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How to survive elite institutions like Cambridge as a woman of colour

Credit: Sheena Zhang

FLY, meaning ‘Freedom Loving You’ is the most singular political space I’ve ever encountered. Originally formed by black women, for black women, it was an hour-long weekly meet-up at a coffee shop in Cambridge, UK, to talk about racism and sexism at the university.

After a few years it had grown exponentially. The group expanded by reaching out to women of colour, outside the university, mostly out of necessity. One in five colleges admitted fewer than ten black students over a five-year period. Eventually 40, sometimes 50, of us would meet to vent about micro-aggressions, ‘gaslighting*’, curriculums that reproduce colonial violence, and friendship.

The authors of this new book, Suhaiymah Manzoor Khan, Odelia Younge, Lola Olufemi, Waithera Sebatindra were all involved in activism. Whether it was campaigning for a standardized sexual harassment policy, organizing against marketization or developing liberation campaigns and resources for marginalized students – they collectively agitated for progressive reforms within the institution.

In 2015, they began compiling a Google document, building a guide for other women of colour to resist, dismantle power and make the university experience liveable. The FLY Girls’ Guide to Cambridge is the first of its kind, a book that connects and politicizes a younger generation of women of colour to recognize and disentangle oppressions at the university.

I spoke to them about the impetus for writing the book, what it taught them about how to organize, and how to deal with complicity when entering centres of power.

Why did you want to write this book?

Lola: On the FLY blog, we all wrote little profiles. The point was to tell people the things that we wished we'd known in first and second year that made it easier to navigate the space, but also to have fun and enjoy the university experience. It was very practical, it was like: here are the shops, go to these nights. It was very much like here's how to survive, you know, and find a community, essentially.

Odelia then discovered FLY and wanted to write a book about the experience, and felt it would be stronger if it had more than just one perspective. I didn't really know if I really ever thought it would materialize.

I thought that it’s actually really important to show people how you arrive at more critical and nuanced understandings of the world.

What has FLY taught you about the politics of care and how to organise?

Lola: FLY was founded for a specific political purpose I think. It was a space where we could organize, where we could talk about building links with other groups and really make the connections between all of these big ideas that get floated around by student groups – marketization and so forth.

Suhaiymah: If you think about it, the reason that FLY works is because every year people need to have the same conversation because it’s new for them. For an 18-year old who is going to enter that context for the first time, those conversations will be the first conversations they have.

‘And so I made a pact to myself that the way that I would deal with that complicity was through resistance. And that the only way to exist in an institution is to resist it.’

I really do believe this is a historical document. It’s so easy to discredit that labour and those thoughts, but either way it’s cool to just have a record.

Lola: I think it’s amazing that we’ve captured what happened in that room – the energy, the solidarity and the idea that you could come to meetings when people broke down and started crying. I remember meetings where we would just like laugh for the whole hour.

Suhaiymah: I can tangibly remember the first meeting I went to, it was just four people and after that conversation, I just felt seen in a way that I had never been before that. It was like someone had said to me: ‘I understand what you’re saying; I feel the same; and what you’re saying is true.’

Those three things I’d never experienced before. I think over time realizing that being in that room was actually a really radical thing. There’s such a subtle difference between just sharing a sad story and people being like ‘oh that’s really bad’ and sharing that in a space where that’s the response that you get. I don’t know how to articulate it, but the response mobilizes you. And you can see that from all of the people who were doing political activism on campus, it was always people of colour.

I think of FLY as the antithesis of when another student activist thought it would be a good strategy to have another student being dragged on the ground by security whilst occupying a building during the Higher Education strikes.

Lola: Exactly, in terms of the politics of care, I think FLY is an incredible model for other activist groups. I would see the massive holes and gaps in the organizing practice of other groups in terms of making sure that people were okay and I think that was at the core of everything that FLY did.

And that meant that people stayed engaged for longer and had the stamina to withstand all of the kind of push backs that came as a result of being in the institution. It meant that that we could have, at least in this room, a kind of liberatory space.

Waithera: That raises interesting questions as well. How do you build up that care where you’re not just friends, but you’re committed to the same cause and where you’ve got these hierarchies being recreated [in activist spaces]?

