In this episode, guests Aisha Janki Akinola and Barbara Becnel talk about Black Lives Matter, speaking up, the mystery of time and more.
Aisha is an architecture student and a Mastercard Foundation Scholar from a small town called Ede in Osun State, Nigeria. She is Co-Director at BlackED Movement, which was established to work with the University of Edinburgh to improve support for Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) students. BlackED was birthed in 2020 by seven Black female students following a successful petition to update the University’s anti-discrimination policy.
Barbara is a social justice activist and author who was the inaugural Being Edinburgh Award runner-up. Being Edinburgh is an award that recognises Edinburgh alumni who make our University community proud.
She has over 20 years of experience working for prison reform in the state of California and has writen 11 award-winning gang- and drug-prevention books. From leading an international media campaign aimed at preventing the judicial execution of reformed black gang leader Stanley Williams, to organising an ‘Occupy San Quentin’ rally attended by hundreds in front of the state prison that houses California’s death chamber, she has often shown inspiring leadership and tenacity. A graduate of the University's online MSc in Social Justice and Community Action, Barbara has returned to Edinburgh to pursue a PhD.
Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.
Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/sharing-things-podcast
I'm recording a podcast. Bye Brenda!
Welcome to Sharing Things, the podcast that takes a closer look at the people who make up our University of Edinburgh community. Each episode starts with two invited guests and an object, which can be something personal, treasured or significant. It's something that unlocks the story and starts a conversation. We take it from there. I'm Richenda, your new host, conversational guide and a final-year medical student. Today, as with all this season's recordings, I'm sat at my kitchen table in central Edinburgh. In this episode, I've invited along for a chat, social justice activist, author and academic Barbara Becnell and Aisha Janki Akinola, an architecture student and BlackED movement co-director.
Hello, and welcome to Sharing Things. Today, I have Aisha and Barbara here with me in a remote studio. Since, it's late in the day for myself and Aisha and bright and early for Barbara in California, I think we'll just jump straight into the podcast proper and ask: What object did you guys decide to talk to us about and why?
So, I brought two objects, but they're connected to essentially the same topic. So, one is just a random piece of my phone bill that I got yesterday. So piece of mail, I'll explain why I brought that, in a minute. And this is a T-shirt that my granddaughter gave me when I was on my way to Scotland to start my PhD work last year. And the front of it says, I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. Now, what do the two have to do with each other? First off, we're in the middle of an election, a presidential election right now. And we're facing... we, the George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement... we are, some say, some say that America is at a moment of reckoning in terms of its racial history. I'll have to say, I'm still not convinced that we're at that moment of reckoning where something actually deep and meaningful gets done. But what the mail represents is, we have a current president, who literally put in motion a way of destroying our mail system, particularly focused in Black and Brown neighbourhoods. So, he literally was having people go in and take the mailboxes, unbolt them from the ground and take the mailboxes out of Black and Brown targeted neighbourhoods. And the sorting machines taken out of the post offices that serve Black and Brown people to keep us to suppress our vote, because he doesn't believe he'll get our vote, which is probably true. And therefore he doesn't want us to vote. So hold that thought for a minute back to the T-shirt. So the T-shirt's message: I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. Well, part of my PhD research is I'm looking at our history of slavery and Jim Crow and the racism and tying it to how Black gangster or Black gangster culture came to be. So I've seen, I've spent, like, about a year, a year and a half, reading about, of course, I knew the history, but now I'm just immersed in the history and seeing the pictures - and this is what haunts me - of the children of slaves and the width, the saddest, the saddest expressions that you don't see on the faces of kids, but that's what you saw on the faces of kids who were slaves. And, um, so when my when I opened up this T-shirt and saw this message and here I am, you know, maybe a great great granddaughter, or something, of a slave and I'm on my way to Edinburgh to be in a PhD programme. And I thought, you know, see if we're gonna cry. I literally cried when I saw this. And I'm just talking about it, as you can see, is bringing tears again, because I thought could my ancestors, could they ever have imagined, and I would say they probably couldn't have imagined in the situation that they were in that 400 years ago, 300 years ago, could they have imagined that one of their relatives would be on their way to Scotland to work on a PhD programme at the University of Edinburgh. And as you see, it still moves me, I'm still ready to cry. But I burst into tears and I'm not a big crier. That's the whole thing. It may not seem like I am but I'm not a crier, but I burst into tears. So. So, the way this connects to the mail is, okay, yes, um, I went to Edinburgh... Yes, I finished my first year, my PhD, and I got rave reviews on my annual, my first year annual report, and all of that, and my country is trying to keep me from voting, you know, so we are still in a battle. We are still in a battle to be treated, like full citizens, to be treated like human beings. And so, um, so, yes, we've made some progress. But from my point of view, not enough, not enough that we would still be in this battle.
