“Don’t be scared of your voice”: University of Birmingham’s Ronke Oladele on diversity

For Oluwaronke “Ronke” Oladele, who’s juggling a Master’s in International Development with her job as the Equality and Diversity Assistant in the University of Birmingham’s College of Arts and Law (CAL), the problem is as much a part of campus life as the constant building works and dodgy Wifi. So naturally, she was the perfect person to ask about it (diversity, not the Wifi. The Wifi’s a lost cause.)

Ronke Oladele. Image credit: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/law/news/2020/10/behind-the-scenes-at-bls-oluwaronke-oladele.aspx

So, what does an Equality and Diversity Assistant actually do? “There is no one typical day; every day is different,” she explains, once we’ve holed up in her front room armed with steaming mugs of tea and a space heater. “You’re getting your own job, no-one’s going to tell you exactly what to do, that’s why you have to be passionate about it. But what I predominately do is go to people, especially heads of colleges, and see the main problems when it comes to BAME students or equality and diversity as a whole, and trying to set action plans to tackle it.” Most recently, she’s been organising an event called ‘Taking Up Space’, which was “centred around the BAME experience in higher education.” Part of the ‘Pride Not Prejudice: A College of Arts and Law Inclusivity Project’ initiative, and centred around the book Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiye, it gave students a chance to discuss their own experiences, and the changes they wanted to see in the college and in regards to diversity.

Have you been to Arts reception yet today? Be sure to check out the Pride not Prejudice stand. It includes quotes from ‘Taking up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change’, copies of the text and the chance for you to add your own thoughts in advance of the event next week. pic.twitter.com/8bx9JTpnjf

- DASA/B’ham (@Africa_Anthro) October 25, 2019

They’re in good hands, too, because this isn’t her first rodeo: as an undergraduate, she was a BAME Community Champion in the University’s Law School. “That was on a much smaller scale, but when I say “smaller”, it definitely wasn’t insignificant. I really, really enjoyed it-it was such a passion of mine. We literally changed practises in other schools around CAL.” She saw students “who I wouldn’t normally see engaged, feel engaged, and feel included, and feel loved, and feel like they’re heard.” On top of that a new module, Race in Law, is set to be introduced and the department has promised to add some diversity to-and “decolonise” -its reading lists. To Ronke, it’s vitally important that these changes are made “so that it’s not just from old, white people and from a white perspective”, and so that students instead have a diverse range of “different voices and different perspectives” to learn from.

At this point, we turn away from other students to her own experiences-what is it actually been like to be a woman of colour at UOB? The word that keeps coming up, for her, is “dichotomy”: from her foundation year onwards, she’s seen both the most uplifting and most depressing ends of the spectrum.

Among fellow students, she says, “I’ve really found a sisterhood-not just in black women, and not just in people of colour. I still have quite a close connection to one of my first-year housemates-who isn’t black, she’s a white woman, but she’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. I’ve found safety and solace in my friends and in being included.” But not every BAME student, she points out, will necessarily have such a positive experience with their peers.

And when it comes to the staff, unfortunately, she doesn’t need to imagine.

“I’ve felt very, very excluded and like my words didn’t matter in seminars… I felt very underprivileged when it came to being able to speak to and relate to my lecturers, especially because a lot of my lecturers were white males.”

They were often “very distant”, while “in the same breath I’d see a lot of my coursemates actually being able to bond with the lecturers and, because of that, get more help.”

One incident, in particular, stands out to her after she went to ask for feedback on an exam from a lecturer she’d already “heard bad things” about. Her work was swiftly dismissed with “Well, part of this just doesn’t make sense”, and his behaviour throughout was “very cold”. The meeting was over in three minutes. Another time, she saw the same lecturer coming out of his office with a male student; they were “laughing, and talking about sports. And I just don’t have the privilege of one, being a male, two, being white, and three, being able to know about a lot of sports! So because of that, I couldn’t engage with him, and he clearly didn’t want to engage with me. I had a lot of experiences like that.”

She wasn’t alone: “cold” was a description she frequently heard from other students, while volunteering as a Student Mentor, Student Ambassador and as a Student Rep (hopefully not all at the same time), who were saddened by lecturers who seemed to have better rapport with other students, or who just weren’t explaining things properly. “I would never say it was an emotional burden,” she muses, “but my heart really did feel for them. I could completely understand what they were going through.”

“Everyday BAME students are educated without seeing themselves in the curriculum or environment”
I am determined to change this!
Subject area by subject area.
@TEDxBristol @CEducating Thanks for supporting the vision. It is time.#RepresentationMatters pic.twitter.com/CzFRqHkilM

- Aisha Thomas (@thomas_aisha) November 20, 2019

On the flip side, she has much fonder memories of her personal tutor, a (female, Muslim) academic who also taught one of her Final Year modules. “She was very approachable and very kind-not just to BAME students, obviously, but to everyone in general. She was just a kind person.” Ronke doesn’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that at the end of the day “that was one of my best modules.”

