Going to university can be an unsettling experience for any student, more so for Black students in predominantly white institutions.
Cambridge graduates, Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change as a guide for Black women and non-binary people to explore what it means to be Black and in higher education, and also to challenge institutional issues such as barriers to university entry and the lack of diverse curricula.
Tell us a bit about yourselves
Chelsea: My name’s Chelsea Kwakye and I’m a 22-year-old History graduate from Homerton College, Cambridge. I’m from Chingford and alongside being one of the authors of Taking Up Space, I am currently finishing up my law conversion course
Ore: My name’s Ore Ogunbiyi and I’m a 22-year-old Politics graduate from Jesus College Cambridge. I’m from Croydon and I have just come back from completing my Masters in Journalism at Columbia University, New York. I am also one of the authors of Taking Up Space.
Where did the idea for Taking Up Space come from?
Previously, we were both heavily involved in black access initiatives into Cambridge i.e. setting up Cambridge African-Caribbean Society’s first access conference, mentoring scheme and mentoring young black girls alongside our degrees.
Earlier that year (May 2017), we just shot the #BlackMenofCambridge campaign which basically thrust us and our society (CUACS) into the spotlight. We gained a lot of media attention and conversation was buzzing around what it means and what it looks like to be black within predominantly white universities and institutions.
After we finished university (June 2018), we decided to go away on holiday to Cannes to finally relax and get away from everything whilst we got our final year results. After we got our results in Cannes, my sister calls and says ‘why don’t you guys write a book?’. We had JUST finished exams and writing a book was the last thing on our minds. But, the idea sounded cool so we started chatting about chapter content which evidently, came so naturally to us.
We decided to write Taking Up Space because it was an opportunity to explore what it means to be a Black woman within education – something that is rarely discussed. We talk about everything from the barriers of entry into university, activism, mental health and diversifying our curriculums. The book addresses and acts as a guide for young Black women and non-binary students in the hope that their experiences will be validated. For everyone else, we want our experiences to be heard and understood.
As a guide and manifesto for change, you focus specifically on education. What made you choose this and higher education in particular, as a site for change?
For us, going to university was a very significant turning point for how we see our identities as black women in the world. Although society sows a lot of these seeds before we get to university, going to Cambridge was a very stark confrontation with just how much of a minority we often are in elite spaces and the implications that has on our confidence, self-worth and ultimately performance. So we focused on university because while for many young black people, it can be a difficult time, it simultaneously offers us a great space to organise and create effective change.
One of the highlights of the book is where you talk about the #DecolononisetheCurriculum student-led movements for a more diverse and less Eurocentric curriculum. Tell us more about that. What were the main challenges in leading such a movement? Have there been positive outcomes/ responses from universities as a result?
One thing we really want to emphasise is that we’re definitely not the first people to be having this conversation. A lot was and is already happening on campus, particularly regarding the #DecolononisetheCurriculum movement.
We are currently being taught incomplete histories, theories and forced to understand POC writers/theorists as ‘add-ons’ to our curriculum. We, along with many other students, went out of our way to teach our lecturers, tutors, etc about the new ways knowledge can be understood and produced. This was especially hard because decolonisation isn’t just about the content, but how it is taught, and the processes around how we acquire that knowledge.
The response from Cambridge has been relatively positive – however, we need to be careful with how we look at the overall university’s response. For example, some departments have been much more proactive than others.
What advice would you give to students wanting to tackle issues in their school/college/university in the way that you have?
Join a society whose ideals align with yours! You may have great ideas but working with other people and collaborating can be great. We were both able to have the impact we did because we worked together and were supported by the rest of the ACS. Also, take time to read, learn and develop your ideas. One thing we miss the most about university is the libraries because we were able to have access to a wealth of resources that helped us better understand theories, policies, and data that already exists about these issues.
You share some great advice and tips for young Black women and non-binary students. What would your number one tip be for someone in higher education or entering higher education for the first time?
Choose a subject you truly enjoy – not your family, parents or teachers – you!
What are you hoping to achieve with this book?
We want this book to create a sense of urgency. We need everyone, especially non-Black people, to understand that they have an important role to play in the battle against institutional and systemic racism, especially in education. Primarily, we want Black girls to read it and for their emotions to feel validated, but also we need everyone to get to work and help us fix a system that isn’t working for most Black women.
You are both Cambridge graduates, what were the positive outcomes/takeouts from your time there?
Academically, the environment was unapparelled. At times it was surreal to think that you were constantly surrounded by people who were extremely passionate about their subject, so much so that they were some of the smartest people in the world. The teaching was focused, specific and very personal. Apart from that, we made amazing and very close friends – we still speak to them now.
Who inspires or has inspired you in the past and why?
Chelsea: Beyoncé! All day, every day. She’s the perfect example of someone who concentrates and seeks to perfect her craft.
Ore: I have lots and lots of sources of inspiration but my mentees continue to make me want to be better. Also, my parents. Their work ethic shows me what’s possible and I’m so grateful for them
What’s next for you both?
Chelsea: Throughout this whole process I’ve been at law school. I’m going to spend the next couple of years focussing on that.
Ore: I’m taking a bit of a break from education for a little bit and dedicating more time to pursuing journalism – preferably broadcast journalism, seriously. I want to keep telling our stories and centring our voices and journalism gives me an opportunity to do that.
Both: We want to see this book reach the people who need it the most. We hope that people resonate with our experiences but also that everyone who is a teacher, parent, sibling or friend to a Black girl reads our book and is inspired to do better for Black girls. We want to see universities responding without defensiveness but instead, with genuinely open ears. We want to shake the table of education and the waves to be felt from the students to the very people designing education policy.
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change is available to purchase from all online and book store retailers now.
Read TBB’s Out Of 100 review of the book here.