Access and Activism: Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 13 November 2019
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Research on access and inclusion conducted by the University this year uncovered an “unexpected” finding: number three on the list of barriers faced by black students in applying to Cambridge is the lack of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers in the city.

Such an issue might be trivial to the majority of the university population but black students have a vastly different everyday experience that we often neglect and overlook. I spoke to Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye at the Union, two recent Cambridge graduates who have been actively involved in championing greater diversity and representation for black students here. Their passion and dedication to effect change in this area have culminated in the book “Taking up Space”, a guide and a manifesto for change: tackling issues of access, unrepresentative curricular, discrimination in the classroom and the problems of activism and life before and after university.

The book is aptly titled, for it tries to make sense of the uncertain and uncomfortable experience of negotiating and navigating a space that has traditionally been defined by the white community.

Although the book is primarily a collection of open conversations and accounts shared by past and present students to shed light into a very heterogeneous black experience, Ore and Chelsea hope that readers of different backgrounds can each glean unique insights. It reminds “black girls that their experiences are valid and why their voices are necessary for this conversation, hopefully giving them the extra confidence boost”, and points out “how black men can use their relative male privilege in these spaces”, “how best teachers can support their black students”, and even “white men and women in authority”, who are able to capitalise on their privileged positions to shape more inclusive spaces.

Image Credits: Penguin Books

Chelsea highlighted that one important role of the book is to engender “a sense off urgency as these are issues we all see and know”. Indeed, the voices of the black community is being increasingly heard, amplified through research, policy papers and news headlines. Yet, while it has firmly planted itself on the current agenda, “the constant talking about it” does not translate into sufficient action. “Everyone will have different takeaways but hopefully overall, people feel compelled to make some sort of change.”

Ore and Chelsea’s book comes at a particular time when quantitative studies attempt to put a finger on this issue within the University. Amidst disheartening findings that certain colleges in Cambridge have admitted no black students or accepted as few as one a year between 2012 and 2016, there are statistics surfacing that suggests a bucking of this trend. 91 black British students had been admitted as first-year undergraduates at the start of this academic year, an increase of nearly 50% compared to last year’s 61 students. This has gained greater visibility in mainstream media, bolstered in part by local rapper Stormzy’s commitment to funding two black British students to go to Cambridge each year. In light of these statistics, did Ore and Chelsea find any disconnect between the actual black experience and what the figures suggest?

Chelsea started, “when I see the statistics, I normally just shrug. For so long, we were part of the statistics and it is upsetting that we have become lost in [it] as there are so many nuances in our experiences.” This is a key point that “Taking up Space” seeks to showcase through incorporating a diverse range of contributors — there is no one black experience. “But now, I see it as a positive thing, though we need to look not only at getting black students into university, but also keeping them here.” She cited figures: drop out rates of black students is almost double compared to their white counterparts. Ore agreed but notes their position as graduates of the University and the retrospective nature of their conversations. “We have to ask students now… we are done with writing about our experience and it would be interesting to ask the same questions to students who are here.”

Nonetheless, Ore cautioned about the obfuscating role of statistics as these facts and figures relegate the individual and personal black experience to the periphery in conversations and that the contexts are needed alongside statistics for a fuller picture.

That said, the University and colleges are recognising their indubitable responsibility in engaging the systemic factors that consciously or unconsciously erect barriers in the university experience of black students. Access programmes and movements to decolonise academic curricula have gained traction but have they been truly effective in reshaping the university space for black students or are these merely just token measures? Ore quickly maintained that “movements are very necessary” and highlighted a chapter in “Taking up Space” called ‘Academia So White’ that addresses this as well. “In the beginning, it can feel [like a token measure], especially when it is not coming from the people who are the subjects of discourse.” However, the non-black community must take ownership of the issue and contribute to the conversation from their own positions as well. While we normally associate decolonising curricula to the social sciences, like Literature and Geography, Ore identified medicine as one subject that is always overlooked. “Epidemiology, endocrinology, sickle-cell anaemia… There are complex ways of understanding how geographical backgrounds and ancestry affect instances of diseases.”

“It is hard to run away from feeling like these are tokens, and it is indeed a structural issue.” Chelsea continued, suggesting that the university population tends to treat “one decolonisation lecture as an add-on”, at times even with the wrong motivations. “People look to you for a different perspective and think, ‘Yes, this will give me great marks or a First [class result] because I’ve got a different idea.’”

