Ben Ofungwu interviews Sam Hawkins, the Student Union’s Liberation officer. In this first part, Sam discusses how he came into the role, as well as his plans to decolonise the university.
Hello there, Sam. *exaggerated voice*
*laughs* Hi Ben!
I’m sorry. I swear I change completely when I’m doing interviews or podcasts. My normal speaking voice just goes, and I’m here going ‘Oh, hello there, listeners’.
It’s funny you say that, it’s the same for me. When I’m talking on Teams, in a professional sense, my voice is ten times deeper, and I’m like, ‘who am I right now?’
It’s so weird, isn’t it? Anyway, we have digressed already, Sam.
Didn’t take long, did it?
Alright, let’s try to begin. So, your role is fairly new, right? Could you give an overview of what you do?
Yeah, it is pretty new. It actually came about by a decision last year to split the Equal opportunities and welfare role into two separate remits. Previously these two were together, however, it was such a dense role, so it really deserved two separate parts.
Now, we’ve got the Welfare and Wellbeing officer, which is Em, and the Liberation officer, which is me! In terms of my role and what I do as a Liberation officer, it involves amplifying the voices of individuals from liberation backgrounds.
With this, I mean specifically, Black Students, Asian students, LGBT+ students, Disabled students and Women. So really those groups that have historically been oppressed, and we try to tackle and campaign on those issues that are deeply rooted in the university structure and the union.
You started in July, right?
How have you found it so far?
I’m not gonna lie, Ben, it’s not been easy. Whenever I get asked this, I always say, ‘yeah it’s such a good role, but I’m so stressed’, because I think as it is a new role, a lot of it has been trying to find my feet, settle in and get familiar with those I’m working with.
Nevertheless, the external issues, such as COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, means that coming into this role has felt very timely. I think my previous experience last year as the LGBT+ officer part time and working closely with the university have really helped.
You should always do something that you’re curious about and want to know more on
Moving from a part time role to a full time role has been a big leap though, one that I wasn’t really expecting, but it’s something that I really love doing. The whole sector of diversity and inclusion is something that I’m not only passionate about, but I’m also quite curious about.
In one of his books, Tim Ferriss says that with your career, you should always do something that you’re curious about and want to know more on, and that’s how I feel with this role. Going back to the question, yeah it’s really stressful, but I think it’s been really exciting and there is still so much potential with what we can achieve this year.
‘Exciting, but stressful’ is a tagline we can all relate to. It’s interesting that you highlight the curiosity bit and how that’s important for you, what do you think you’re curious about? What do you think you’re looking to uncover? I’m curious as to what you’re curious about…
Haha, well done. It goes back to how I came into the role as the LGBT+ officer, that really made me passionate about it. Funnily enough, I came into the role off the back of a failed presidential run for the trampoline society. I was pretty disheartened about it actually, but as fate would have it, my friend from the LGBT+ network last year told me about the role as officer and he thought I’d be great at it.
I believe that being an LGBT+ student, as well as being a child brought up in the care system, has really built my sense of empathy
So, I ran for it, and luckily I got it. I went in super excited, had so many ideas for it, and really the passion for it just grew from there. I really engaged with everyone I was working with in doing the campaigns and projects we worked on, and that’s why I jumped at the opportunity for this role, because it felt like it would be exactly right for me following on from that.
Speaking from solely my perspective, I believe that being an LGBT+ student, as well as being a child brought up in the care system, has really built my sense of empathy. Of course, I can’t truly relate to the experiences of a woman, or a Black student, but it has developed that sense of wanting to do better and wanting to go further, and I think it’s that which was the key driving force behind me wanting this role.
There are always moments like that which could really swing either way, you could have been down on yourself and not want to put that pressure on yourself again by going for the LGBT+ role, but it’s great that you did.
I saw in your manifesto when I was stalking you that you mentioned ‘decolonising the university’, which is something that’s gathered wind recently, but is still quite vague. I love the idea of decolonising everything, so I’m interested in what exactly you mean by this, and how ‘colonised’ do you think the university is right now?
You raise a good point as to how vague it is, there is an ambiguity to it even with professionals, and individuals studying this at a PhD level. There’s no single, universal definition as to what it means in relation to the higher education sector, or in the mental health sector.
In terms of how the university is colonised, I think it begins with the culture of white supremacy, patriarchy, and all those other ideas. In terms of how that influences the university structure, we see it in how non-inclusive IT systems are, and how this prompts tutors to harass trans students. We also see the effects of colonisation in attainment gaps, participation gaps, the centralisation on western knowledge and the general uneasiness with anything alternative to that.
Something I’m currently working on is establishing a decolonisation network, which would be an autonomous body which focuses on de-structuring the curriculum
There are things that affect staff as well, in terms of gender and race pay gaps, with the underrepresentation of women and black staff members. These, I believe, can all be linked back to colonisation, and that’s why you can now see the university taking charge to dispel these issues. With regards as to how I plan to push decolonisation, I think it’s worth noting that it is a continual push, and it’s not something that you can do overnight.
Something I’m currently working on is establishing a decolonisation network, which would be an autonomous body which focuses on de-structuring the curriculum. The network would have decolonise reps within schools, courses, faculties, which would lead to a decolonise council, which I would chair, and then hopefully push that to the university.
From there, these reps would lobby for decolonisation and the re-centring of knowledge in the academic sphere. Outside of that, with decolonising the university experience as a whole, tackling those unconscious biases is the first step.
This year, I’m leading the development and delivery of the Student Union’s first inclusion and liberation training within student committees, and this would enable members to understand how to champion inclusion and tackle discrimination in their student group. Also, it would aid their knowing how to report harassment and understanding what constitutes as harassment, which is something we struggle with at the moment.
Going on from that, you mention being able to notice those micro-aggressions and unconscious biases, and some of them can be so subtle. How do you think you’re able to notice these nuances, even when you don’t occupy that standpoint?
For me, I think it’s important to know that my experience as a white, gay man is fundamentally different to yours as a black man, for example. It’s not about assuming the role of someone else. It takes a lot of work, a lot of thought, and trying to create safe spaces in the university. It’s important to note that safe spaces don’t mean comfortable spaces.
I can only really speak from an LGBT+ standpoint, but notwithstanding, I think coming into a role like this, you have to be committed to constant self-evaluation and having some cultural humility as well. To better the experience of marginalised students, it’s much more important to amplify those voices and try to understand those experiences, and not try to assume them.
See part two for the rest of the interview!
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