Lola: I also don’t want to overly romanticize it. I came from the women’s campaign route so when people raised their concerns about desire, about the way that white men treat them, as facilitator I’d always try and link that back to be like, ‘Okay, but can you see now why this makes sense from a feminist perspective’ or why it’s and an important feminist step for you to make these connections?

I think if you entered the space with no political language, you left the space with an ability to articulate what was happening to you.

Waithera: That was the most transformative thing for me: the bridge between appreciating ‘the personal is political’ as a glib statement and actually seeing that what happens to you, happens to a whole bunch of people who come from the same place as you and look like you and then that makes it easier to then have conversations about, well, ‘What is facilitating that? This isn't a coincidence, so then what is it?’

Lola: There were fractures though – with gender and sexual identity. In an age where everybody's obsessed with talking about like political blackness and divisions and tensions. I think FLY was an incredible model for the way that women of colour can exist together without erasing the way all of these structures affect us differently. I think when we have these conversations, we assume that they’re new. But all the feminists organizing in the 70s and 80s were having exactly the same problems and so I think it’s important to see ourselves as part of that legacy and also to recognize that those tensions were made productive.

The book is filled with poetry. How does it fit in to your activism?

Suhaiymah: In first year I got loads of black feminist books and read them all. Poetry is a big part of the black feminist tradition, and so my journey with poetry is the same as my journey with feminism. I saw people using writing to free themselves from imaginings that were coercive.

Lola: There are things that poems articulate that other forms can’t. And it's really nice actually to have that broken up by poetry because there’s a feeling that poetry captures that prose doesn't.

Odelia: I adore poetry and the ways in which it asks us to lyrically imagine the words of the author. The way it breaks away from the confines of a sentence to describe things that are difficult to describe any other way. I like to think of my activism in that way – not beholden to single doctrine or hero, but the kind that asks others around me to imagine something differently with me.

How do you think about complicity in these institutions?

Waithera: There’s an extent to which it’s easier to ‘become one of the good ones’ if you talk like them. I remember trying to convince my bursar there was in issue with racism at Cambridge and he only listened to me when he discovered that I like Schubert’s string quartet. It could’ve made me the sort of person who was like, ‘Well, I’ll just talk to them about Schubert then.’

That might seem like an option, especially being broken down by those systems it might seem like there’s a possibility for you to become one of the good ones and maybe even make it quite far, but what stops you from doing that?

It’s mainly realizing that it’s not really an option. Because even if you do make it far personally, you have to accept so much daily violence just to accept it. And it’s very sad when I see people do that. My contempt for them is very high because they then do go on to be complicit on national levels or in corporate settings.

It’s not that I’m saying I feel sorry for them, I just get it, and I wanted to show that what these places should show you is that the only available option if you want to live, if you want to live your life with dignity and as a full human being... you have to just fight it. It sounds very whatever… but, complicity involves personal death.

Odelia: I tell myself all the time that while visibility matters, it is a dangerous goal because it makes us forget the things that we know to be very visible in our lives that are not recognized by others. And I remind myself that having been part of these institutions affords me certain access, and I must do the constant work of disruption and dismantling in those spaces.

Lola: Am I being complicit? I am complicit, by just being here, and by feeding into this idea and this narrative that to go to Oxbridge means that you are one of the brightest and best or whatever. And so I made a pact to myself that the way that I would deal with that complicity was through resistance. And that the only way to exist in an institution is to resist it.

For me, that’s the avenue that the women’s campaign granted me, it created ways for me to have an antagonistic relationship towards the institution. I saw other people navigate this space in completely different ways, and just get their head down and do work.

I think I was happier for it, because the second you’re able to be critical of the institution, the more it belongs to you, the more power and authority you have over it.

I don’t want to give universities too much credit, especially because of how they’re becoming corporate machines. But after I left I read a lot about what it means to exist in it as a subversive academic or student. I think I came to the conclusion that transformation can happen within the university, but the university as a site, is not inherently meaningful. It’s what we do within it that gives it purpose and meaning.’

*Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity.

A Fly Girl’s Guide to Cambridge was published by Verve Poetry Press in January. To order a copy for £12.99 go to vervepoetrypress.com.






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