Black History Month: Limited to one month 

“When Black women win victories, it’s a boost for virtually every segment of society” – Angela Davis

Shames Maskeen, Lecturer in Psychology, Leeds Trinity University 

In the UK, Black History Month (BHM) takes place every October and it is often an opportunity to start conversations about race and racism. I often take time to reflect during BHM on the antiracism work I do and whether in the grand scheme of things if I should continue doing this work.

For the past few years, I have been reflecting on the tokenistic and performative Black Lives Matter (BLM) statements that were put out by many Higher Education (HE) institutions. These statements promised change and action to create a more equitable experience for Black people. Many so called ‘leaders’ recommended books about anti-racism. To be perfectly blunt, reading a book does not make you any less racist or an ally.

Given the appalling track records of HE institutions in tackling institutional racism, we all need to ask ourselves, what has changed? The data would suggest not a lot. Thus, I constantly struggle with my own positions working in an HE institution and question myself if it is better to work within a system to bring about change or work on it from the outside? I cannot answer this question.  

Personally, I am not about inaction, and what sustains me in this work is my institution’s approach to taking action when tackling anti-racism. Whilst the good intentions of BHM are clear, the focus on the experiences of Black students and staff should not be limited to just one month a year. In my institution, we are not discussing racial justice issues just when they are on trend or during a particular month.

In partnership with Go Higher West Yorkshire (GHWY), The Northern School of Contemporary Dance and Leeds Learning Alliance, Leeds Trinity University held its third annual Black Lives Matter conference.

This year’s BHM theme is ‘Saluting Our Sisters’. At the BLM conference, we had the privilege to hear from inspirational Black women leaders in the fields of health and education; Sharon Watson MBE (CEO and Principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance), Foluke Ajayi (Chief Executive of Airedale NHS Foundation Trust), Heather Paul (daughter of Gertrude Paul, one of the first Black women head teachers in the UK) and Anne Mwangi (Head of the Race Equality Charter, Advance HE).

One of the things that struck me was the resilience of these powerhouses, who had overcome obstacles not only relating to their race but to their gender and disabilities as well. A message that will stick me for a long time was Sharon Watson unequivocally stating that our differences are not deficit and that we always need to be our authentic self.

It was a privilege to celebrate and honour these powerful Black women’s contribution to antiracism, activism, and social justice.  

Helen Sykes, Head of GHWY

For me, whilst only one month, BHM is an important reminder each year to stop and take stock. We continue to live in an unequal society, which means national observances such as BHM remain necessary and it’s important to me to work for an organisation – like GHWY – which wants to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.  

As a group of individuals, I know we are constantly reflecting on and trying to improve our own practices, and I am so proud of GHWY for doing this. When we were thinking about our BHM campaign for this year, we took a step back and realised we could have been at risk of using it as a vehicle to promote our own work, rather than supporting the aims of the organisers.  

This is something I think about a lot: how to skirt the line between talking about GHWY’s actions to show we support something through more than just words and statements, and not tipping into making something about us and what we are doing instead of ceding ground to more marginalised voices and experiences. I haven’t yet worked out how best to do this, but I will continue to try. Shames’s words above have – once again – made me pause to think about how I can do better. 

For now, I look forward to both sharing in and hearing about the BHM activities taking place across all our member institutions, and to ensuring the conversations continue well beyond 31 October. 

Black History Month online watch party

GHWY has teamed up with Leeds Trinity University (The Race Institute) and The Educate Group to host a free online watch party as part of Black History Month.  

The award-winning short film ‘Re:Tension’, which delves into the experiences and aspirations of a black student, will be shown on Tuesday, 31 October at 12.30-2pm and again at 5-6.30pm. Each screening will be followed by an interactive Q&A with an expert panel. 

The event aims to shed light on the experiences of black students in UK Higher Education (HE) and provide valuable insights for their success. During the event, Leeds Trinity University will share the latest findings on experiences of black students in HE.  

Find out more and register.