The issue of the lack of diversity is a lot more complex than a few dodgy lecturers. Although UOB is generally “doing quite well” on diversity, “I feel like there are so many other areas that need improving. But those are going to be structural changes and real institutional changes.” Not the kind that can be accomplished with a few student forums. She’s clear, on what universities should be doing moving forward: “Every university just needs to listen, and put in actionable steps” to improve the experiences of BAME students. Above all, it’s vital for them “to feel heard, for them to feel important. It’s not enough for universities to be diverse-I think they need to work towards an inclusive environment.” That means everything from more alcohol-free socials too, of course, the curriculum. The same goes for “the welfare system, academic services, library services”. She elaborates: “every layer and every part of the institution needs to be decolonised.”

This wouldn’t just change things for undergraduates either-currently, “there are very few black students pursuing PhD’s, and that barrier stops them being future lecturers.” Which is a shame, because if she’d had fewer lecturers like Mr Sports-lover, and more like the kind, approachable personal tutor, “my academic experience-and my grades-would have been lifted.”

And her advice for white students? To sum it up in one word: “listen.”

“I had two conversations last week,” she recounts. “One was a white male telling me that white privilege didn’t exist, and then on the other end of that I had a white female student telling me, “I don’t understand what white privilege is, explain to me…” I think that kind of illustrates how allyship can work, even if you don’t understand. I think allyship is just wanting to understand, and wanting too… I keep using the word “heard” and “hear us”,” because that’s what counts: “actually listening to us, and accepting that our experience, due to the colour of our skin, is different. No matter how much you might think that this is a meritocracy and that everyone is treated equally, those just aren’t the facts. So I feel like the very first thing with allyship is for you to try and understand us.”

And crucially, those bits about white privilege, and diversity, and decolonisation? Remember that it’s not personal. Diversity, after all, means the opposite of exclusion: no-one’s trying to kick white students out of Oxbridge or ban Shakespeare from the curriculum, however much certain publications accidentally-on-purpose try to push that narrative.

“Don’t see things like white privilege as an attack on your merit, as an attack on you as a person. See it as an attack on a system that for a fact, historically, has profited off the back of black bodies, and off the bodies of minorities in general, and off the work of minorities. That is what the statement of white privilege is an attack on if it is an attack on anything. So take yourself out of it, stop making it so personal, but still be personable enough to understand it, to see the pain in our voices and our experiences, and realise that we just don’t have the same experiences. And stand up for us, just be a decent human being. Stand up when you feel like someone’s being mistreated, stand up when you see things that just aren’t right.”

Around noon I witnessed appalling anti Semitic abuse towards this Jewish Family on the northern line. Fair play to other passengers who stood up to him. If you recognise the guy please report to ⁦@metpoliceukpic.twitter.com/YxzwAnDqTJ

- Chris Atkins (@scatatkins) November 22, 2019

To finish off, I pull out the old classic of “any tips”? Specifically, what advice would she give to BAME freshers, or A-Level students with university shining (or ominously looming) on the horizon, that she wishes she’d known before she started?

“Realise that you do have agency and you do have a voice, and it’s more powerful than you think it is. It might even scare you when you start to speak! So I would say that even though it’s hard, find a way to make sure that your grievances are heard and your voice is heard. Whether that’s through forming alliances with small groups, whether that’s through friends, whether that’s through your lecturers-make sure it’s heard. You don’t have to carry the burden of making institutional change, but if you’re passionate about sport, be passionate about sport. If you’re passionate about radio, if you’re passionate about TV-be involved in what you’re passionate about and build on yourself as a person, and everything else will fall into place.”

Super proud to be apart of MMU today. Staff, students and alumni coming together to talk about the issues ‘BAME’ students face in an open environment. Its crazy how all of us go through the same shit and dont discuss it!

- Shuab (@shuab99) November 20, 2019

So, to summarise: “Don’t be scared of your voice, nurture what you’re passionate about-and also, study really hard!” she laughs. Then, as we’re wrapping up, the conversation turns more serious.

“You can leave this out because this is, like, a side note, but I was attacked on a bus when I was coming back from sixth form, because-because I was black. Someone hit me, and was like, Go back to your country!… but my point is, I came here and I was thinking: I don’t want to really speak, and I don’t want to be heard. I was scared to use my own voice.” But then, later, “I was thinking: actually, you know, I have something good to say (sometimes!).”

And if you have something to say? Say it. “Use your own voice. To advocate for your freedom, for yourself- and for other people. That’s the advice I would give.”

Originally published at https://uni.news on November 27, 2019.

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