“People look to you for a different perspective and think, ‘Yes, this will give me great marks or a First [class result] because I’ve got a different idea.’”

Given Cambridge’s background as an established, traditional academic institution, I was curious to find out if Ore and Chelsea found the experience of pursuing greater access and inclusion different. “In terms of how it is received by the students, yes — for black students in Cambridge, it is a very particular environment. You are part of an extreme minority that you always react in the same way, do things in the same way and we literally know all of us.” At the same time, Chelsea found a lack of progress amongst other universities when it comes to such issues. “What would normally pop up [in research] is Oxbridge’s efforts, but the conversation should extend way beyond Oxbridge because the majority of the university population doesn’t even go here!”

Ore chipped in, reflecting on how “Oxford and Cambridge are pacesetters when it concerns to conversations around anything concerning academic stuff, and when we are having these conversations, many universities feel like they have no choice but to follow.”

How can we use this to our advantage? She rightly identified a tension: “we have to be very careful of what we say because it travels further, but it also means we have a very unique position in the access conversations because we say things that can get into the press. The only downside is that people are so obsessed with Oxbridge that they ignore other universities are facing similar challenges; Bristol, Exeter and Durham comes to mind when it comes to diversity and access issues.”

Today, Ore and Chelsea both lead exciting post-graduate lives. Since graduation, Ore has completed in Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, New York, and is currently working as a Special Assistant and Speechwriter to the Vice President of Nigeria. Chelsea, on the other hand, is studying at the University of Law in preparation for a training contract with a city law firm in London. Now that both Ore and Chelsea have left the university and are starting or have entered the workforce, I asked them if they felt that the notions of “diversity”, “access” and “inclusion” are different when discussing them outside the university environment.

“It is interesting to see the way that access conversations are still a thing — who can get access to what spaces; the names on CV (curricula vitae) may make you stick out; things you are interested in; code-switching; trying to settle in when entering a new institution.” However, Ore said it felt “a bit more real-world”, unlike in Cambridge, where there are “still some kinds of places or avenues that you can go for support systems”. “In the real world, people expect you to be an adult and deal with it. It can also be harder to find mentors, support systems and networks — not every company has an equivalent of ACS (African-Caribbean Society) or a black employment network.”  University appears to be a microcosm of society as “problems carry over and issues we face in this university [are grounded] in larger conversations in society.

Chelsea argued that it depends on the profession, with certain jobs witnessing “more policing in terms of what you say, how you say it and where you say it. But we are in a time now where for a lot of big corporations, diversity and inclusion have become a currency. So if you bring something to the table, some places may be willing to listen”. The issue, she noted, is the death of the activist zeal when students leave university. Practical obligations and the pressures of a modern living hit, and one has to carefully weigh the pros and cons — “you can be an activist within the university environment but would the university kick you out, compared to a job?”

Sadly, not everyone has the privilege to channel their time and energy to activism; one has to pick their battles in life.

As an adult in the workforce, there seem to be more barriers to discussing access and diversity as well. Both Chelsea and Ore agreed that access to people at the top of the hierarchy is slightly easier in the University than in the workforce, comparing between the Master of a college and the CEO of a company. Moreover, universities have historically been seen as a safe space for social movements, with flatter and more horizontal relationships when it comes to authority. Ore said that “academic institutions have always been there to challenge thought; conversations about such issues are encouraged, but you cannot say the same for every job.” Hopefully, as Ore expressed, society begins “moving away from generalisations, towards nuanced and critical conversations. It will be uncomfortable and a lot of people do not want to go down this route, but there is an urgency to look at the structural foundations of access issues.”

Student activism is on the rise as we become more aware of societal issues and seek to not just critically engaging them but strive for some form of betterment. Possessing a wealth of experience in advocating for diversity and access for black students, I ended the interview by inviting Ore and Chelsea to share any advice or words of motivations for students with the passion for activism like them. “Rest! If you need to rest, take the time. It is easy to get carried away, to feel like you have to do it because no one else is doing it.” Chelsea echoed Ore’s sentiments, warning students never to shoulder all the burden as there is a dangerous and erroneous assumption that black students are in the best position to educate others on issues that only they are fully aware of.

“Rest! If you need to rest, take the time. It is easy to get carried away, to feel like you have to do it because no one else is doing it.”

“It isn’t only your responsibility.”