal education. We, all of us in this room are informal educators to the young women in our lives.  It is important we share oral histories and popularise terms like ‘womanism’ to provide the next generation of womanist activists the power in language to express their ideas.”

Jenna Davis, a parliamentary assistant, politics student and community worker spoke on the legacy of black women activists, trade unionist and elected officials. “They have left us young black women like me, a huge legacy. Their achievements and sacrifices have made it possible for my generation to believe it’s possible to enter the political sector. They have prepared us for the fight ahead and have shown us how to confront and deal with misogynoir, colourism, oppression and so much else. They have shown us that Black women can come from different walks of life and educational backgrounds and achieve.

“As a young black woman in the political field, my mother has taught me that education is a key that opens many doors. She wasn’t just talking about academia. She was also talking about the power of life experiences. That is why I use my story and experiences to empower other young people about the importance of community activism and encourage them to participate and work for change”.

One participant said: “This day is a cause for celebration because we can see positive role models from across the Higher Education sector who are committed to working with us.  These black sisters are demonstrating their potential to change our lives, remove the oppressive white curriculums and speak to our history.”

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The past in the present at international meeting on ancient and medieval Telangana

Dr Rebecca Darley, a lecturer in medieval history from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology reviews an international conference on the history of Telangana in Hyderabad, India.

In January 2018, researchers from across the world met in Hyderabad, India for the second international congress uncovering the history of ancient and medieval Telangana. The first, held in 2017, had been inaugurated only three years after Telangana became India’s newest federal state and the first new state to be created since India’s independence in 1947.

Though Telangana is administratively a very new state, its claims to an independent identity are rooted in the antiquity and uniqueness of its culture. These conferences, hosted by the Telangana State Department for Archaeology and Museums, now re-named Heritage Telangana, were therefore aimed at bringing together researchers and the public to celebrate and uncover this past. In particular, the focus on the ancient and medieval periods was intended to provide a sense of the depth of this identity beyond the recent rhetoric of an independence campaign which was, for obvious reasons, rooted in modern grievances and modern decisions about how to establish the states of India.

I was very fortunate to have been at the 2017 gathering as well and it was great to meet new people, see old faces and to be back in one of my favourite cities in the world. My own research focuses on discoveries of Byzantine and Roman coins, minted in the Mediterranean region, but exported to south India in the first seven centuries AD. The State Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad has one of the largest collections of these coin finds in India and many were discovered within what is now Telangana. This was the challenge I had set myself; to interpret these ancient finds through the lens of the modern boundaries of Telangana State.

Mine was the first paper after the elaborate and extremely enjoyable opening ceremonies, and it received a very good response. It was a particular honour to be on a panel with P. V. Radhakrishnan and T. Satyamurthy, both senior scholars whose work I have used and admired for many years.

Being the first paper also meant that I was then free to enjoy the rest of the conference – two days of papers and cultural performances. Director of Heritage Telangana, Smt. N. R. Visalatchy has made it her mission in this post not just to raise the profile of cultural heritage in Telangana, but also to expand its definition, and so academic papers were combined with demonstrations of classical dance and folk musical performance. The range and standard of papers was wonderful, as was the public interest shown in the conference. It would be fair to say that academic conferences in the UK rarely attract a substantial public audience, even when they are open and advertised. By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018, the international meetings on Telangana heritage filled an auditorium with a crowd including journalists, members of learned societies, local history enthusiasts, writers and teachers, as well as archaeologists, academics and heritage workers.

Heritage institutions in India, as in the UK, often have to struggle with budgetary constraints, maintenance of buildings which are themselves heritage structures and recording and cataloguing ever-growing collections. The support given by Telangana State to these conferences is, therefore, most welcome and was an opportunity also to see some of the success stories as excavators reported on ongoing archaeological excavations and developing projects.

Hopefully, there will be a chance to meet again in Hyderabad for the third international conference on Telangana Heritage. My own research, in part as a result of this paper, has raised a wealth of new questions about how Roman and Byzantine coin evidence can reveal social practices and state structures in inland India. There remains much more to say and to discover.

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Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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The London Critical Theory Summer School: combining theoretical thought with political urgency

Carolina Amadeo, MPhil/PhD candidate at the School of Law discusses this year’s London Critical Theory Summer School. The 2018 Summer School will be held from 25 June – 6 July and is now accepting applications. Find out more. 

Carolina’s Summer School cohort in 2015

I first joined the Critical Theory Summer School organised by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Humanities in 2015. At that particular moment, it provided the inspiration needed for me to quit my job as a lawyer and start to pursue the academic career I had always dreamt of. Coming from Brazil and from a law school background, I was struck by how the summer school created an academic environment where critical theory was taken seriously. Not only that, but it was taken seriously in a transdisciplinary way, in which all sorts of different ideas were welcome for discussion.

After getting to know Birkbeck I ended up enrolling for a master’s here straight away, which then led me to start my PhD in January 2017. My research combines critical geography, legal geography and critical legal theory, but it also draws on social and political theory. I explore the interconnections between law, space and resistance, in the context of social movements that use occupations as their main strategy. That is, I examine how space is being appropriated by these movements as a political tool and how property relations relate to this usage. My focus is the Brazilian context, mainly due to the emergence of the secondary school student movement, a series of occupations of public schools to demand better education.

This summer, two years after my first Summer School experience, I again reserved two weeks of the hottest days of the year in London to join this immersive experience. Even though I had a lot of work to do on my thesis, still I thought it was worth to just allow myself to read and discuss topics that although were not central to it, would still help me getting creative and shaping my arguments.

Indeed that was the case. In the first week, I learned a lot from Catherine Malabou’s very well structured classes about the evolution of the concept of the symbol. This gave me a philosophical basis to better understand many of the authors I have been reading. Then Drucilla Cornell introduced me to African Socialism and Paul Gilroy presented an interesting account of British Black culture. Finally, Costas Douzinas surprised me with his presentation of an analytics of resistance, which resonated directly with my own research.

In the second week, Jacqueline Rose, Stephen Frosh and Slavoj Zizek, once again fed my fascination with psychoanalysis. Although I don’t have a detailed background in psychoanalysis, it was still interesting to allow myself to just engage with their presentations, which was also the case with regards to Esther Leslie’s work on aesthetics and nature. Additionally, Jacqueline’s point about the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement from a psychoanalytical point of view gave me a new perspective on how to read student movements, such as the one I have been studying.

The best thing about the Summer School is that it combines an intensive studying environment – with dense readings and two weeks of all-day lectures – with the establishment of relaxed social interactions with like-minded people. At both summer schools I have met participants from all around the world with whom I still discuss my work, but more than that, they have also become good friends.

The selection of the lecturers is another important aspect of it. The list always combines renowned critical theorists from all different backgrounds. The topics range from political economy, to analysis of resistance, postcolonial theory, and psychoanalysis, among others. And you can learn a lot from the lectures and the discussions, even when they are dealing with topics that you are not strictly familiar with. The privilege to sit in a class taught by Etienne Balibar, David Harvey or Catherine Malabou, among all others, is something I could have barely imagined before coming here for the first time.

The environment created by the group is always welcoming and inviting. And the fact that we not only attend classes together but also share meals and small breaks, make it an on-going construction of a group. By the end of the second week, you feel comfortable around the participants and you build long-lasting connections with some of them.

Both experiences I have had in the Summer School have contributed immensely to my academic life. Not only in terms of the theoretical work I was introduced to, the references I have been given or the clarifications I managed to get from such important authors, but most of all, due to the relations I have built with professors and other participants. I could not recommend it highly enough.

Listen to the public debate from the 2017 Summer School.

 

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