Today, I brought my cue clock. I don't know, is it called a clock? Is it called a watch? It's basically something that tells time, right. And the reason why I brought this object today is because this object reminds me of time, which is a really important and interesting concept. Because everything, and like everyone in this world, sort of like, has to think about time, because time sort of controls everything.
[laughter] I hate responding to the rigidity of time, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. And to as much as I can I rebel against it. But of course, there are many things in life that you just have to adhere to the timeframe, the deadline, the what have you and I and I do it, but I do it reluctantly. And one of the things that fascinates me about time is I'm not at all convinced that time actually is as linear, as we have constructed it to be. But my one, one of my goals, is to spend some time when I have the time to really sort of intellectually interrogate the whole concept of time, because I'm not at all convinced that the past and the present, and the future aren't somehow entangled, and all here at the same time.
It's very interesting, though, because people do talk about that in terms of, yeah, like, it all being entangled. And that it's quite different culturally, and in terms of how it's expressed in language across the world. But is that something you're interested in? Actually, because I think he's brought along and are very much have probably thought about the concept of time, a lot.
I think for me, like, I think about time, like, when I think about time, I am constantly reminded of the fact that there isn't that much time left, in the sense that like, I, I, I am a Muslim, right. And I believe that I believe in God, and I believe in death. And I believe, at any time I could die, right? And at any time anything could happen and a slight change in the. like, in the way my time in this world is being manifested could affect, could, could, sort of like, lead to, you know, a huge change at the end of the day, if that makes any sense. And I'm constantly thinking about how insufficient, how pressures, how, you know, interesting, the whole concept of time is. And as a kid, I was told time now money. And that is in Pidgin language, which is widely spoken in, in Nigeria, and that basically means Time is money, right? And time is priceless. And time is invaluable. Right? And so I'm constantly thinking about how I can, you know, make use of every single second that I've got in my life, to do something tangible that would sort of like benefit me. But yeah, I find the concept that Barbara shared as well quite interesting because there's always that sense of, you know, I am, I am here today, but I could be like, I could have been born in a different time. And I could have been born in the future and, you know, in all these different times, you know, how, how different would would my story have been?
So, do you dwell on those thoughts a lot, then. Are these things that you see?
I guess I think about time, as a concept, when I'm just, you know, just thinking, seated, bored, and just wondering how different this life would have been for me. I'm just like, randomly thinking about things and wondering why things are the way they are.
I think my question for both of you - I think it kind of ties you both together, especially 'cause you're international students in Edinburgh, which is that you're both standing up to make change here. So why is it you think it's so important to try and stand up for change and be vocal wherever you are in the world?
So when the whole Black Lives Matter thing started, a group of, of, of students, Black women, actually, who study at the University of Edinburgh came together and sort of like, just drafted an open letter. It was, it was just like, oh, guys, who is interested in coming together to write an open letter, because our university didn't think it necessary to necessarily say anything. They did post a black photo, it was just a black square and we were patiently waiting, you know, to see some solidarity, guys, you know, we asked the University of Edinburgh, understand the pain you're going through, we are kind of here to support you, you know, kind of emotional support from our university that we are paying loads of money to come and study at, and that we are... Because we are 1% of Black students in this university, out of 100%. There's just like, 1% of us here. And so we kind of expected that they would look out for us, right? We wrote the open letter, because, you know, we realised that we weren't being given the kind of support that we deserved. I wouldn't sugarcoat it, there was a time when, you know, when we, we were kind of like: "Oh, my God, we're actually facing the Principal himself. We are calling our university out. This is scary. Oh, my days, they're gonna expel me. You know, they're gonna implicate me, because I'm speaking out, I'm speaking too loud. And I'm voicing out my pain, and I'm refusing to accept defeat." You know, all of these thoughts came running through our heads. And, you know, there was definitely that tendency to want to give up and to lose hope and to feel like, oh, it, it kind of isn't worth it. But then again, we found out that having pushed on and and having persevered and shown a bit of resilience, it actually, you know, manifested into something positive. So back to your question, you know, why, why do we think it is necessary to speak up about issues that matter? Simply because they matter. I'm just trying to plant that tiny seed I could, and trying to use the voice that I've got. But I would love to hear what Barbara has to say about this.
[laughter] Well, em, early on when I first got out of college, because actually, education started off as a mathematician and an economist. When I first started out, I first left graduate school the first time, when I was studying in a PhD programme in economics--Um, I sat down one day, I was pretty young, and I said, okay, who do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life? And who do you want to be? Well, I didn't know. I didn't have the answer then in terms of what my career title would be, but I did decide that what I wanted to do was to serve humanity. So I decided that I went and worked for the labour movement, and then and then decided that I want to use my talents and skills to serve humanity, particularly humanity - those members of humanity who were the underdog, but what I also saw is that the folks who I wanted to fight for were, you know, poor low income black folks, because I would have been raised in a middle class black environment, with a college educated Mother, what have you. So I had had some opportunities that other people didn't. So, part of what kept me here, when that struggle to create change to help folks became really challenging was I kept thinking, um, you know, you have, you have the opportunities. So for you to leave, and not, you know, you should stay, you need to stay, and help the folks who didn't have the opportunities to be worthy of what I've been given, I need to give back. And that was just the decision I made early on, and I could hold on to it, when it became more and more challenging. And so as I got older, what I realised is, I had to let go of wanting to see the change myself. Okay? I had to accept that maybe I won't get to see it. But if I can help to move the front line, a half an inch, or an inch in my lifetime, then that's a good thing. It's still a half an inch or an inch farther than it was, and maybe I don't get to see it, but I help push, help push it a little bit. And if each generation can just push it a little bit, we hopefully will eventually get there. So the why is because it needs -- the work needs to be done. And I guess I am a warrior spirit at heart. And I'm prepared to go out there and fight even if I can't see the positive result of it. But know that I'm planting seeds everywhere, some of which will bloom and some of which won't.
I think I have a question kind of, about both those things, which is, I think you can both see education as sort of a mechanism for change with that. So like, why have you chosen to go down the more academic route?
I think, for me, it's simply the fact that, you know, a university is an institution that produces future leaders, and even -- um, and, you know -- it's really important that, that that university is conscious of the kind of thoughts they're instilling into these future leaders and into these people that make up that body, right? There are so many instances where our university could definitely do better. I guess that's why I feel like every university owes it upon themselves to work towards, you know, showing every person in their body in their institution that they do not tolerate racism, that they do not tolerate any form of social injustice, because that then instils upon those students and do stuff that oh, you know, we don't accept that here. And we don't accept it, because it, it's something that should be frowned upon. And so even in your day to day activity, consider being truly anti racist. And it is only then that we can, we can get future leaders who are comfortable with sitting on the table with a fellow Black person, you would find more Black folks, more BAME students coming to these institutions, because they would feel a sense of belonging. And I have had many messages by prospective students who are like: "yo, how's it going at that university. I learnt, it is just 1% of us. Is it safe if I come?" And I want to be like: "Oh, this is a good place to study because it is a good place to study". We just need to work towards making it better.
At this point, and at this time in my life, I want to fight. My frontline is the battleground of ideas. So what I want to do is understand the Enlightenment era theorists and the post enlightenment era theorists. I don't agree with almost any of them. Okay, but so I think the whole curriculum, the entire curriculum, needs to be decolonized, from my point of view. And so what I thought was, I'll get that PhD, so that I'm recognised as the public intellectual. And then my whole thing is to deconstruct, to just deconstruct the way the university -- what the university reveres in terms of what they consider intellectual greatness -- in terms of -- and the reason why I want to do this is because these ideas when they're, when they're, when they are, when their perspective is skewed, and biassed racially, and often they don't even realise that they have a racial bias. That that research becomes policy, and that policy becomes practice. And then, and it's all skewed in ways that hurt the least -- those who have the least ability to defend themselves in the fight back. So I've been fighting in the middle of that process. I've been fighting at the policy level, I've been fighting at the programme practice level. But now I said, you know what I'm going to where it starts, you know. I want my -- my battle now is on the battleground of ideas, in theory. I want to deconstruct what they have revered for hundreds of years, I'm gonna, I'm saying no, no, and no, and here's why. And deconstruct it, and reconstruct something that really is inclusive.
[laughter] Sounds like a pretty fun and intense frontline to be in. But it's really interesting that you mentioned that, you know, you're sort of working towards convincing them to, to listen to these new ideas that are not necessarily harmful, but are kind of like much more inclusive. Because I do know that they are, you know, people who have perpetuated ideas that have been really harmful. A classic example is Mr David Hume. And he was a great philosopher. And, you know, he, he, he actually studied at the University of Edinburgh. I want to talk specifically about a paper he wrote, where he sort of suggests that, that, you know, black people are less than white people, or black people are less than lighter skinned people because of that colour that is on their skin. And he sort of like stated that, and that was the harmful idea. He, he sort of like wrote, and interestingly, a building in our university is named after this man, because he's highly, highly celebrated. Our university is so proud to have. . ., you know, a great philosopher like him. As part of the work I've been doing with with with the BlackEd movement, we organised a debate, you know, about the whole, the big question: should David Hume tower be renamed because it's kind of like, it's bringing back a lot of harmful memories. And it's, it's taking us back to a time that would alter the way our lives would have been as black people. Right.
Right. And just to pick up on what you said about Hume. My theory is, if when you have evidence even of someone's racism, that shows up in their theorising right? Even when they're not -- even when it's not a theory directly about black people but it's a theory about something else dealing with humanity. There is -- The bias, if there is a bias, it shows up everywhere, not just when it's directly related to people of colour, but even when they're theorising about something else, that bias shows up. And then part of what I've tried to do, and using critical race theory is to identify the bias even when it's not obvious. And one of the ways that I have found that it becomes pretty evident is, is like, like the gangsters who who, who I have studied. And that is -- but there tends to be a, a dis, em, the dismissal of the opinion of the people themselves. So in other words, the, the scholars are studying the black gangster, mostly from afar. So let's let's start with that. Not all that close, but they're studying them. And they're projecting on to the gangster as part of their theorising. If you start at: 'what do the gangsters think?', you know. What did they think about themselves as opposed to what you project on to them: 'this is who they are. Based on what I see them do, this is who I believe they are.' Well, how about analysing, here's what they do, and here's what why they say they do it, or here's what they think about themselves. That's a far more interesting, far more interesting, um, theoretical exercise, than for me to just project onto them: 'Oh, you're doing this? I think you're you're subcultural deviant. And I'm going to create a whole, a whole category of intellectual work on sub cultural deviancy, and use what I think I feel I know about you to describe that'. Whereas that gangster doesn't think they're a deviant at all. And it's more interesting to find out why they don't think that. So to me, it makes for richer, more interesting and actual useful research, to respect the humanity of the entities and individuals and communities that you're researching. That's, that's the battle. That's the battle round. [laughter].
Classic example of "white-splaining. It's like, you, you assume, you know better than the people actually going through these experiences. And you, yeah, you base it off your understanding of it, which sometimes is a skewed perspective.
I could listen to this for ages, and yes time.
[laughter] Love that it ties in. Don't you?
How we normally conclude is just by asking you to describe your object in in one word, and you can elaborate on it, if you want completely as well.
Describe my object in one word? Em, the word I would use to describe this object is a diamond. Because time is priceless. And time is, is a jewel, which definitely deserves to be cherished because it, it is as a result of time -- it is as a result of the time spent, the time used, that we are able to write our own history and that we're able to do the things that matters to us is because of the time that I've got, that I'm able to even record this podcast, is because of the time that I hope to have, that I'm making plans for things I want to do in the future.
Yeah, thank you.
Barbara, your turn.
My turn. So it's, so I'm going to present a dialectic -- it's rracial oppression, and it's the fight against racial oppression. So those are the two concepts I have to hold on to at the same time, when I have my T shirt with that message that I am -- let's see if I can at least say at this time without crying -- I am my ancestors wildest dreams, and a piece of mail that apparently I have to fight to get mail now to be to fight off the the oppression and the repression of my vote, which is, you know, which is all part of racial oppression. So that's it. It's it is what it is. So we have to call it out racial oppression. But then we have to find it.
That was definitely not a one word summary, but it was much better I reckon than it ever would have been. If it was just one word. But thank you both for coming along to chat with me today and just to let people listen to what you think. I think that's a really I think it was been a conversation that gets a lot of questions going for people in their minds and how they see themselves in the University landscape. Thank you very much for coming along.
Thank you for inviting us.
It's been an absolute pleasure.
Thank you. Thank you.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai